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Banking and Financial Services Coronavirus Special Coverage

Uncharted Waters

Michael Tucker

Michael Tucker, president of Greenfield Cooperative Bank.

It’s safe to say 2020 has been an unpredictable year, testing the ability of all businesses to be nimble. Matt Sosik thinks banks are passing that test.

“Community banks may seem like they’re a staid industry, but we’re actually very accustomed to change, and sometimes a fast pace to that change,” said Sosik, president of bankESB. “So we’re used to it. It’s not always visible from the outside, but culturally, we were very well-positioned to deal with the pandemic.

“The unique thing was that it just seemed to happen so fast. It was zero to 60, and you can’t always move at that pace,” he added, noting that bankESB is part of a family of three different banks with almost 500 employees. “But we pivoted as fast as we could.”

Part of that was recognizing that many customers were suddenly in turbid financial waters, and needed help. So, early in the pandemic, all banks were doing what they could to help them, whether that meant deferring mortgage loans for a few months or guiding businesses through the hastily assembled Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP.

“We had a customer-centric focus, which meant helping people navigate payment-related financial issues — at least the financial issues in their lives that could impact their ability to pay us. We did modifications for a lot of folks; we could foresee this was going to be a problematic situation for them. We got out front of it early and tried to alleviate that one piece of stress at a time when so many aspects of life were stressful. We did millions-of-dollars-worth of modifications for customers in the Pioneer Valley.”

Business customers, especially ones forced by a state mandate to shut their doors, were facing similarly dire issues, Sosik said. “We were also doing PPP by the truckload. It was uniquely challenging for us because it all happened at once.”

Such efforts have impacted banks’ bottom line, said Michael Tucker, president of Greenfield Cooperative Bank (GCB), noting that about 15% of mortgage and commercial loan customers took advantage of deferral programs, resulting in an impact of $900,000 from an accounting perspective.

“Everyone else seemed to be in good shape — but that doesn’t mean it’s going to stay that way,” he told BusinessWest. “I don’t see this totally ending until there’s some sort of treatment or vaccine that’s really effective. That being said, things are slowly reopening, and Massachusetts has done a pretty good job keeping infections down.”

And community banks were an important part of that, he said, noting that those loan deferrals, plus costs related to the shutdown and investments in safety protocols in order to reopen, have contributed to GCB being about $1.5 million behind where it would normally be.

“Community banks may seem like they’re a staid industry, but we’re actually very accustomed to change, and sometimes a fast pace to that change. So we’re used to it.”

“It’s going to be a profitable year, but a lot leaner. It’s going to be a challenge,” Tucker went on. “What worries me is what hasn’t risen to the top. We did the payment holiday, but now that the unemployment supplement is gone, and companies rightsize — a lot of them were paying people but couldn’t keep it up forever — I think, until we have a vaccine, we’re looking at a very difficult 2020 and 2021. We’ll be solid; we’ve put a lot of reserves aside, but it’s going to be a challenge.”

Loan Stars

There are some positive signs in the economy, said Jeff Sullivan, president of New Valley Bank, which launched in Springfield last year. He participates in a group of bank CEOs, and on their last group call a couple weeks ago, most said they were pleasantly surprised that, at least on the commercial-loan side, customers who had deferred loan payments had largely returned to their normal payment schedule.

He noted that bank stocks have been “beat up,” as the analyst community didn’t like the idea of deferring principal and interest. “But the overall, totally unscientific trend I’ve seen is that people are pleasantly surprised with how businesses are coming back.

“From our standpoint, we see a lot of growth; businesses are making plans again,” he went on, conceding that New Valley doesn’t yet have a huge portfolio to manage.

Meanwhile, the housing market and stock market are doing better than anyone expected three months ago, he noted, which contributes to an overall mix message when GDP was down 30% in the second quarter and unemployment rose to 16%. “These are troubling numbers, and from a community-bank perspective, we hope it doesn’t turn into a haves-and-have-nots recovery, where the rich get richer and more people get left behind.”

Tucker said demand for loan deferrals has been way down, and banks are now pivoting to help businesses with the forgiveness-application phase of the PPP.

“We did about $18 million worth of PPP, which for us was a lot because most of our loans were under $250,000,” he said, noting that GSB handled about 280 such loans. “It was about a year’s worth of work in a month. Like a lot of banks, our staff was working nights and weekends.”

Sosik added that the waters surrounding the PPP forgiveness phase are still a but murkey and could use some clarity from Congress so the forgiveness path can be clearer. “If people are unclear about forgiveness, they don’t want to spend the money, so it doesn’t get out into the economy.”

At the same time, he added, banks are also being cautious when it comes to growth plans.

“It’s a time to be careful, but at the same time it’s been a very successful year,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve grown a lot this year, but we’re obviously looking forward, expecting continued economic challenges, and our job is to be here for many years. There are times to push hard and run fast, and times to slow that down and be cautious.”

Still, banking leaders are pleased to have made the investments they did in online and remote banking models, Tucker noted, while holding up his smartphone. “Our fastest-growing branch is this. That’s a reality.”

“Banks caused the 2008 recession. Banks were weakened and in a penalty box and reviled by the mainstream for several years afterward. The big difference now is, this recession was not caused by banks.”

But while the number of GCB customers using remote banking is 25% higher than before COVID-19, branches still serve a critical purpose, he added. “We’ve seen a lot of people realize we are invaluable to them. When they had problems with their mortgage, they can deal with one person and not get shuffled through a lot of bureaucracy. That’s a plus.”

While branches are still necessary, he went on, they’re different than they used to be; the recently opened South Hadley branch is 1,800 square feet, less than half the space the bank used to set aside for new branches. But he doesn’t foresee any closures, aside from two Amherst branches, about a mile apart, that recently consolidated into one.

“Some banks are using this time as a trigger to say, ‘OK, we’re going to close these branches,’” Tucker added. “We’ve chosen not to do that because there’s enough disruption for customers as it is.”

Sosik noted that bankESB has invested a lot of money in the remote infrastructure and platform. “The technology works seamlessly, and the adoption was good. We were looking for a catalyst we could use to push it and have customers really start enjoying the technological advances. We didn’t expect it to come from a pandemic; we didn’t want it to come from a pandemic. But the pandemic absolutely pushed people to use it.”

That said, “we totally believe in the branch part of the overall delivery system, and we’re still investing in branches,” including one recently opened in Amherst. “But they’re much different than the ones we built a decade ago, or even five years ago. There’s still a need for a branch; customers still want that. Even if they don’t need to be there, they still like that someone they know and trust can work with them when they need it.”

Here for the Long Haul

Whatever the model, the presidents BusinessWest spoke with all believe in the work community banks have done and continue to do during a very difficult year for so many.

“We believe in it,” Sosik said. “Everyone who works for a community bank does it because we love that part of it. If you look at any successful New England town, you’re going to find a locally managed, if not locally owned, community-type bank at its economic center”

While banks still grapple with the impact of not only loan deferrals but ultra-low interest rates, they’re still in strong shape, he added.

Sullivan agreed. “Banks caused the 2008 recession. Banks were weakened and in a penalty box and reviled by the mainstream for several years afterward. The big difference now is, this recession was not caused by banks. Banks are healthy and have lots of capital. And hopefully we can turn the page soon and get back to normal lending.”

Tucker doesn’t know what shape the recovery will take — a U, a V, or the one he feels is most likely, resembling the Nike ‘swoosh’ logo, with a long, gradual ascent to normalcy.

“But we’ll do fine, and we are doing fine,” he said. “There’s just a lot of pressure on the margin with rates as low as they are and all the unknown with COVID.

“I’m very optimistic, though,” he added. “Businesses are doing OK. Yeah, a lot of them are struggling, but we see a lot of small businesses trying their damnedest. And we’re trying to support those businesses. We’re here, and we’re going to be here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Coronavirus

Volume Business

By Mark Morris

When COVID-19 made its arrival in Western Mass., it was mid-March, just weeks before the start of the traditional home-selling season. Area mortgage professionals didn’t know what to expect when the pandemic hit, but they certainly weren’t projecting a solid year.

Soon, though, they had to adjust those expectations and projections.

Indeed, a combination of factors, from historically low interest rates to high demand and low inventories, have made this a much busier, much better year than most residential lenders and home sellers could have hoped for back in the dark days of March.

Indeed, instead of completely canceling the spring home-buying market, the pandemic merely postponed it, said James Sherbo, senior vice president of Consumer Lending with Holyoke-based PeoplesBank.

“We’ve been very busy because the activity we would have normally seen in April or May, we saw in June, July, and August,” he told BusinessWest.

Jeffrey Smith, vice president and chief Lending officer with Freedom Credit Union, concurred, noting that any debilitating effects on the housing market from the pandemic have been more than offset by lower interest rates. The rates were already fairly low — in the 3.25% to 3.5% range — before the pandemic, he said, but now consumers can now get a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage for well under 3%.

James Sherbo

James Sherbo

“We’ve been very busy because the activity we would have normally seen in April or May, we saw in June, July, and August.”

“This is probably the best real-estate market I’ve seen in years,” Smith said. “When the pandemic first hit, I thought it was going to be just the opposite.”

Meanwhile, many mortgage holders are taking advantage of these lower rates to refinance, and this high volume of refis, as they’re called, is keeping most all lending institutions busy.

“It’s crazy … we’ve seen an 80% volume increase in our overall business compared to last year,” Smith noted. “And we certainly did not expect that.”

Tami Gunsch, senior executive vice president and director of Relationship Banking at Berkshire Bank, agreed. She said the bank is pleased with the Mortgage Division’s performance, “especially during these unprecedented times of COVID-19.”

For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the housing market and the various, and powerful, forces that are driving it.

Rooms for Improvement

Flashing back to mid-March, Sherbo said his department was mostly focused on where (and how) team members would work, and keeping employees and customers safe.

“We just tried to prepare as best as we could to keep our team safe and our customers safe,” Sherbo said. “When COVID-19 first hit, everybody wondered what would happen; nobody had a crystal ball.”

Indeed, no one could have foreseen how the drop in interest rates — one of many steps taken to stimulate the economy — and other factors would collaborate to stimulate virtually all aspects of the housing market and create a unique set of circumstances.

Home sales are strong, again, because of low interest rates even though fewer homes are for sale, said Sherbo, adding that he can’t recall a time when both conditions have happened at the same time.

Jeffrey Smith

“This is probably the best real-estate market I’ve seen in years. When the pandemic first hit, I thought it was going to be just the opposite.”

“I’ve seen rates this low before, but I’m not sure we’ve seen this lack of supply in quite a while,” he said, adding that it’s no surprise that many people do not want to move or sell during the pandemic, so the supply of homes for sale is limited. That creates an environment where many purchase offers are coming in higher than the asking price.

“New listings are selling very quickly,” noted Smith, adding that nearly all the houses offered for sale in early July were sold by early August.

In addition to people moving out of the city and into the suburbs to take advantage of low interest rates, Smith said the demand for second homes is exploding.

“In the last three to six months, prices have increased by 20% or more in areas like Cape Cod or Maine,” he noted. “Second homes are a hot market right now, and because there is a limited supply, properties are on the market for only a short time before they are sold.”

Then, there’s the refi market.

Gunsch said that, in addition to strong new-mortgage activity, Berkshire Bank is doing a high-volume business in refinances.

“Refis account for 52% of our closed-loan production through July,” she said, “while in the prior year, during the same period, they accounted for 35% of the closed loan volume.”

Smith added that, thanks to the robust business Freedom is doing with loan refinancing, he does not anticipate the lack of housing supply to limit the institution’s growth potential this year.

Strong housing-sales activity is even more impressive considering how the entire home-buying process had to quickly change when COVID-19 hit.

The notion of a real-estate agent walking potential buyers through a house for sale sounds almost quaint these days, as virtual tours have replaced showings, and drive-by looks at a house have become the norm.

“People are buying homes based on what they see online,” said Smith. “Many people are not even going out to the house to see it. In some cases, particularly for second homes, they are buying them sight unseen.”

Before COVID-19 struck, Smith said Freedom had limited online mortgage-application capabilities, but the virus forced the institution to quickly go all in.

“Luckily, we had the technology to be able to make a fast adjustment to online only, so we were kind of ready for it,” he told BusinessWest.

PeoplesBank launched its paperless mortgage-application system in October 2019 after two years of refining it. When COVID-19 arrived and disrupted so much of daily life, Sherbo said having a touchless system already up and running made it easier to maintain business levels.

“Our customers don’t have to meet or sign anything in person,” Sherbo explained. “The entire application process can be done online or over the phone. We were ready for this, which was great.”

Gunsch said Berkshire also uses an online application process. When an appraisal of the property is needed, only the exterior is appraised to reduce physical contact.

“Loan closings are still done in-person with everyone wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines,” she added.

Critical Deferrals

A serious concern at the beginning of the pandemic was the potential for mortgage delinquencies to spike due to homeowners affected by financial and health issues. In April, Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures on consumers through March 2021.

Meanwhile, those who are struggling with COVID-related issues are encouraged to contact their mortgage holder to defer payments. The law makes it clear that, by deferring, consumers merely extend the length of the mortgage without taking a hit on their credit rating.

All the mortgage professionals BusinessWest spoke with said the deferral program has worked to keep delinquencies down and allow people to stay in their homes.

“We have a strong team in place to assist our borrowers with loan deferrals and ensure they understand their options to defer payment during this time,” said Gunsch.

Smith said that roughly 5% of Freedom mortgage holders have taken advantage of the deferral program. “We’re actually seeing our delinquencies at very low levels, lower than they’ve been in years.”

Smith added that most of the deferral requests occurred in April and May. With each passing month, the number of new deferrals continues to decline.

“The deferral program is working the way it was intended,” Sherbo added. “It’s giving people the chance to maintain their own stability and credit.”

As for inventories, even that picture may improve soon. A recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) showed new housing construction starts are up more than 23.4% in July 2020 compared to July 2019. The national figure closely mirrors the Northeast, which saw a similar increase of 23.3%.

Locally, Sherbo said new home starts are relatively flat, but if interest rates continue at record lows, that would encourage more new construction in Western Mass.

Just as no one had a crystal ball back in March, none of the mortgage professionals we spoke with can really say what will happen six months or a year from now. That’s the nature of this pandemic — a high level of unpredictability.

For now, the housing market is booming at a time when few thought it would. This is good news for banks and credit unions — and for the customers they serve.

And it’s certainly one of the more intriguing stories in a year with seemingly no end of them.

Banking and Financial Services

Course of Action

By Gabriel J. Jacobson and Ian Coddington

In addition to the obvious financial benefit to the employee, employer-funded advanced education can carry financial and soft benefits for employers, employees, and colleagues alike.

These benefits extend beyond the person who is pursuing advanced education, as this article explains.

More Accessible to Working Professionals

As access to online education grows, the number of professionals seeking to advance their education also increases. In 2017, one in six students enrolled entirely online, and one in three enrolled in at least one online course.

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools around the country shut down their physical locations, and students were forced to move to online learning. Now that most students have taken some form of online classes, it is likely that many will choose to continue this method of learning.

Gabriel Jacobson

Gabriel Jacobson

Ian Coddington

Ian Coddington

Advanced education has become more attractive to employees and employers because it is a more accessible option for working professionals. One tax associate at Meyers Brothers Kalicka recently took advantage of the opportunity to pursue an advanced degree while continuing to work full-time. He enrolled at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst to gain a BBA in accounting and decided to remain online rather than go in-person.

Prior to making this choice, he worked full-time for a few years before deciding he wanted to earn his business degree. He enrolled in a la carte online classes immediately to accelerate his degree track before he was officially admitted. Once he was accepted into Isenberg, he decided to remain online so he could continue working a full-time internship at Meyers Brothers Kalicka, which ultimately led to him being offered an associate position at the firm.

He attributes the combination of full-time school and full-time work to his success, claiming that experiencing real-world situations reminiscent of the subject matter of his classes helped cement key concepts related to his profession. He graduated with more than a year of real-world professional experience under his belt.

The heart of online school is the flexible pace; students choose any quantity of classes each semester, meaning they could offload during busy season and upload during the slow season. Some employers allocate otherwise-unassigned slow-season hours to degree-earning coursework.

“Employers can sponsor employees with funds for academic training to build job-related skills. They may provide up to $5,250 in employer education-assistance benefits for undergraduate or graduate courses tax-free each year.”

With the increase in availability of online education due to the pandemic, companies can leverage this opportunity to attract talent earlier to both their and the student’s benefit.

Tax Incentives for Employers

Employers can sponsor employees with funds for academic training to build job-related skills. They may provide up to $5,250 in employer education-assistance benefits for undergraduate or graduate courses tax-free each year. To receive the benefit, the funds must pay for tuition, fees, books, supplies, and/or equipment. As an added bonus, these funds qualify for a business deduction and are not required to pay FICA or FUTA payroll taxes.

However, the education must be legally required for the employee to maintain their current position, or it must improve or maintain skills required for the position. One of these two stipulations must be met to satisfy the tax-free treatment.

There are limits, as these benefits are for employees only, and not for spouses or dependents. Also, there is no choosing between the education benefit and a cash payment to the employee. Employers should provide these rules and others as a written notice to employees interested in receiving the benefit.

Organizational and Culture Benefits

Outside of the financial benefits, there are workplace benefits to supporting student employees. Collaborative teams are a mainstay of most successful businesses. These teams often group employees with differing niches and experience levels, so they translate directly to supporting newer employees’ development through mentorship.

Mentorship relationships can help maintain accountability and time management for online student professionals. They can also serve as sounding boards for in-class work and discussion that reflect areas of interest to the student employee.

For example, the previously mentioned associate nurtured a mentorship relationship with his manager by discussing his primary interests and questions from his corporate tax class. Outside the mentor relationship, he found solidarity and motivation with peers at his level as many completed online master’s programs to advance their careers.

These relationships foster vibrant cultures of positive reinforcement toward educational goals within firms all over the country. Further, this culture can extend beyond the classroom and cultivate a collaborative and supportive work environment.

The human-capital, financial, and cultural benefits of incentivizing employees’ advanced education through online learning cannot be overlooked in today’s business climate. With the tools highlighted above, companies should take advantage of this opportunity.

Gabriel J. Jacobson and Ian Coddington are associates at Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 536-8510.

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Pandemic Lessons

Rich Kump

Rich Kump says the pandemic has forced people who had been reluctant to bank remotely to give it a shot.

It’s the wave of the future, Rich Kump said — and the COVID-19 pandemic simply cast that wave in sharper relief.

“We’ve had a goal of moving routine transactions out of the branch,” the president of UMassFive College Federal Credit Union told BusinessWest. “We’ve been educating our members for three years, trying to move them out of the branch, and there’s still a percentage of America who just likes to everything in person. You need to take a thoughtful approach; you can’t force people into it … although COVID did that, to some extent.”

A widely held vision of the bank (or credit union) branch of the future — one shared, to some degree, by other local banking leaders we spoke with — does indeed promote robust online and mobile tools for routine business like deposits and withdrawals, leaving less traffic in branches, but a greater percentage of that traffic given over to more complex or consultative matters.

“We’ve had a goal of moving routine transactions out of the branch.”

And many people who have long resisted online banking are singing a different tune, said Paul Scully, president of Country Bank.

“Customers, just because of the nature of the pandemic, with people staying at home, started exploring technology,” he noted. “An amazing number of people are using technology who, for a number of years, fought it.”

In most cases, it’s just a matter of breaking old habits, Scully said — “and old habits are comfortable habits. But I think people are becoming better acclimated to technology and getting over their fears. There are still people who think, ‘I have to go into the bank to make that transaction because what if the money doesn’t get there?’ But as an industry and as a bank, we’ve been able to alleviate the concerns some people have.”

Florence Bank President Kevin Day agreed.

“Banking in general is going to change. The stuff you need to do is the same, but how you’re going to do it will change,” he said, noting that lobby traffic has been declining for years, and what was already a high adoption rate of mobile tools only accelerated over the past three months as banks closed lobbies to most routine business. “People are starting to realize it’s probably more secure, so they’re getting more comfortable. It’s also way more convenient.”

And gaining momentum in these shuttered times.

“Customers realized they really can do all their banking online,” Scully said. “We’re no different than Macy’s or Amazon. You realize you can sit down with your laptop or phone and purchase something from a retail outlet, and you can also do your banking that way. People are becoming more comfortable with it — so we need to keep upgrading and enhancing it.”

That’s not all they’re doing. Banks and credit unions, despite a much higher reliance on drive-up lanes and mobile platforms lately, never really closed during the pandemic, and while they continued to serve customers — in some cases, helping them navigate sudden financial hardships — they were also learning lessons and conducting internal conversations about where the industry is heading and what the bank of the future should look like.

Some were discussions that had begun years ago but, again, were suddenly cast in sharp relief as the wave known as COVID-19 came crashing down.

Staying Connected

People have been starved for human contact, Kump said. He knows that from UMassFive’s call center, as calls over the past three months are 25% longer, on average, than last year.

“A lot of it is, people just want to talk,” he noted. “Yes, they call for a reason, but then they want to talk. It’s a bit of a community.”

Bolstering the call center was one of the success stories of late March, which he recalls as a tough time.

“I don’t think anyone was ultimately prepared for this; we were scambling,” he said, explaining that many retail personnel in the branches began covering the phones, often from home. “Within two weeks, 70% of our staff was working from home. That’s when the chaos evolved into routine.”

Like the other institutions we spoke with, UMassFive didn’t close completely, staying open by appointment for services that couldn’t be done remotely, from notary signings to certain loan closings to instant-issue debit cards. The week Kump spoke with BusinessWest, the credit union was operating a soft opening of sorts before announcing a shift to walk-in business.

“Financial wellness isn’t just for people with means; it’s everybody, from somebody with an entry-level job to someone doing college planning or estate planning.”

Day recalls a similar experience.

“In that first week, everything was shutting down, and people were saying, ‘you’re a bank. You can’t shut down,’” he said. But Florence transitioned to drive-up service where possible while witnessing an expansion of remote banking — as well as phone-call volume that was up 100% early on.

“We helped a lot of people transition to mobile and computer options. People have used the drive-ups. We opened the lobbies for people who needed to do something in person. We went out to cars in some cases,” he recalled. “You couldn’t come and go as you wanted, but we never really closed. If you called and the only way to do something was in person, we did it in person.”

Kevin Day

Kevin Day says shifting most employees to remote work was one of the smoother transitions necessitated by COVID-19.

Still, the sudden, in many ways forced expansion of remote banking is just an extension of where the industry was already headed, Day explained. “We had already seen trends toward online, mobile, people doing much more on their computers and phones. The pandemic just really accelerated that.”

Scully said the transition to employees working remotely was one of the easier shifts.

“It wasn’t that difficult for us. We had all the technology in place that allowed us to immediately have all our non-branch staff working remotely, literally overnight. So that fell into place nicely for us; we didn’t miss a beat. Business was never impacted.”

For example, he said Country processed about 450 Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans remotely, while Zoom calls and Webex meetings became the order of the day. It has worked so well, in fact, that non-branch employees will continue to work from home until Aug. 31, even as branches begin opening up this week, which is a boon for parents still uneasy about — or unable to access — camps and day-care services.

“We closed a day or two before other banks, just recognizing what was happening, and moved people to drive-up or leveraging technology,” he said, noting that lines were sometimes long, but customers were able to access the services they needed, in some cases using interactive teller machines (ITMs) at two locations.

“We’ve walked a lot of people through the technology, and the customer care center reached out directly to help them. We had curbside service at some locations, and we also used that as an opportunity to talk about technology.”

Branch of the Future

All this enhanced technology goes hand in hand with what many banking leaders say is an evolving role for branches.

Branches are certainly needed, said Jeff Sullivan, president of New Valley Bank, which is opening a new branch on the ground floor of Monarch Place in downtown Springfield this summer. Like every other area bank branch, it will stress pandemic safety, with a mask requirement, six-foot distancing, and glass partitions between customers and employees.

But it will also reflect a move toward a role for branches that emphasizes financial wellness and consultative services more than routine business.

“That’s going to be the bigger component of what a community bank does — trying to help people navigate a lot of things,” he explained, before adding that there will be plenty to navigate in the coming year, when more customers than usual will be struggling to achieve stability. “Financial wellness isn’t just for people with means; it’s everybody, from somebody with an entry-level job to someone doing college planning or estate planning.”

The bank of the future will put greater emphasis on this consultative role, through personal interaction that can’t occur online.

Paul Scully

Paul Scully

“Customers, just because of the nature of the pandemic, with people staying at home, started exploring technology. An amazing number of people are using technology who, for a number of years, fought it.”

“Obviously, if it was just about technology, the big-city, money-center banks could meet the needs of every single person,” Sullivan said. “If you don’t have the technology, you’re going to fall behind, but the extra, community-focused efforts are what’s really going to make an impact.”

Kump said UMassFive has eliminated tellers — or, more accurately, it has eliminated branch employees who handle only that role. Instead, employees are trained to be “universal agents,” able to tackle multiple roles, from traditional teller business to loans and other matters.

To achieve that, the credit union has tripled its training budget over the past few years, seeking to identify not only financial skills, but empathetic personalities with a real desire to help people.

“The face of banking is changing permanently. Branches in the future won’t be as critical, with fewer transactions coming in. But they will always be needed for key parts of financial life,” he explained, citing anything from home and auto loans to opening memberships to simply seeking financial advice.

“We won’t need the huge teller line anymore. We won’t need as many branches, and the services we’re providing in the branches are changing, he added, noting that customers are also discovering they can conduct routine business face to face — sort of — through ITMs. “Someone could be at the Northampton drive-thru, talking to someone working from home in Belchertown.”

That raises the question of how many workers need to be on the premises, both while COVID-19 is still a threat and afterward, considering how effectively operations have continued during the pandemic.

Jeff Sullivan

Jeff Sullivan

“Obviously, if it was just about technology, the big-city, money-center banks could meet the needs of every single person. If you don’t have the technology, you’re going to fall behind, but the extra, community-focused efforts are what’s really going to make an impact.”

“From a back-office standpoint, about half are working remotely,” Day said. “Can they continue to do that long-term? Yes, but there’s still the human element, and people can feel isolated. Feeling part of a team is important to some people, while some people are loners. But technology is certainly giving us some options.”

And the bank, which recently broke ground on its third Hampden County branch, this one in Chicopee, has certainly been discussing those options.

“More transactions are going online, but when you want to talk to a person to problem solve, especially with more complex transactions, that can certainly be done over the phone — and has been during the pandemic — but the way we’ve designed our branch of the future, there’s more consulting. If you want to come in and consult, we’ll talk to you — a lot. So frontline people will still need to be there to handle questions and solve problems.”

Getting Through the Pain

In fact, banks and credit unions never stopped solving problems over the past few months. Scully said Country, like other banks, was able to accommodate deferrals of loan payments for individuals who has been furloughed or were generally dealing with greater financial stress.

“I felt like this was a watershed moment,” Day added, noting that more than 200 mortgage borrowers and 200 commercial borrowers took advantage of three-, six, or 12-month deferrals, the latter being the most popular option. “Having been through downturns in my career, I knew that we needed to give people some time. People are resilient, businesses are resilient, but they needed some time. So we worked with residential and business customers on deferred payments.”

Kump said UMassFive issued forebearance on nearly 1,000 loans for people who were “furloughed or just worred,” as well as launching a small-loan program for those who just needed a little cash. “If you were furloughed, that didn’t change the decision to make a loan for you.”

That was in addition to PPP loans, which the credit union approved for members and non-members in the community alike, 96% of those loans issued to employers of five workers or fewer. It also looked for other ways to support community needs, such as donations to food banks and organizations like Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, as well as donating meals to first responders.

Although those needs still exist, banks and credit unions are beginning to get back to normal operations, expanding branch operations under enhanced safety protocols — “it’s a great time to be in the plexiglass business,” Scully said — while considering the lessons learned during the months when most business was conducted remotely.

“Was there frustration at first? Absolutely,” he added. “At first, people were like, ‘what do you mean, a bank is closed?’ But as every industry started to close and people started working remotely, people began to understand.”

After all, a bank that saw a fire ravage its headquarters in 2008 and a tornado rumble through its home region in 2011 has no problem posting social-distancing reminders and directional arrows and getting back to branch business. “This is bigger than a tornado,” Scully said. “The lesson we’ve learned is to always be prepared and remain nimble.”

Even as it moved from a soft-opening week to broader branch service — where walk-in traffic is allowed but appointments are still advised to reduce the wait — Kump marveled at how the credit union’s members have adjusted to remote business. Especially new members, 90% of whom have been joining online, compared to 40% to 50% in a typical year.

“There’s a percentage of customers who will still be reluctant to walk into a business,” he added. “We’re seeing that with restaurants opening and people still not coming.”

It helps, of course, that many have discovered the power of digital banking.

“For a lot of folks, it’s generational; they’ve been intimidated by technology, of depositing a check with a picture on their phone,” Kump continued. “Now they’ve been forced to do it, and they’re asking, ‘why was I taking time out of my day to run over to the credit union to get cash or transfer money? I don’t have to do that.’”

Day also expects people to keep using those tools, but for those ready to return to the branch, even for matters as basic as depositing a check, they’ll do so protected by masks, shields, and any number of other precautions. “The pandemic isn’t over, and people are still going to get sick. We want to keep people safe.”

Bottom Line

Usually, when BusinessWest talks to local banks and credit unions, it’s about their own business outlook for the year ahead, but this is not a typical year, and talk of asset growth and loan portfolios has been pushed aside to some degree by the need to simply stay afloat — and keep customers afloat, as well.

“The outlook is generally positive, but it will not be without pain,” Day said, speaking for both Florence Bank and its customers. “We know it will get better. It’s just a matter of when.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

More Relief from the CARES Act

By Lisa White

On March 27, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed into law. Since its inception, much of the focus has been on the establishment of additional funding sources, such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), or on the creation of new tax credits, such as the Employee Retention Credit.

However, the act also made some significant revisions to existing tax law to provide additional relief to affected businesses. This article takes a closer look at two of these provisions and delves into how the related benefits associated with the changes might be derived.

Technical Correction for Qualified Improvement Property

The Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act of 2015 created a new category of asset called ‘qualified improvement property’ or QIP. This term referred to any improvement to an interior portion of non-residential real property, but excluded expenditures for elevators or escalators, enlargements, and interior structural components. Although this category of asset technically had a 39-year cost-recovery period, it was specifically identified as being eligible for bonus depreciation.

When the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) was signed into law at the end of 2017, the intention was to assign a shorter, 15-year recovery life to qualified improvement property, thus ensuring its eligibility for the enhanced 100% bonus depreciation provision also included in the TCJA. Unfortunately, the necessary wording was not included in the final bill, resulting in qualified improvement property retaining its 39-year cost-recovery period, but excluding it from being eligible for bonus depreciation.

Lisa White

Lisa White

“With proper planning and timely tax-advisor consultation, realizing additional relief during these unprecedented times can be achieved.”

Not only did the CARES Act include the technical correction necessary for QIP to have its originally intended 15-year cost-recovery period, but the correction was directed to apply retroactively to all eligible assets placed in service after Dec. 31, 2017.

Then, in mid-April, the IRS provided guidance on how to capture this additional benefit from the change in the depreciable life and the possible eligibility for bonus depreciation. Primarily, the two methods are to either file amended returns for the impacted year(s) or to file a Change in Accounting Method (Form 3115), which allows a ‘catch-up’ for the differences in the recovery periods and applicable depreciation methods.

Here’s an example: A business holds commercial rental property and operates on a Dec. 31 year-end. On July 15, 2018, the business incurred expenses of $150,000 in costs that meet the QIP definition. Assume Section 179 expense was not taken. Due to the technical error in the law, only $1,763 of depreciation expense was allowed in 2018, and $3,846 of depreciation expense would be allowed in 2019. With the technical correction, bonus depreciation can now be taken on the entire amount of the qualified improvement property even though it was placed in service in 2018:

• If the 2019 tax return has already been filed, an amended return should be filed for both the 2018 and 2019 tax years. Taxable income in 2018 will be reduced by the additional $148,237 ($150,000 – $1,763) of accelerated depreciation expense, and taxable income in 2019 will be increased by the removal of the $3,846 of depreciation expense originally recognized.

• If the 2019 tax return has not yet been filed, filing a Form 3115 might provide the easier option. Instead of filing two years of returns, only the 2019 tax return is filed, and the $148,237 of additional accelerated depreciation expense not captured in 2018 is included in the 2019 tax return as a section 481(a) adjustment.

It is important to note that there are certain circumstances where either an amended return or an administrative adjustment request (AAR) must be filed. It is important to consult with your tax advisor to determine the best course of action.

Changes to the Business Interest Limitation

Although most of the provisions enacted as part of the TCJA were intended to be favorable to taxpayers, some new components had the opposite effect. One of these was the revision and expansion of the business-interest-limitation rules. If subject to the new rules, the regulation essentially limited the amount of business interest expense to 30% of taxable income adjusted for, among other things, depreciation.

The interest expense in excess of this 30% threshold would not be deductible in the current year but would instead be carried forward to the following tax years.

The TCJA also included an option for certain businesses to elect out of having this regulation apply. Instead, these businesses that met the definition of a ‘real property trade or business’ could make an irrevocable election to realize a longer recovery period for the cost of real property and to forego any bonus depreciation that would otherwise be allowed on that real property.

Prior to the retroactive change under the CARES Act, the differences in the recovery periods were not substantial, and none of the real property was eligible for bonus depreciation. However, with the CARES Act’s retroactive fix to qualified improvement property, that property is now eligible for bonus depreciation. The loss of being able to take that accelerated depreciation, in addition to another CARES Act provision increasing the limitation threshold from 30% to 50% (for all businesses except partnerships) for 2019 and 2020, might now result in the impact of the irrevocable election having an undue, unfavorable result.

To provide relief to those businesses that made the irrevocable election and that could now benefit from the shorter recovery period, and the applicable depreciation methods, the IRS has issued guidance that provides for the irrevocable election to be rescinded for tax years 2018 or 2019. This is accomplished by filing an amended return for the year the election was made. If 2018 was the election year, and 2019 has already been filed, 2019 must be amended as well to reflect any changes to taxable income resulting from withdrawing the election.

So, What Now?

The CARES Act provides several relief provisions, including a number that can be realized through proper tax planning. Owners of non-residential (i.e. commercial) real property should review any expenditures that were capitalized in 2018 and 2019 to see if any of these costs can be realized now under the new qualified improvement property measures.

Also, it would be prudent to review any elections made during those tax years that might need to be revisited to make sure those elections still result in the most favorable tax position.

As with most things related to the tax code, the final answer is usually complex and nuanced and somewhere in the grey. But with proper planning and timely tax-advisor consultation, realizing additional relief during these unprecedented times can be achieved.

Lisa White, CPA is a tax manager at Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 536-8510.

Banking and Financial Services

Natural Transition

Kevin Day

Kevin Day

In some ways, Kevin Day is no stranger to running Florence Bank — he was already overseeing about 90% of its departments as executive vice president, a series of responsibilities he gradually took on after coming aboard as CFO in 2008. So he was a natural choice to succeed John Heaps Jr., who recently stepped down after 25 years as president. Day’s mandate is simple — keep a bank known for its steady, organic growth moving forward, and keep cultivating the culture of teamwork that allows such growth to occur.

When Kevin Day joined Florence Bank as chief financial officer in 2008, he was responsible for finance, facilities, and risk management. He must have been doing something right, because his role later expanded to include compliance in 2013, residential lending in 2014, and retail banking in 2016, at which time he earned the title of executive vice president.

“Gradually, my role expanded to where, all of a sudden, I looked back one day and said, ‘wow, 90% of the bank reports to me. How did that happen?’” he said.

That broad oversight made him a natural choice to replace John Heaps Jr., who stepped down as president of Florence Bank in January after 25 years in that role. On May 1, he’ll retire as CEO as well, and Day will take on that title, too.

“Gradually, my role expanded to where, all of a sudden, I looked back one day and said, ‘wow, 90% of the bank reports to me. How did that happen?”

“In my CFO role, I tended to have fingers in a lot of different places anyway — rate setting, strategy in many areas, facilities. We had started to expand into Hampden County. I had full responsibility for that transition, along with retail responsibility,” Day explained. “Then, a few years back, when John said, ‘hey, retirement’s coming up for me. Would you be interested in stepping in after me as president?’ I said I’d be happy to.

“You know, honestly, that wasn’t a role that I came here for,” he added. “My philosophy in life in general, but certainly in business, has been ‘just do the best you can.’ It’s the key tenet I spoke to our employees about at our meeting when I was promoted. I said, ‘the number-one thing you can do is just do your best in whatever role you have.’ And that’s all I’ve ever tried to do. I would have been happy to sit here as CFO the rest of my career, but when John decided to move on, I said, ‘yeah.’”

The job is the culmination of not only more than 11 years at Florence Bank, but a lengthy career spent in the financial world, including roles at more than a half-dozen other banks. This change, at least culturally, promises to be a smooth one, he noted.

“Every job transition I’ve ever had, it takes a year to figure out, ‘what have I gotten into?’ — whether it’s good or bad,” he explained. “After a year, you can look back and say, ‘wow, this is what this place is all about.’ I don’t have any of that here. I know many of our customers, I know our staff, and they all know me. It has been extremely smooth.”

Much of the credit for that has to do with the culture fostered by Heaps over the past quarter-century, Day said — one that emphasizes teamwork in all dealings.

John Heaps Jr., who served as president of Florence Bank for 25 years

John Heaps Jr., who served as president of Florence Bank for 25 years, grew its assets and reach steadily over that time, including a successful and ongoing push into Hampden County.

“That’s the key. It’s one of two key principles I live by. The other is simplicity. I don’t like things complex. When you make decisions when you can’t understand things, you get it wrong more often than you get it right,” he went on. “John always explained things and discussed things. And with all the moves we’ve made, everyone’s been on board.”

Those moves have been many in recent years, including that aforementioned Hampden County expansion (more on that later). And Day is excited to see how the bank continues to evolve from his chair in the office he never thought he’d occupy.

Part of the Team

Immediately after earning his bachelor’s degree in business administration at UMass Amherst, Day worked for five years as a CPA for the accounting firm Arthur Young & Co. in Worcester. When he looked for a career change, he got into banking “totally by accident.”

Well, not exactly — he had been rubbing shoulders with bank controllers, treasurers, and presidents as part of his CPA work, and always found their work interesting. When a position became available as a controller for Consumers Bank, also in Worcester, “it hit all my criteria,” he recalled, and he jumped into a new role.

After three years, the bank was sold, and he jumped off for a position in New Hampshire, where he lived for 25 years and raised a family, working for a number of institutions. “I learned a lot in each job, some from really good experiences and some from really tough experiences, but all of that shapes who you are. Several things I went through in the banking world were really awesome experiences, and some I would never want to repeat again.”

“I learned a lot in each job, some from really good experiences and some from really tough experiences, but all of that shapes who you are. Several things I went through in the banking world were really awesome experiences, and some I would never want to repeat again.”

His next stop was Unibank in Central Mass., where he worked for 15 years, and figured he would remain there as CFO for the rest of his career. But he was intrigued by a job description from Florence Bank, also for a CFO — and by the interview process itself.

“The way we do interviews here, particularly for senior people, is the president and all the senior officers individually interview you. I spent the whole day here, basically every hour talking to a different person, and that really impressed me,” Day recalled. “Number one, it gave me insight into all the different people who were here running the various areas of the bank. And what struck me was, ‘wow, these people are really nice.’ They were very genuine, and the bank’s a good bank — I could tell that from the financials.”

In 2008, at the height of a global financial crisis, it may have been a dicey time to switch banks, he said, but because of Florence’s financial health — Heaps had been steadily growing assets and services since his arrival — and the impression the senior staff had made during those interviews, Day accepted the job.

Job one was moving forward from a time of great difficulty in the industry, he added. “Things started moving in a decent direction. We had low capital ratio at the time, so we put a plan in place to improve that. The economy became better, and the plan worked; our capital levels rose, and we started making decent money, and things just came together.”

That sense of teamwork and collaboration helped, he told BusinessWest. “Every organization likes to think of themselves, ‘oh, we’re a team.’ But very few actually are. We really have a great team. We’re careful to bring people in who buy in and agree with the culture we have. That sense of teamwork is important, which makes my transition to president really easy, honestly.

“There’s no jealousy, no backstabbing,” he added. “That’s one of the things that drew me in the first place. These people aren’t climbing over each other, they’re working together.”

Heading South

Lately, they’ve been working on a multi-phase expansion into Hampden County. Florence Bank, headquartered in its namesake town, has long been a Hampshire County institution, with branches in Amherst, Belchertown, Easthampton, Granby, Hadley, Northampton, and Williamsburg.

But in the past three years, it opened up branches in West Springfield and Springfield, with a site in Chicopee to follow in 2020, and then perhaps two to four more in the next five years.

“I’ve been intimately involved in site selection, branch design, branch staffing, setting up everything related to that,” Day said. “It’s been a great deal of my day-to-day responsibilities over the past several years.”

When he announced the first move a few years ago, Heaps said a recent spate of mergers of community banks in Hampden County created an uncommon opportunity for a mutually held bank that makes decisions about what’s best for customers and the community without input from stockholders.

And a geographic presence needs to be a part of that strategy, Day said — even in the mobile age.

“Branching is changing,” he noted. “Banking in general has gone electronic. Customers can do so much more away from the branch. But they still need to know who they’re banking with, and we feel you’ve got to have a footprint, and people have to be able to see you. If we’re not physically in the communities, it doesn’t feel like we’re there.”

“I feel bad for people who get up in the morning and sort of dread coming to work. I’ve enjoyed coming to work most of my career. But coming here is the best of anything I’ve done. I’m glad I’m ending my career in a place like this.”

Although online and mobile banking are now omnipresent, he went on, customers still want a place they can go to get questions answered and problems solved. “No one wants to wait on the phone — talking face to face is still important, even with all our convenience and technology. Our electronic channels are expanding, but if you have a problem, you want to go to a branch.”

That presence is a form of marketing, but traditional media messaging is important, too. The bank’s marketing emphasizes the tagline ‘always,’ reflecting its mutual form of ownership, which assures, among other things, that it can’t be forced into a sale or merger with another bank.

“We’re always going to be here,” Day said. “You never have to worry that next year we’ll be owned by someone else, and the decision makers will be in Connecticut or Boston or New York or California. The decision makers work here and live here.”

That mutual model is important to many people in the Pioneer Valley who grew up in a community-bank culture, he added. “Our mutual model is what allows us to be local and stay local. When you’re owned by shareholders, those shareholders are from who knows where, and their goals and objectives can be vastly different from what ours are.”

He added that he knows customers who have been with the bank 40 years or more, through all phases of their lives — and all the financial challenges life brings, from buying a home to paying college tuition to saving for retirement.

“I don’t know anybody who really loves change, but it’s a fact of life. You’ve got to deal with it,” he said. “It’s good to know that your banking situation is something that won’t change. Florence will be here.”

In a Good Place

During Heaps’ 25-year tenure as president, Florence Bank’s capital has grown from $24 million to $161 million, and assets have grown from $283 million to $1.4 billion, and from four branches to 11 — soon to be 12. Meanwhile, the staff has doubled from 112 full-time employees to 221 now.

While the future will see at least a couple more branches, Day said the focus will continue to be on steady, organic growth, as opposed to the merger-happy way some local banks have grown over the past two decades.

The coming years will also bring a continued emphasis on community giving, as evidenced by the 18th annual Customers’ Choice Community Grants Program, celebrated at Look Park on March 10, where 57 nonprofits received $100,000 in awards based on voting by bank customers. The program has given more than $1.2 million since its inception.

“Our customers love it, the community loves it — it’s just a heartwarming event,” Day said. “We give a lot outside that program, but this is a step above. It just cements our core mission to help as many people as we can, as best we can.”

Active in the community in other ways, Day is currently a member of the board of directors and the finance committee for United Way of Hampshire County, a board member for the Springfield Rescue Mission, a member of the finance committee for Westfield Evangelical Free Church, and board president for the Northeast Center for Youth and Families.

But serving people through his job gratifies him just as much.

“I think it’s the people I work with,” he told BusinessWest. “Yes, they’re all extremely competent in their disciplines, but I’ve worked in places with really smart people who are not fun to work with. Here, they’re smart and good at what they do and nice to be around.

“I feel bad for people who get up in the morning and sort of dread coming to work,” he added. “I’ve enjoyed coming to work most of my career. But coming here is the best of anything I’ve done. I’m glad I’m ending my career in a place like this.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Volatility Is the Order of the Day

By Jean Deliso

Jean Deliso

Jean Deliso

The market has acted like a roller coaster in recent months, up one day, down another — but where will it end up?

Most investors tend to get unsettled and concerned by such market conditions, and if you are in that group, now is the time to speak to your financial professional to ensure that your investment allocation is consistent with your financial goals. Those investors with a near-term retirement timeline generally should be more focused on preservation of capital. Those with multiple years or even decades before retirement can take a longer perspective as they have more time to wait out market volatility.

All investors should remember to be calm. The worst mistake in this market, or any market, is to try to time the ups and downs. Granted, this volatility can be unnerving, but it’s the price we pay for the potentially greater returns from investing in equities.

In the past 20 years (2000 to 2020), there have been at least two major bear markets with short-term losses in value around 50%, yet it’s also true that, from Dec. 31, 2002 to Dec. 31, 2018, the S&P 500 stock index tripled in value.*

Zacks Investment Management, one of the portfolio managers I work with, produced a white paper listing four reasons to expect more volatility in 2020. I think it’s worthwhile to share some of these highlights:

Reason 1: We cannot ignore history. Over the past 38 years, the S&P 500 has had corrections; they are frequent, and they are the norm.

Reason 2: Low volatility generally gives way to high volatility. From October 2019 to January 2020, the S&P index experienced an unusually low level of volatility. From a historical perspective, such periods of low volatility tend to give way to periods of high volatility. We saw examples of this type of market behavior prior to January 2018 and October 2018.

Reason 3: Stock buybacks are on the decline. Stock buybacks are a corporation’s main tool for reducing outstanding supply of shares, and thereby boosting shareholder value. Stock buybacks were down in 2019, with more declines expected in 2020. Fewer buybacks could mean a tougher road for corporations exceeding their earnings per their share targets. This could make investors jittery.

“The bottom line is that volatility can be a good thing for equity markets, sometimes unsettling but it is normal and to be expected.”

Reason 4: It’s not a straightforward election year. This does not necessarily refer to a political outcome, but more concerning is alleged foreign interference, and potential contested results, civil unrest, and other extraneous factors that might lead to a period of political instability.

 The bottom line is that volatility can be a good thing for equity markets. Though sometimes unsettling, it is normal and to be expected. I tend to agree with Zacks that the S&P 500 index is due for a correction this year on par with the historical averages after several years of increases. We could experience a correction in the 10% to 15% range.

Let’s remember that dollar-cost averaging can be a great tool in managing short-term volatility as well. While no one can predict the future, and the past is no guarantee of future results, historical performance has shown that market downturns can offer attractive investment opportunities, and dollar-cost averaging can help in this regard.

Remember, though, that dollar-cost averaging does not ensure a profit and does not protect against loss in declining markets. It involves continuous investing during a period of fluctuating price levels. To maintain such a strategy, investors should consider their ability to continue investing through differing market conditions.

This article would not be complete without mentioning continuing concerns about COVID-19. As a society, we don’t know enough about it yet to understand how pervasive it will become and how long it will impact the markets. It’s too early to assess the ultimate impact of the virus. Headlines continue to focus on the spread of the virus and those who become ill; however, one should keep in mind that most people who have contracted the virus have gone on to make a full recovery.

Weaker global growth does not often mean recession in the U.S., and the consumer remains a strong factor against a U.S. recession. Lower rates may further boost the housing market, and both manufacturing and wholesaling inventories are at high levels in the U.S., which could mitigate supply-chain disruptions from Asia. More accommodative monetary policy could serve to calm the financial markets and minimize the economic and psychological impacts.

From a financial perspective, it’s important to maintain a diversified portfolio for times like this, and in panicked environments, it’s imperative to keep a level head rather than simply react. Those investors with longer time horizons should try and remain calm and patient when volatility takes hold.

A well-designed financial allocation consistent with your risk tolerance and investment goals is the key. Investors tend to make short-term decisions with long-term assets, but it is important to keep a long-range approach with your money and stick to your investing goals.

For the shorter-term investors, now is a good time to connect and review your plans with your financial professional. Double-check to make sure that your goals and objectives are still in line with your investments. Also, it is important not to stay passive on the sidelines, as investors we need to be engaged in the process and be a full participant in the process.

Jean M. Deliso, CFP is a financial advisor offering investment advisory services through Eagle Strategies LLC, a registered investment adviser, and is a registered representative of and offers securities products and services through NYLIFE Securities LLC, member FINRA/SIPC, a licensed insurance agency. Eagle Strategies and NYLIFE Securities are New York Life companies. Deliso Financial & Insurance Services is not owned or operated by NYLIFE Securities LLC or its affiliates. Neither Deliso Financial & Insurance Services nor Eagle Strategies LLC or its subsidiaries and affiliates provide tax, legal, or accounting advice. Please consult your own tax, legal or accounting professional regarding your particular situation.

*Source: Standard & Poor’s 500 index, 12/31/18. Average annual returns are based on the S&P 500 Index from 12/31/02 to 12/31/18. Large-capitalization stock performance is measured by the S&P 500 index, an unmanaged index considered to be representative of the U.S. stock market. Prices of common stocks will fluctuate with market conditions and may involve loss of principal when sold. Results assume reinvestment of all distributions, including dividends, earnings, and expenses, and are not indicative of any past or future returns of any investment. It is not possible to invest directly into an index. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Banking and Financial Services

Forward Progress

President and CEO Mike Ostrowski

Arrha President and CEO Mike Ostrowski says credit unions have in many ways filled the void left by many of the smaller community banks that have disappeared from the landscape. To take full advantage of opportunities that are presenting themselves, an institution must have a blend of size and nimbleness — and a name that resonates. He believes Arrha has all three.

Mike Ostrowski calls it his ‘jungle home.’

Because … that’s what it is. The Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica is quite remote, and that’s what Ostrowski, president and CEO of Arrha Credit Union, likes about it.

“I have a little hut there — there’s no electricity, there’s no anything,” he explained while grabbing his phone to show photos of the area. “I typically go down there for two weeks; I alternate between living in the jungle and this tiny fishing village where I’ll stay for a few days. That’s my release.”

The upcoming trip, one coinciding with his 60th birthday later this month, will be a shorter stint, only six days, he said, adding that this is a good time of year to go because the fishing is good — he’ll be looking to land blue marlin and black tuna — and it is not rainy season.

“That comes in June,” he said. “And when it rains, it rains. It’s unbelievable how much water comes down. It’s like standing in a shower.”

He’ll return from this trip to a jungle of a different sort — a rapidly changing landscape in banking and financial services. It’s not exactly a hostile environment, but there are plenty of challenges — from razor-thin margins resulting from historically low interest rates to ever-escalating regulation — and competition that comes in all shapes and sizes and from all directions.

To survive and thrive in this environment, he told BusinessWest, an institution needs a solid blend of size and nimbleness and he believes Arrha — that’s the new brand that the former Springfield Teachers Credit Union assumed roughly five years ago — is strategically aligning itself to achieve both.

“We’ve been building that [commercial real-estate] business slowly and methodically for several years now. But it’s accelerating because of that vacuum created when banks like United leave; there’s no question that we’re taking advantage of opportunities like that.”

While size has become increasingly important in this age, that nimble quality is critical as well, he said, especially with all that competition, including the ever-growing roster of fintech companies offering everything from platforms with which the pay bills to risk-management services to payment-protection solutions.

“They’re all nipping at our heels for the dollars that a typical credit union or bank might get,” Ostrowski explained. “We’re fighting the battle on that front, and, fortunately, we have some of the best technology available; we can do anything they can do, and we can probably do it better because we’re local.”

But amid these many challenges there are also opportunities, he said, especially as a pattern of mergers and consolidations within the banking industry continues, such as with the recent acquisition of United Bank by Peoples United Bank.

As banks get larger and more of them become publicly held, he noted, credit unions have in many ways taken the spot once occupied by many of the smaller community banks that have disappeared from the landscape.

“And that’s a healthy thing,” said Ostrowski, who has spent the past 37 years in the financial-services sector and worked for a number of those community banks, including United, where he got his start, and Ludlow Savings. “That’s a normal progression of the industries; we’re looking to fill a void, a vacuum; people want to deal locally. The solid credit unions are taking the place of those local banking institutions that were around.”

To take full advantage of these opportunities and effectively and efficiently fill this void — something many other players are trying to do as well — Ostrowski said Arrha needs to be nimble, take full advantage of technology, stress its personable brand of service, and do what’s needed to attract the younger generations.

All of this, in a nutshell, is the strategic plan moving forward, he said, adding that the bank is looking to introduce ITMs (interactive teller machines) in its two locations, possibly by the middle of the year, and create what he calls the ‘branch of the future,’ something that will become a model for possible future expansion into smaller physical spaces.

This model involves the interactive technology, the ITMs, but also the human touch in the form of banking professionals making sure customers are comfortable using that technology and that all their needs are met.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” he said, noting that the technology is already in place in several area institutions. “We just want to be on the cutting edge; this concept will be taking off soon, and I want to be on the forefront of it.”

For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest talked with Ostrowski about Arrha’s strategic plan moving forward, one that calls for smart growth, taking advantage of the opportunities presenting themselves, and positioning itself for life in this jungle.

Points of Interest

Ostrowski has a small collection of bobbleheads residing atop a bookshelf in his office at Arrha’s Springfield’s facility on Industrial Drive.

When asked about it, he quickly deferred to a different collection, one that has more meaning.

This is an assemblage of coffee cups bearing names of financial institutions he once worked for. A few have been turned upside down, Ostrowski’s way of indicating that the bank in question made some key strategic mistakes, which in some cases led to that brand disappearing from the landscape.

Mike Ostrowski says Arrha will soon be introducing ITMs and creating what he called the ‘branch of the future.’

Opting not to go into specific details about any of these institutions, he hinted strongly that many of these mistakes involved trying to grow too quickly, taking unwarranted risks, and becoming something the bank wasn’t.

And he’s committed to not making these mistakes with Arrha, a credit union that first operated out of a classroom at Commerce High School in Springfield at the dawn of the Great Depression. His plan is for slow, steady growth — in memberships, assets, deposits, commercial loans, and perhaps locations, although he has no immediate plans to broaden the portfolio beyond the current two.

In short, he intends to continue living up to the credit union’s still somewhat new and unusual name — Arrha, an old English word that translates into ‘money in exchange for a contract, a pledge in earnest.’

Ostrowski said the name change was needed because the former name, Springfield Teachers Credit Union, and even the shortened version, STCU, didn’t adequately convey that membership was open to anyone who lives or works in the three counties of the Pioneer Valley.

The new name does — sort of — but often needs to be explained. Ostrowski doesn’t mind; in fact, he looks forward to doing it.

“That’s exactly why we picked the name — it gives us a chance to tell the story,” he told BusinessWest. “So, from a marketing perspective, I think it’s brilliant.”

The story, at present, is of a still relatively small credit union — it’s in the middle of the pack among area institutions of this type with roughly $140 million in assets — working to grow and position itself for success in the long term.

As for growth, Arrha has seen a steady rise in membership, said Ostrowski, noting that, over the past 18 months or so, it has gained more than 1,500 and now boasts more than 11,500.

“If we were Boston, where there’s a lot of inflow of people, I would not be too happy with those numbers, but given where we are and what the statistics show, I’m quite pleased,” he said, noting, as all other bank and credit-union leaders do, that this is, by and large, a no-growth area. Meanwhile, even though Arrha’s expanded criteria for membership — Hampden, Hampden, and Franklin counties in addition to some of Northern Conn. — appears broad, it is still somewhat restrictive, at least when compared to most banks in the region.

In this no-growth environment, the institution must look to do more with existing customers and offer more services, such as commercial lending and commercial checking accounts. Arrha expanded into this realm several years ago, and has built a solid portfolio, most of it involving commercial real estate.

“We’ve been building that business slowly and methodically for several years now,” he explained. “But it’s accelerating because of that vacuum created when banks like United leave; there’s no question that we’re taking advantage of opportunities like that.”

As with all other aspects of the credit union’s operation, the commercial side of the ledger is driven by relationship-building efforts, he said, adding that these relationships are developed far more through trust than interest rates.

By All Accounts

While working to build the membership base and commercial portfolio, Arrha is also taking a number of steps to attract younger audiences, said Ostrowski, noting that these initiatives involve everything from financial-literacy programs involving area high-school students to digital marketing programs, to making sure the credit union remains on the cutting edge of technology — something that’s quite necessary to get and keep the attention of Millennials and those behind them.

“It’s a tough generation to reach,” he acknowledged, adding that digital marketing is fast becoming the most reliable method. “And some of them have never been inside a bank or credit union.”

Still, all members of this generation will eventually need what he called a “warm hug” — the personalized service they’ll need when filling out their first mortgage application or looking to buy a business.

“And we’re here for them when they need that warm hug,” he went on, adding that Arrha is enjoying some success with attracting the younger generations, as evidenced by the fact that the average age of its members has gone down — by two years — while that number has been going up industry-wide.

“That tells me that we’re achieving what we’re intending to do when it comes to reaching out to that generation,” he said, adding that, specifically, this is the 25-to-35 age group.

And if all goes according to plan, when these individuals — and all other customers — enter one of the Arrha locations later this year, they’ll be stepping into that ‘bank of the future’ Ostrowski mentioned.

The credit union is currently in the exploratory stage on the new technology, with plans to implement the changes perhaps six months from now, he noted, adding that the institution will do its homework and due diligence and make sure this important work is undertaken properly.

He expects that the blend of technology and human touch will resonate with not only Millennials, but all generations. And he believes it could also serve as an effective model for smaller, highly efficient branches in the future, facilities that could enable Arrha to expand its physical presence to other communities.

“This will give us the ability to do additional branching at a lower cost structure,” he explained, adding that a facility with a few ITMs and perhaps two or three staff members would need only 1,000 square feet, and perhaps half that, as opposed to a traditional branch several times that size.

Ostrowski said he was inspired by what he saw at an institution in the Washington, D.C. area, which had ITMs and three roving employees qualified to handle everything from car and mortgage loans to wire transfers, and is looking to do something similar here.

“They had the ability to handle every banking need — but they weren’t wasting their time doing transitional deposits or withdrawals,” he said. “It’s a far more efficient way to do things, and it’s still very member-friendly.”

Bottom Line

That branch of the future seems a long way from that hut on the Osa Penninsula — in every way imaginable.

But they’re both in a jungle in some respects.

This jungle in the 413 is a highly competitive environment where, as noted earlier when mentioning banks not around anymore, survival is not assured. It can be secured by being forward-thinking, on the leading edge of technology, and customer-friendly.

In short, it happens by avoiding the kinds of mistakes that would prompt Ostrowski to turn a coffee cup upside down.

And that, in plain, basic terms, is the business plan for Arrha.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

A ‘Natural Partnership’

Chris Milne, left, and Mike Matty both say the union of St. Germain and Gage-Wiley is a natural partnership.

Mike Matty says the talks with Chris Milne began roughly two years ago.

And as they often do in such cases, these discussions were somewhat intermittent in nature and came in varying degrees of intensity.

“With those first preliminary talks, you talk, then you stop talking about it for a little while, you revisit it … it’s been percolating for a while,” said Matty. “Half the time, it’s just … you grab dinner or you grab a beer and chat about business more than anything else, primarily because the companies are so similar and dealing with the same issues and you want to see how they’re dealing with these issues. And then, the talk would turn to ‘are we still thinking about this, or are we not thinking about this?’”

‘This’ was a proposed acquisition of Northampton-based Gage-Wiley & Co., which Milne served as president and CEO, by Springfield-based St. Germain Investment Management, which Matty has led for a number of years now. And eventually, the talk led to a deep dive and a decision to go forward.

The combined company has close to $2.4 billion in assets (Gage-Wiley had nearly $800 million), and four offices overall — St. Germain has a second office in Lee, and Gage-Wiley has a second office in Plymouth. This means it has much-needed size at a time of increased — and more complex — regulation, but also a small-enough size to remain nimble. Just as important, it now has nearly two centuries of time in the investment-management business.

Indeed, Matty joked that Gage-Wiley was a little on the young side in comparison to St. Germain, with the former being only 87 years old and the latter 96.

“I realize they’re a fairly new upstart, since they only started in 1933,” said Matty, who then turned serious and called this a “natural partnership.”

Natural because the companies are so similar — they both were started in Springfield, they’ve both remained locally owned and privately held, and they have similar operating philosophies.

Milne agreed. He actually initiated those talks two years ago, not thinking they might eventually lead to this union. Like Matty, he said the early discussion was focused on simply how to do business in a changing environment.

Eventually, though, it became clear that coming together made far more sense than staying apart and competing with each other.

“It’s a case where one plus one equals three,” said Milne. “It seemed like the right thing to do at the right time and for the right reasons; the similarities and compatibility were just too good not to get married.”

The name ‘Gage-Wiley’ will remain over the door of the facility in Northampton, and Milne will serve as managing director, because that brand is well-established, and it made no sense to change it, said Matty.

“I realize they’re a fairly new upstart, since they only started in 1933.”

“There’s a lot of good will built into that name and client relationships built up over time,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s very strong name, and we have no intention of disrupting things and taking all that away from them.”

Thus, in many ways, that office will operate much like October Mountain, St. German’s subsidiary in the Berkshires — a firm with its own name and its own staff, but with a bigger organization behind it.

“Very little, if anything, will change,” said Matty. “From the Gage-Wiley client standpoint, their statements look almost identical to the way they looked before — there just happens to be a new line that says ‘securities offered through St. Germain Securities’ on it. The phone number is the same, they’re talking to the same people … from the client standpoint, it will be almost invisible.”

Beyond the size and wealth of experience the combined firm now boasts, however, it also has what Matty described as a deeper pool of talent and expertise that it can bring to the table to better serve investment clients.

Elaborating, he said the teams at the respective companies bring experience in different areas that will complement each other effectively.

“We bring to the table for them a fixed-income expertise that they didn’t have, and we also bring more resources on compliance, legal matters, and human resources,” he explained. “And that comes with being a bigger company and having to tread these waters for a longer time with more people — we’ve had more experience at it.”

Meanwhile, Gage-Wiley brings different elements to the table, starting with some operational processes and ways of doing things that are in some ways better than those at St. Germain, Matty noted.

Gage-Wiley also brings an expertise in what is known as ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investing, a mindset that is growing in popularity, especially among the younger generations.

“Many people are looking to invest according to their ethics,” said Matty, noting that years ago the acronym for this philosophy was SRI — socially responsible investing.

But there is a difference, he went on, adding that SRI was mostly an exclusionary approach — ‘here’s what we’re not going to buy’ — while ESG is more of an inclusionary approach.

“People will say, ‘here’s a company I want to see a change at — I’m going to buy some of its stock, see if I can be a shareholder activist, and see if we can make some changes from within,’” he explained. “It’s a more comprehensive approach than the old SRI.”

And the team at Gage-Wiley, based in Northampton, has developed an expertise in this realm that St. Germain did not possess.

It does now, though, because of this ‘natural partnership’ that Matty described, one that brings nearly two centuries of local ownership together under the same umbrella — if not the same name and same roof.

As noted, this union gives the combined company more size and the important element of flexibility. But it also provides something else — stability and staying power during an ongoing time of consolidation within this industry.

“We’re going to stay independent,” Milne said. “And we’re now the perfect size — we’re not too big, and we’re not too small, and we’re not going anywhere.”

—George O’Brien

Banking and Financial Services

A Primer on Record Retention

By Emily White

Emily White

Emily White

These days, it’s hard to imagine holding on to paper copies of every paid bill, invoice received, or other financial document. Today’s society has moved from paper copies of documents to digitized, searchable files — all within the click of a mouse or stroke of a keyboard. Many practices even have copies of important documents secured by fingerprints or facial recognition on iPhones or tablets.

However, while the methods of retaining documents have changed, having a record-retention policy is still important and should serve as a guide within a practice, no matter where or how files are kept.

Retention of specific documents should be easily identifiable in a practice’s record-retention policy. A basic record-retention policy should include a listing of recommended retention periods for specific financial items. The length of time certain records should be maintained depends on services offered by the practice, types of files, and any specific regulations that may determine the holding period.

“While the methods of retaining documents have changed, having a record-retention policy is still important and should serve as a guide within a practice, no matter where or how files are kept.”

The retention policy should be reviewed by a practice’s legal counsel to ensure proper compliance with all laws and regulations.

Records retention generally falls into four general time-specific categories: two years, three years, seven years, and permanently. Documentation to be retained for two years includes items such as bank reconciliations and general correspondence. Typical three-year retention-policy items include bank statements, insurance policies, internal reports, and employment applications. Records to be kept for seven years include items such as payroll records, personnel files (for terminated employees), sales records, and subsidiary ledgers. Items to be retained indefinitely include audit reports, active contracts, legal correspondence, meeting minutes of board of directors and stockholders, retirement and pension records, and union agreements.

In addition, specific guidelines provided by the IRS govern retention of income-tax returns and related documents. Generally, income-tax returns are kept indefinitely, along with related depreciation schedules, financial statements (audited or unaudited), and year-end trial balances.

As the world becomes more technologically advanced, it is becoming easier for practices to store files on the ‘cloud.’ Cloud-based storage has become the newest method of storing records and files. Keeping files on the cloud not only frees up physical space, but also significantly reduces the risk of potential for loss of work and crucial documents. Medical practices are recommended to back up their computerized files to the cloud daily, at a minimum.

Record retention on the cloud is a secure and paperless way to keep all required files. Many practices opt to scan in all paper copies of files, support, or related documents and keep these files on the cloud. This method of record retention is a great way to reduce physical paperwork but remain in compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and company policies on record retention. As e-mails have become a significant form of communication, their storage timelines have also become important. E-mails are subject to discovery as evidence in the event of a lawsuit, so ensuring that e-mails are retained for an appropriate amount of time is crucial.

The storage of e-mails should be outlined in a practice’s record-retention policy, dependent upon the nature of the e-mails. Some may need to be kept indefinitely if they include significant legal correspondence or other agreements. Practices should refer to the general guidance for these matters.

Practices should consider the necessary requirements for record retention based on their service offerings and areas of expertise. Practices should also consult with legal counsel to develop an appropriate record-retention plan that follows all appropriate laws and regulations, including specific IRS guidance for tax-related items. In today’s digital world, it is easier than ever to engage in cloud-based storage for the purpose of complying with record retention. Additionally, a record-retention policy should be reviewed annually for possible changes and updates. After all, who knows when paper copies will come back in style?

Emily White is a senior audit associate for the Holyoke-based public accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 322-3531; [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Dollars and Sense

By Steve Siebold

It is now not only the start of a new year, but also the beginning of a new decade. Maybe the last 10 years weren’t exactly your greatest, financially speaking. Maybe you are still dragging around an excess amount of credit-card debt, or you simply haven’t done a good job putting enough money away for retirement.

Whatever the case, the new decade can be different, and it starts with what goes on between your ears.

If you are really serious about taking control of your financial situation in the coming years, start by examining your relationship with money. Here are six changes to make when it comes to how you think about money.

Money Is Your Friend

If you have struggled financially your entire life, chances are you have a bad relationship with money. You may even see it as an evil force that you associate with greed or crooks. The more you see it as a negative, the harder it’s going to be to acquire any of it.

Start by changing your outlook on money, and see it for the positives it really presents, like possibility, opportunity, and freedom. Money isn’t everything, but it does make life easier.

Money Is Infinite

Sadly, most people are stuck with the limited belief that they can only make so much money in a year. They’ve been led down this path by well-meaning but misguided people their entire lives who sold them on the notion that this is the way it has to be.

This is so untrue. In a free-market economy, you can earn as much as your heart desires. The key is solving problems for people. The more problems you solve and the more value you bring to the marketplace, the more money you make.

It Starts with Your Expectations 

The majority of people believe the only way they will ever get wealthy is by guessing the lottery numbers or going to the casino. In the new decade, self-made millionaires expect to make even more money than they made in the previous decade, and there’s no talking them out of it.

“The more problems you solve and the more value you bring to the marketplace, the more money you make.”

You have to expect big things to happen, and this will make you bold, aggressive, and fearless in the pursuit of wealth. Even if you don’t know how it’s going to happen just yet, it starts with a belief that it will.

Separate Logic and Emotion 

Most people use emotion when making financial decisions, and this is one of the worst things you can do. Self-made millionaires, on the other hand, use emotion to motivate them, but stick to pure logic when it comes to money.

Logic means not buying the million-dollar mansion that you can’t afford. Emotion is dangling that big house in front of you like the proverbial carrot in front of the rabbit to make you work harder.

Focus on Your Reason

Behind any defined goal there is always a reason. Why do you want whatever it is you are after? In this case, why do you want more money? Is it for your family? Do you want to take a big trip next summer? Do you finally want to be financially free? When you focus on your ‘why,’ it’s going to push you to take action in achieving those financial goals. Figure out your why and never take your eyes off of it.

Watch Your Dialogue

Begin monitoring everything you say to yourself and others. When you talk about money, is the way you use your language programming you for success or failure? Next, begin listening to the way people around you use their language when it comes to money. Ask yourself the same question about them.

This is an eye-opening experience. What you’ll find is that the masses are always talking about running out of money. The self-made wealthy, on the other hand, are always talking about how to make more of it.  

The Takeaway

As we enter a new decade, make the decision to take control of your finances once and for all. Your thoughts and beliefs about money won’t make you rich on their own, but it all starts here.

If you are rich, keep thinking the way you are thinking. If not, it’s time to change the way you look at money in 2020 and beyond.

 

Steve Siebold is author of the book ‘How Money Works,’ and a self-made millionaire who has interviewed more than 1,300 of the world’s wealthiest people over the last 35 years; www.howmoneyworks.com

Banking and Financial Services

Past Is Prologue

President and CEO John Howland stands by a display commemorating GSB’s first 150 years. I

Greenfield Savings Bank has marked its sesquicentennial in a number of ways this year — from a party with cupcakes in the spring to presenting elm trees to a number of area communities it serves in the summer, to displaying its proud history, something it’s done pretty much all year long. Overall, though, it has celebrated by doing what it has done since it was founded in 1869 — serving as a rock-solid corporate citizen. And a vital partner to its many types of customers.

John Howland jokingly refers to it as his “high-school history project.”

He was referring to the large display of photographs and other materials that trace the 150-year progression of Greenfield Savings Bank. And it’s quite an exhibition.

Indeed, across two walls just off the main lobby and outside the main conference room hang a number of photos, postcards, and framed advertisements and documents that collectively tell the story of an institution that has changed considerably since Ulysses S. Grant roamed the White House — but also hasn’t changed in many ways, as we’ll see.

There are photos of bank lobbies from several different decades, a host of board presidents, groups of employees, Howland himself, who became GSB president in 2015, and many images of the old Mansion House Hotel.

The bank was relocated within the hotel property roughly a decade after its launch — it was one of several ground-floor retail sites — and was still there when the Mansion House was destroyed in a massive fire in January 1959 (there are pictures of that historic moment as well). The bank built its new headquarters roughly where the front lobby of the hotel once stood.

The historic Mansion House Hotel and GSB’s location within that property.

“So we’ve basically operated in the same location since 1880, and that’s very significant to me,” said Howland, adding that this history project is important, for customers and employees alike, because there has been much to commemorate during what has been a year-long celebration, punctuated by a large party in the spring.

Starting with the name over the door. It was Greenfield Savings Bank all those years ago, said Howland, and it still is. This despite the fact that many banks, as they have expanded beyond their original home and added branches in other counties and sometimes another state, have dropped the city or town from their name, opting for something more global and seemingly less defining. Meanwhile, almost every other institution that had ‘Savings’ in its name has dropped that, too, on the theory that it’s anachronistic and doesn’t convey the full line of services.

GSB has done none of that.

“Why would you want to change a name you’ve had for 150 years?” he asked before answering the question himself. “The idea that we’re somehow different because we’ve changed our name and don’t have ‘Savings’ in it anymore is disingenuous to me.”

But the bank is celebrating more than continuity — although that’s certainly important. There has been growth and expansion into other areas, including Northampton, Amherst, and, most recently, the community in between them, Hadley. There has also been a commitment to remain at the forefront of technology, said Denise Coyne, executive vice president and COO (and 41-year employee of the bank), and as evidence, she pointed proudly to the new interactive teller machines, or ITMs, in the drive-through lane, an initiative GSB calls Teller Connect. Customers can speak with a teller based in Turners Falls who can handle a wide range of transactions from that location.

The bank is also celebrating its work within the community, a commitment that manifests itself in a number of ways and on many different levels, including multi-faceted support of Monte’s March, the trek undertaken by radio station WHMP DJ Monte Belmonte to raise money for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts (Howland himself was to be part of the second leg of the march, from Northampton to Greenfield).

Denise Coyne shows off one of the Teller Connect machines at GSB’s main branch in Greenfield.

But it also includes donating 30 elm trees in communities where the bank has a presence to replace just a few those lost to Dutch elm disease decades ago (these gifts, part of the 150th celebration, are resistant to the disease), and creating a foundation to support an ongoing project whereby students learning each of the trades at Franklin County Technical School collaborate to build a house from scratch (more on those initiatives later).

Mostly, though, the bank is celebrating what Howland called its “infinite horizon.” By that, he meant that this institution isn’t going anywhere, and it can act, and operate, accordingly.

“My job is to hand the keys over to someone else and have the company be better than it was when I got here,” he explained. “At the prior two organizations I worked for, and at many other banks, basically the mission was to figure out how to maximize the value for the shareholders in the shortest period of time and sell the organization; to that extent, our business plan is different than that of most other banks.”

For this issue’s focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest talked at length with Howland and Coyne about GSB’s first 150 years and what will come next for this venerable institution.

Staying on Track

Hanging on a wall inside the conference room is a framed poster hyping the 20th Century Limited — the historic express passenger train on the New York Central Railroad that traveled between New York and Chicago — and its faster time for completing that run: 16 hours.

This might seem like an odd item to find in a bank headquarters building, but Howland offered an explanation that speaks volumes about how this institution celebrates its past but is by no means stuck in it.

“I put that poster up to remind us that we constantly have to be reinventing ourselves, constantly have to be figuring out how to do it better and faster,” Howland explained. “The poster represents the race between the New York Central Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad to attract customers to this high-profile route. When one company dropped their time, the other matched or exceeded it. They conceived idea after idea to improve service, cut down travel time, and maintain schedules. Banking today is just like that — we are all providing the same products. That’s why we continue to provide our customers with exceptional service, the most up-to-date technology, and offer competitive rates.”

And throughout its long history, the bank certainly has operated with that mindset.

Students at Franklin County Technical School work on the framing for a house they constructed in Erving through a program financed by a foundation created by GSB.

Indeed, while the name over the door hasn’t changed and the street address of the main branch has changed by just a few digits, the bank has evolved with the times and advancing technology, all while remaining a hugely important corporate citizen in a region that never had many and has seen those ranks decline over the past several decades.

Coyne, the bank’s longest-serving employee, has certainly seen this blend of change and continuity in her time.

She recalls doing most tasks by hand when she started as a teller at the Turners Falls branch (the only branch at the time) in 1978, and, in fact, she helped lead the institution into the computer age and a succession of improvements, including Teller Connect.

“The technology is so great that we can extend our hours — from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, you can talk with a teller,” she noted, adding that there are extended hours on Saturday as well. “It’s no different than if you go to a drive-up and talk with someone who’s in the building; we can do almost everything you could if you came into the lobby.”

Over the past four decades, Coyne, who has held a number of titles over the years and handled pretty much every assignment other than commercial lending, has seen the bank greatly expand its footprint, first into other communities within Franklin County, then into neighboring Hampshire County.

There are now five branches in Franklin County — in Greenfield, Conway, Shelburne Falls, South Deerfield, and Turners Falls — and the same number in Hampshire County — two in Amherst, two in Northampton, and the latest addition, the branch on Route 9 in Hadley.

That addition to the portfolio wasn’t exactly planned, said Howland, noting that it came about by circumstance — the closing of a credit union — and was viewed as an opportunity to more conveniently serve customers in that area.

Looking ahead, Howland doesn’t see much, if any, additional expansion. But he does see continuous work to improve customer service, take full advantage of ever-improving technology, and, overall, take full advantage of the infinite horizon he mentioned.

“That’s the biggest challenge we face — the non-bank competitors coming in picking off pieces of our business. It’s kind of like Walmart being able to do an MRI for you; it’s large companies picking and choosing where they can make something work.”

And all those qualities will be needed, he said, because, while the pace of consolidation within the banking industry has slowed somewhat, especially in this region, other threats have emerged, especially from what he called “non-bank competition.”

By that, he referred to Apple, Google, Alibaba, PayPal, and a host of other major companies that are chipping away at traditional bank business by creating services of their own in realms ranging from lending to payments to credit cards.

“That’s the biggest challenge we face — the non-bank competitors coming in picking off pieces of our business,” he explained. “It’s kind of like Walmart being able to do an MRI for you; it’s large companies picking and choosing where they can make something work.

“And then we, as an organization, have to provide everything for everyone,” he went on. “And sometimes it can become expensive to provide some products. It’s just capitalism — it’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but it’s a challenge for us as an organization to maintain as much as we maintain and be able to provide an array of services for our customers.”

Saving Graces

To counteract these powerful forces, GSB has to focus on what differentiates it from those non-bank competitors and the larger regional banks so prevalent in this market, said Howland.

These differentiators include both a personalized brand of service and a deep portfolio of services, including a trust department, something most area banks no longer have, he went on.

As just one example, he cited the example of a customer entangled in a fraud situation.

“Unfortunately, the bank on the other side is a huge organization that really doesn’t care — they will not help at all, they won’t talk with us, they won’t do anything,” he noted. “I think the way we differentiate ourselves is the personalized service and the fact that our customers know they can count on us — they know they can call someone who cares and is going to do something about their problem.”

Beyond the brand and scope of services, another differentiator is the bank’s long history of involvement in the community and a commitment to continue that tradition, said Howland.

“As an organization, we’re very proud of our position in the community,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re dedicated to being the best corporate citizen we can be, and we’re involved in our community in many, many different ways.

“Obviously, we’re important in terms of the local economy, but it’s not just the economy that we focus on, it’s just the financial aspect of what we do,” he went on. “It’s striving to improve the conditions in our communities as best we can. We’re one of the larger philanthropic organizations in terms of straight dollar donations, but on top of that, our employees are involved in all kinds of stuff at all kinds of levels.”

And by ‘stuff,’ Howland meant much more than time and energy donated to the boards of dozens of nonprofits — although that’s a big part of it. There’s also volunteerism and the many forms it takes, he said, adding that the bank prides itself on backing up such efforts with dollars and other types of support.

“If an employee comes to me and says, ‘I think this is really important, and I have dedicated myself to volunteering time for it,’ more likely than not, we’ll make a fairly significant financial contribution to that charity on behalf of that employee.”

Overall, the bank is keenly aware of its role and its responsibilities within the largely rural areas it serves, particularly in Franklin County, he went on, adding that it is often asked to step up and, when possible, pitch in. Such was the case with the initiative involving Franklin County Tech and a proposal to have its students build houses.

The bank’s response was to go beyond writing a check and instead do something for the long term.

“I got a phone call from the tech school asking if we would make a donation to this program to build a house,” Howland recalled, adding that the bank eventually created the Franklin Technical School Building Society Inc., a foundation with its own board of directors that essentially finances the home-building project and is replenished when the house is sold.

“They earned a lot of money on the first house, and the second house will hopefully be sold in the spring of 2020, and another house will be started after that,” he went on. “The point of it is to create something that becomes self-sustaining, and ultimately, we hope this grows to the point where it can be a benefactor for other programs at the tech school.”

Long-term thinking was also the motivation for the bank’s decision two years ago to create the Greenfield Savings Bank Foundation. Funded with profits from the bank, it’s an initiative in keeping with GSB’s long-term horizon, said Howland.

“We funded it with $200,000, and our expectation is to continue funding it at some amount per year,” he explained. “My vision, and it will not be in the time that I’m president of the organization, is that, at some point, this foundation will be as large as, if not larger than, the bank, and I think we have the opportunity to do that.

“I’m most proud of where we are as a corporate citizen in our community, and my feelings are a reflection of our board of directors,” he added. “Our board is incredibly committed to making us the best business we can be in Franklin County and Hampshire County.”

Time Passages

There’s some additional 150th memorabilia in the main lobby of GSB’s headquarters.

On one wall, the very first passbook sits in a frame. And a glass display case in the center of the room holds everything from a photocopy of the first mortgage document (a loan issued in 1869 to one Jeremiah Eagan for a building on School Street) to news photos of the Mansion House fire, to a box of fountain pen nibs, a symbol of how things were done more than a half-century ago.

This collection speaks to the two qualities that are really being celebrated with this sesquicentennial — needed change and continuity.

There are plenty of other pieces of evidence outside the bank, from the house built by the technical-school students in Erving to elm trees growing in Look Park in Northampton, Montague center, and a host of other locations, to those branches in Hampshire County.

Together, they speak of a 150-year-old success story — and of many chapters still to come.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Local Approach

Jeff Sullivan says customers use branches in different ways than they used to, but that physical presence is still important.

Every morning, Jeff Sullivan signs new-account letters for the most recent depositors at New Valley Bank. “We like to send a thank-you note to people for opening an account,” he told BusinessWest.

But that task also allows Sullivan, the bank’s president and CEO, to gauge how New Valley is doing, at least by that one metric. “Week by week, the volume goes up. Every morning when I come in, there’s a stack of letters that kind of tells me how the day went yesterday. Sometimes it’s just a couple, sometimes eight or 10.”

The story those piles tell is of a bank — the first new Springfield-based bank to open in 11 years — that is indeed growing, and not just in deposits, but in commercial lending, the niche on which its founders want to focus considerable energy.

“In general, things are going well,” Sullivan said, noting that, at the end of the second quarter, just a month after opening, New Valley reported $34 million in assets. That number rose to $45 million at the end of September, is over $55 million now, and is expected to top $60 million by the end of the year. “So we’re starting to grow.”

While the last bank launched in Springfield, NUVO Bank (since acquired by Community Bank), focused on a mostly digital banking model, New Valley will have slightly more of a brick-and-mortar foundation, Sullivan explained. It currently has two branches — its headquarters on the ninth floor of Monarch Place in downtown Springfield, and a stand-alone branch on Wilbraham Road in Sixteen Acres. A third branch will follow in the second half of 2020, although the location hasn’t been determined.

“We’re a hybrid model, and people use branches in different ways now,” he said. “One of our customers, who opened his accounts here and doesn’t have a lot of need to go to a branch, went into a branch to have them help him figure out the online stuff. He wanted to download the mobile app and get everything enrolled and get bill pay set up, so our staff spent an hour with this gentleman, helping him set it up so he doesn’t have to come to the branch. But he was glad to know it was there so he could go and get some assistance when he needed it.”

On the commercial side, the bank will focus on smaller loans and quick turnaround times, said Sullivan, adding that the merger culture in recent years has created opportunities to serve small to medium-sized businesses in a high-touch way they don’t necessarily experience at large institutions.

“There’s definitely a big learning curve, of trying to educate the broader public about who we are and what we’re trying to do,” he noted. “We do have kind of a captive audience in the 300 shareholders who have invested in us. They know our story. As we convert those shareholders into customers, we want them to have a good experience because they’re very important to us. Then, if we provide good first impressions, they’ll become a sales force for the bank; they’ll tell their friends and business networking groups that we’re doing a good job.”

That’s the challenge for any new bank — to answer the question, ‘why this bank?’ when so many other institutions dot what many have called an overbanked landscape in Western Mass. But Sullivan hopes New Valley’s combination of local, quick-response lending and a retail model built on strong personal service will resonate with people looking for a change.

“We’ve looked at our shareholders and some people we’ve done business with before as our first wave of customers. And they’ve been patient with us because, as a new bank, not everything goes completely smoothly,” he added. “Our branch took a little bit longer than we thought to get open — it opened in September, and it’s doing great.”

New Valley is also in the final stages of testing and rolling out online account opening and other technology by the end of the year, as well as an online lending platform where people can apply for commercial loans up to $250,000 and get an answer quickly. “That’ll be up by the end of the first quarter of next year. We’re working hard on all those things while we’re trying to grow the balance sheet at the same time.”

Successful Connections

The founders of the bank — including Sullivan; Chairman Frank Fitzgerald; Jim Garvey, president of St. James Check Cashing; and Dennis Murphy of Ventry Associates — set several goals early on, first being a high level of engagement with customers, which Sullivan said has been missing at many banks. Second, they hope the bank will build off the recent successes in Springfield and connect the small-business community to that success.

Sullivan, who has spent more than 30 years working in and around the region’s banking community, most recently as chief operating officer for United Bank, told BusinessWest he’s come to understand that, just because there are branches on almost every corner in some cities and towns, that doesn’t mean the region’s population — and especially certain segments of it — are adequately served.

“We’ve got to make sure we make good first impressions with people. Our calling card’s going to be that we’re small, we’re nimble, we’re local, we can turn stuff around quickly. So we just have to live up to that, do a good job of it, and then the word will spread.”

In fact, research continues to show that the volume of business at check-cashing establishments has remained fairly stable — and comparatively high — in this region, despite considerable improvement in the economy over the past decade. Sullivan estimates there are some 20,000 households in Hampden County alone that use a bank sparingly, if at all.

“A lot of people are not well-served on the retail side. They need financial education, low-fee and no-fee accounts, and also a lot of financial-literacy tools,” he said.

“Several companies we’ve talked to say, ‘that profile is my employee base. I’ve got a lot of hourly employees, high-school kids getting their first job with us, people who are coming out of the military, or out of jail,’” he went on. “The employer is saying, ‘if I can cut down on the turnover, if I can make these people more stable, they’re going to be better employees, and that’s better for my business.’ They’re interested in working through their HR departments to make these kinds of accounts and tools available to people. It’s a win-win — lower turnover making for better employees, but they also recognize the challenges people are going through.”

But he also came back repeatedly to the commercial-lending focus New Valley wants to become known for during a time when many banks have been involved in mergers and acquisitions, and longtime community banks have grown significantly and put more emphasis on very large loans.

“As we come to the end of this long expansion cycle we’ve been in for 10 years and we’re seeing a lot of consolidation in the marketplace, banks and credit unions are readjusting their portfolios a little bit. We’re coming to the marketplace and saying, ‘hey, we’re turning stuff around quickly, and it doesn’t take us as long as it takes some of the other banks to go through the process.’ So I think delivering on quick decision making, local decision making, and just rapid service is what defines us at this point.”

One unexpected development has been strong demand for residential mortgages, which was not a big part of the initial business plan, Sullivan said. It’s just one way a new bank has to adjust to market demands — one of many challenges during that first year.

“By making sure all of our systems are in place, working with our regulators to make sure that we’re growing the right way, that our procedures and policies are right for the size of our bank, we’re building a good foundation for the future,” he told BusinessWest. “I’m champing at the bit to scale up and unveil some of these new products and new technologies we’re thinking about.”

To serve the public, he added, “you have to meet them where they want to meet you. Increasingly today, that’s having a good app, having some good social media, being able to reach people through online marketing.”

Spreading the Word

New Valley’s business plan calls opening one more branch in the second half of 2020. Sullivan knows it will be one of many local stories in an industry constantly defined by change.

“A lot of branches are available right now in Greater Springfield and Northern Connecticut. By this time next year, new banks will be coming into the marketplace, and we’ll see some expansion; I think some of the Hampshire County banks will push down, and some banks out of New York are making a lot of noise that they’re coming into Connecticut. So the landscape will continue to change.”

It’s been an exciting first six months, he added, and he and his team intend to keep up the momentum.

“We’ve got to make sure we make good first impressions with people. Our calling card’s going to be that we’re small, we’re nimble, we’re local, we can turn stuff around quickly. So we just have to live up to that, do a good job of it, and then the word will spread.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Going for the Green

One of the more challenging aspects of running a cannabis business is the inability to access banking services because banks are federally regulated, and cannabis is illegal on the federal level. However, change could be coming after the U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass legislation that would legalize cannabis banking. If the Senate agrees, proponents of the effort say, cannabis operations will become easier, less costly, more transparent, and accessible to a wider range of investors.

Want to start a cannabis business? You’d better have a lot of cash on hand.

However, that equation could be changing after the U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass legislation that would allow the cannabis industry to access banking and financial services, even as the substance remains illegal under federal law.

The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act passed the House by a vote of 321 to 103, with nearly half of Republicans joining all Democrats but one in voting in favor of the bill.

Now the bill will move to the U.S. Senate and, eventually, to the president’s desk. Proponents are confident in their chances of passage.

“It would be great for the cannabis industry and great for the banking industry,” said Peter Gallagher, chief financial officer at INSA, a cannabis dispensary in Easthampton. “A lot of banks we’ve talked to are very interested in getting into it, but don’t want the risks associated with it, so they’ve steered clear of it.”

Banks providing services to state-approved cannabis businesses could, in theory, face criminal and civil liability under federal statutes. In fact, only two financial institutions in Massachusetts have taken on the risk, both of them located in the eastern part of the state. So most cannabis companies operate as cash-only businesses.

“The implications of having to handle a lot of cash are pretty profound,” Gallagher told BusinessWest. “A lot of effort goes into counting and transporting it. To the extent that we can move some of this to credit, it would make our operations a lot easier.”

Momentum to legalize cannabis has made the banking issue impossible to ignore at the federal level. Currently, 33 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico have all legalized the use of marijuana to some degree. Yet the possession, distribution, or sale of marijuana remains illegal under federal law, which means any contact with money that can be traced back to state marijuana operations could be considered money laundering and expose a bank to significant legal, operational, and regulatory risk, notes the American Banking Assoc. (ABA).

“The rift between federal and state law has left banks trapped between their mission to serve the financial needs of their local communities and the threat of federal enforcement action,” the association wrote recently. “ABA believes the time has come for Congress and the regulatory agencies to provide greater legal clarity to banks operating in states where marijuana has been legalized for medical or adult use. Those banks, including institutions that have no interest in directly banking marijuana-related businesses, face rising legal and regulatory risks as the marijuana industry grows.”

Gallagher said legalizing cannabis banking across the board makes sense on many levels.

“From a business perspective, it would make banking more accessible and less costly, and it would eliminate the risk of enforcement and regulatory action that banks are worried about, which is what’s leading them to abandon the market.”

Most think they would gladly jump in — making the cannabis industry more accessible to a wider range of entrepreneurs, while bringing down costs — if the SAFE Banking Act becomes law. And that’s what the Senate will have to consider as it begins its review.

Dollars and Sense

Scott Foster, a partner with the law firm Bulkley Richardson who helped establish its cannabis practice, said the law, if passed, would open up the ability of cannabis businesses to use local branches of local banks essentially overnight — if the banks decide to get involved, which seems likely, given the ABA’s advocacy on the issue.

“This is driven not by the cannabis industry, but by the banking industry,” Foster said. “We need clarity in this issue, considering all the non-cannabis businesses affected by this.”

“A lot of banks we’ve talked to are very interested in getting into it, but don’t want the risks associated with it, so they’ve steered clear of it.”

Indeed, in addition to growers and retailers, there are plenty of vendors and suppliers, landlords, and employees indirectly tied to the cannabis industry, thus posing legal risks for banks serving those individuals.

Rob Nichols, ABA president, recently wrote about two such examples: a bank in Ohio was forced to turn down a loan to a fencing company hired to build a fence around a marijuana growing facility, and a bank in Washington had to close an account when a law firm took on a marijuana business as a client.

“If either of these banks looked the other way, they risked violating federal law and facing criminal prosecution,” Nichols said, noting that these examples are far from isolated. An ABA survey found that 75% of banks have had to close an account, terminate a client relationship, or turn away a customer because there was some connection to cannabis.

“What we’re seeing is employees of cannabis companies being turned down for mortgages, and checking accounts closed down because they’re being paid by cannabis companies. That’s the biggest impact that’s actually driving the law,” Foster told BusinessWest. “Senators in states where it’s legal are saying, ‘time out.’ This isn’t about cannabis companies, it’s about the people selling stuff to them, landlords, even W.B. Mason delivering supplies. They’re getting caught up because they’re being paid by cannabis companies, and banks are saying they can’t accept the money. It’s an unintended ripple effect that’s causing a shift in thinking in Congress.”

Furthermore, reconciling the legal divide between state and federal laws would bring benefits to the communities banks serve, Nichols argues.

“The estimated $24 billion in cannabis sales by 2025 in states where marijuana has been legalized could be deposited safely with federally regulated financial institutions, enhancing transparency, public safety, and tax revenue,” he said.

And it’s not just banks asking for lawmakers to take action, he noted. A bipartisan group of 19 state attorneys general last year wrote a letter to lawmakers, arguing that bringing cannabis businesses into the banking system would improve accountability and increase public safety.

“This isn’t about cannabis companies, it’s about the people selling stuff to them, landlords, even W.B. Mason delivering supplies. They’re getting caught up because they’re being paid by cannabis companies, and banks are saying they can’t accept the money. It’s an unintended ripple effect that’s causing a shift in thinking in Congress.”

“Without relief from Congress, even banks that have decided not to serve cannabis businesses will find themselves caught in the financial web created by this booming industry,” Nichols said. “The money from cannabis businesses often goes to vendors, landlords, and employees, while the federal criminal association follows that cash.”

Gallagher agreed, and said it shouldn’t be difficult to build consensus around the need to bring clarity to cannabis finances through the well-regulated banking system.

“If, at the end of the day, what we’re worried about is diversion, or being able to track all that money, it’s easier to do that with electronic payments rather than having people carry large cash balances,” he said. “It’s easier for regulators and everyone else to make sure the industry is healthy and operating compliantly.”

Indeed, that very argument became part of the House debate. Colorado state Rep. Ed Perlmutter argued that keeping cannabis banking illegal is “an invitation to theft, it’s an invitation to money-laundering, it’s an invitation to tax evasion, and it stifles the opportunities of this business.”

Joint Resolutions

Foster said the immediate impact of the SAFE Banking Act would be significant on current cannabis businesses, which would now be able to access local branches of local banks, instead of running a ponderous all-cash operation — and requiring the security that entails — or seeking services from an institution across the state.

“We can’t apply for loans — working capital, construction loans, any lending right now,” Gallagher noted, adding that the handful of banks nationwide that are currently risking the cannabis business are passing on exorbitant costs to customers to do so.

“You’ve had some companies that have been willing to shoulder the risk associated with servicing an operation that’s federally illegal,” he told BusinessWest. “They’ve been able to charge excessive rates for that. As [legalization] happens in this industry, the fees will come down and start to normalize.”

Nichols expects that competition to emerge quickly, saying banks typically respect the decisions made by voters in the states where they operate. “Those voters had weighed the societal and cultural issues that come with legalization, and they made their decision. Instead, the industry is focused on the impact of the gap between state and federal laws on banks and their ability to serve those in their communities.”

The other major impact of a change in the law, Foster said, has to do with the concept of social equity. Massachusetts’ Cannabis Control Commission launched what it calls its Social Equity Program to expedite business applications and provide technical assistance, mentoring, and other resources for individuals from communities that have been disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition — typically poverty-stricken areas.

“Even though Massachusetts law has a social-equity component to it, giving expedited processing to social-equity candidates, the practical reality is, most of the investors are still wealthy, white gentlemen who have disposable income invested in cannabis,” he noted.

By allowing entrepreneurs to finance these operations instead of needing all the money up front, Foster explained, “you’ll have more players at the table, and be able to leverage smaller sums into larger companies. I haven’t heard a lot of talk about the social-equity piece, but to me, that’s a big piece, to help more people be able to engage in this business and apply for a loan if they qualify. That, to me, is a potential game changer.”

A companion bill in the U.S. Senate has yet to be voted on by the Senate Banking Committee, which held a hearing in late July on the issue. While that debate is coming, some lawmakers believe it’s only the start. For instance, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said he doesn’t believe the SAFE Banking Act goes far enough.

“This must be a first step toward the decriminalization of marijuana, which has led to the prosecution and incarceration of far too many of our fellow Americans for possession,” he argued.

For now, people like Gallagher are happy the banking issue may finally be resolved.

“We’ve been following this, so it’s not a surprise,” he said. “It’s something that makes a lot of sense from an operations and compliance perspective. We weren’t sure of the timing of it in terms of the evolution of the industry, but it’s something we expected to happen.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

The Business of Selling a Business

By Brendan Mitchell

For business owners looking to sell soon, there is still plenty to be optimistic about.

Capital for purchasing businesses continues to flow thanks to low interest rates from banks and investment portfolios lingering near high-water marks.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts economy has pushed to new highs from Boston to Springfield. Most recent reports show unemployment rates at historic lows, with both sides of the state making improvements. MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor have attracted out-of-state plates. Private equity and public companies, both flush with cash, continue to show confidence in the state through investments in their workforce and current business as well as construction and new business acquisitions. We’ve seen national tax reform increase cash flows to businesses across the country.

These factors have helped to keep buyers engaged as retiring Baby Boomers head for the exits. The timing has been great for some business owners cashing out recently, but buyers have become more selective in some industries. While some businesses are snagged as soon as they go to market, many are aging on the shelf with buyers and sellers unwilling to bridge pricing gaps.

When figuring the value of their business, owners can fall into the trap of including sentimental value in their estimation. Some are relying on what a similar business sold for in a different market or, worse, have a target number they drew up without any real anchor to reality.

For business owners who have dedicated their lives to a business, it can be hard to take a step back and objectively consider what their business is worth. Business owners who are willing to take an objective look at the value of their business can be proactive now instead of reactive when they are ready to retire and list their business for the first time.

The value of a business is dynamic. While there is no way to get a buyer to price sentimental value into a purchase price, there is a potential to make changes to the business that will increase the value over time.

There are three approaches to valuing a business — asset, income, and market approaches. For most privately held companies, valuators rely on either the income approach, market approach, or a combination of the two. The basic formulas for these calculations are widely available online, but what owners can do with this information may be less obvious.

First, it’s important to know that the years leading up to the valuation or sale are the most important. A long history of profits can show stability for a small business; however, only the most recent three to five years are going to be considered in a calculation. Small-business owners with eyes on an exit have a tendency to disconnect from the business during this most important period when they should be pushing in the opposite direction.

Flat revenues or increases in expenses during this period have the potential to erase even decades of growth and profitability. Owners should resist the temptation to ‘pull the parachute’ as they get closer to the finish line. Continue to push for revenue growth and pay close attention to expense control. This is the time to let the numbers showcase the full potential of the business.

Nobody knows the ins and outs of a small business like the owner. Buyers and valuators weigh heavily on the impact the seller’s exit will have on the future of the business. Owners should focus on replacing themselves in the areas in which they are most intertwined in the business to lessen the impact. To identify these high-dependency areas, owners can interview managers and employees, noting issues that cannot be resolved without them.

Key areas of focus generally depend on the industry or business model but usually include sales generation, relationship management, product development, strategic decision making, or day-to-day business management. If continuity can be achieved through process improvement or process documentation, it should be a key focus. Some results can be found through training current employees and empowering them. Consider restructuring tasks and delegating the current owner’s duties to rising managers.

Revisit labor costs. Business owners with family members at above-market wages face a double expense. While they may overpay weekly on purpose, it will cost them a multiple of that annual salary when it’s time to cash out. For hourly workers, be ready to field questions about how the rising minimum wages will impact more labor-intensive businesses.

Finally, clean up the financial statements. For various reasons, including tax motivations, small-business owners have a tendency to let their personal and business lives collide on their company financial statements. Documentation is important for any personal expenses being charged to the business. Owners should be ready to prove which expenses were not necessary for the business so that buyers and valuators exclude the expenses to calculate the value — buyers will not report findings to the IRS.

Performing a financial analysis can also help owners understand how their business compares to the rest of the industry, making them ready to articulate strengths and defend or improve weaknesses.

Overall, the current market remains friendly to someone looking to sell their business. It’s also a great time to be proactive in managing an exit strategy, whether it lies around the corner or several years out. Getting realistic about the value of their business enables owners to take steps to improve it and make informed decisions.

Brandon Mitchell is a certified valuation analyst and supervisor in auditing and consulting for Blumshapiro, the largest regional accounting, tax, and business-advisory firm based in New England, and winner of the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly Reader Rankings for Best Appraisal Service and Best Accounting Firm.

Banking and Financial Services

Uniting Forces

People’s United Bank is no longer the small, Springfield-based institution, then known as the Bank of Western Massachusetts, that made its name three decades ago through a strong emphasis on local commercial lending. And the now-Connecticut-based institution is growing again, with a planned acquisition of United Bank that will push its assets well above $50 billion. But local connections are still key to the People’s United ethos, its Massachusetts president says — and he hopes United Bank customers feel the same way.

Patrick Sullivan thinks People’s United Bank has built a strong reputation in Western Mass. — and hopes customers of United Bank feel the same way following a recently announced acquisition.

“We trust that customers kind of know us already in Western Mass., and that they’re confident this isn’t a big change in the sense of somebody they don’t know. They’ve known us for a long time,” said Sullivan, Massachusetts president of People’s United, the Bridgeport, Conn.-based bank that began life in downtown Springfield 32 years ago as the Bank of Western Massachusetts.

“We have people that have worked for either the Bank of Western Mass. or People’s United for a long time,” he added. “Long-term relationships are valued here, and long-time principles and dynamics don’t change. Local is local.”

The two institutions announced in July that People’s United Financial Inc., the holding company for Peoples’s United Bank, would acquire United Financial Bancorp Inc., the holding company for United Bank, in a 100% stock transaction valued at approximately $759 million. Then banks’ leaders characterized it as a strong cultural fit that would benefit customers.

“We are excited to welcome United Bank to People’s United,” said Jack Barnes, chairman and CEO of People’s United Financial. “With the fourth-largest deposit market share in the combined Hartford and Springfield market, a complementary array of commercial and retail capabilities, and a shared legacy of community giving, United will solidify our presence in the Central Connecticut market and strengthen our franchise in Western Massachusetts.”

William Crawford, president and CEO of United Financial Bancorp, added that “People’s United Bank has long been a premier brand in Connecticut that is committed to building meaningful relationships with its customers and communities. We are confident their broad array of products and services, in-market knowledge, and the size and strength of their balance sheet will deliver enhanced value to our stakeholders.”

Patrick Sullivan says the acquisition of United Bank makes sense on a number of levels, both financially and culturally.

Indeed, the move is, in one sense, the story of two Connecticut-based banks —United is based in Hartford — but both banks have a long history and a strong presence in Western Mass.

Sullivan — who joined People’s United six years ago as Massachusetts president and also oversees the bank’s commercial, industrial, and business banking, noted that the institution was already the eighth-largest bank in Massachusetts, and will obviously be slightly larger, growing from 56 branches in its multi-state footprint to around double that, though some are expected to close (more on that later).

“Because of the economy in Massachuetts and the size of the market, we’ve invested a lot in people from other institutions that have joined us with specific expertise in lending, commercial markets, retail, wealth, insurance, whatever,” he went on, citing its government-banking niche as one strength.

“We had a good government business in Western Mass. before I came on six years ago. Today, we’ve got 90 clients in Western Mass. with $162 million in deposits. It’s a big business for us. Likewise, it’s a big business for us throughout the whole company. The city of Springfield is a major customer,” he explained, as are Worcester, Pittsfield, Easthampton, and many others.

For this issue’s focus on banking and finance, BusinessWest spoke with Sullivan about the broadened services and technology People’s Bank will bring to United Bank customers, and why he feels this growing institution will continue to maintain a local focus in the communities where it operates.

Growth Pattern

Immediately after the merger, People’s United will go from five branches in Hampden County to 20, from five to 10 in Worcester County, and from three to four in Hampshire County; its roster of three branches in Franklin County won’t change.

Still, not every branch will remain open; in some communities, both banks now operate within a block or so of each other, which means consolidation is inevitable, Sullivan said. “We’ll make a decision in the best interests of our customers, according to where they bank. But all the retail employees have been told they will have positions with us.”

Just as it has during its growth over the years — People’s United boasts assets around $47.9 billion, and is acquiring a bank with about $7.3 billion — Sullivan said the institution stresses local decision making when it comes to lending, philanthropy, and other matters.

“We still operate just like we did when we had $30 billion. We want to keep it local,” he told BusinessWest. “Our biggest client has its headquarters in Western Mass. Our challenge has been small businesses, those $100,000 loans, the startups. We try to take care of the small-business segment. Let’s face it, those are the heart of a lot of the communities we’re in, and we’re always trying to be more responsive to them.”

In recent years, People’s United has made significant investments in its commercial specialties, including hiring teams of specialized industry experts to better serve customers. Among these niches are technology companies, restaurant franchises, and a healthcare finance team. While those divisions are based out of Boston, they serve the bank’s entire New England and New York footprint and beyond.

The bank has also invested heavily in technology, said Steven Bodakowski, vice president of Corporate Communications.

This United Bank branch in downtown Springfield is just a couple blocks from the People’s United branch — one of many examples of overlapping branches the organization must examine post-merger.

“We’re constantly focused on on how, when, and where we interface with customers in this changing age of banking,” he noted. “Technology and digital enhancements continue to be a major focus for the bank as we aim to stay one step ahead of customer needs and deliver a truly integrated service model that blends the best in customer service with technology.”

To that end, People’s United has developed a strategic initiative to provide customers with online and digital solutions for a suite of its most popular offerings.

“This digital banking experience is designed to mirror and be an extension of the branch experience — serve as another path to interact with and receive guidance from bankers, based on individual customer preferences,” Bodakowski said. “Our bankers are being trained to become digital advocates.”

Offerings include a technology-based home-lending platform designed to simplify and transform the way customers apply for a home-equity loan or home mortgage, providing the ability to virtually interact with mortgage account officers in real time to complete the online application.

Other features include a refreshed online and mobile solution for opening checking and savings accounts, a digital small-business loan application for loans $250,000 or less, a direct-to-client robo-advisory offering, and a new, digitally driven financial-literacy platform that allows customers and the community to access financial-literacy classes and modules.

The latter is an especially important tool to help young people, the elderly, and anyone, really, become more financially savvy, make better decisions, plan for the future, and avoid scams.

“We also launched a new website in May with a fully optimized user experience,” Bodakowski said, one that delivers a fully optimized user experience for mobile devices, an enhanced ‘storefront’ feature to highlight key product areas, and a robust support and security center and new content areas designed to engage and educate customers.

The bank has also enhanced its marketing capabilities to more accurately target its customers and understand their lifestyles, through the use of integrated third-party digital e-mail and marketing platforms such as Marketo and Salesforce.

“We look forward to welcoming [United Bank’s] well-established customer base and delivering to them our enhanced technology and digital capabilities, combined with our network of expert bankers,” Barnes said when the acquisition was first announced.

Living Local

That’s a lot of growth since the institution opened its doors in 1987 as the Bank of Western Massachusetts with $9.3 million in assets. By way of contrast, People’s United awarded almost half that total — about $4 million — to nonprofits last year, about $2.3 million of that in Massachusetts. Of that latter figure, more than $854,000 was contributed by the bank in donations and sponsorships, while more than $1.4 million was awarded in grants by People’s United Community Foundation and People’s United Community Foundation of Eastern Massachusetts.

Those giving decisions remain, as they always been, local, Sullivan said, because the local bankers know the market and its needs. He knows that’s part of the community-bank ethos in Western Mass., and even banks that have grown far beyond community-bank size still have to operate like one.

“Our philanthropy is very local. We take very seriously how things get allocated to these organizations,” he added. “Our principles are always to stay local, whether it’s the specialty expertise in the market or our volunteerism and philanthropy. That’s in our DNA.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Growing Concern

The American Bankers Assoc. argued it’s critical that legal, cannabis-related businesses have access to the regulated banking system as it urged the Senate to advance the SAFE Banking Act in recent testimony before the Senate Banking Committee.

Joanne Sherwood, president and CEO of Citywide Banks in Denver and chair of the Colorado Bankers Assoc., testified on behalf of ABA. Sherwood explained how current federal law prevents financial institutions from banking any money derived from cannabis-related businesses and how a narrow, banking-specific remedy to the cannabis banking problem will reap immediate public-safety, tax, and regulatory benefits.

“Because cannabis continues to be illegal at the federal level, handling funds associated with cannabis businesses can be deemed money laundering,” said Sherwood. “That federal/state divide has particularly severe repercussions for banks and communities like mine, where the cannabis industry is fully operational, but it also impacts banks in every state.”

With limited access to banking services available, large amounts of cash remain on site in many of the cannabis-related businesses, which creates significant safety concerns for the communities where they are located. For example, on average, more than 100 burglaries occur at cannabis businesses each year in Denver, according to the Denver Police Department.

“Providing a mechanism for the cannabis industry to access the regulated banking system would help those businesses and their surrounding communities by reducing the high volume of cash on hand, thereby reducing instances of cash-motivated crime,” Sherwood said.

Additionally, since many cannabis businesses do not have a bank account, they are forced to pay their taxes in cash at local IRS offices. Processing paper-based returns costs the IRS nearly 17 times more compared to an e-filed return — a cost borne by taxpayers. Cash-based taxpayers are also more likely to underreport income than those who receive payment by check or those subject to third-party reporting or withholding.

“Banking the cannabis industry is a straightforward way to ensure that businesses have the means and motivation to remain fully tax-compliant,” Sherwood said.

The SAFE Banking Act, which is currently before the committee for consideration, would help address this urgent problem. The bill specifies that proceeds from a state-licensed cannabis business would not be considered unlawful under federal money-laundering statutes or any other federal law and directs the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and federal banking regulators to issue guidance and exam procedures for banks doing business with legitimate cannabis-related businesses.

“Although the SAFE Banking Act does not cure all of the cannabis-related banking challenges, it would help the 33 states that have legalized cannabis in some form to make their communities safer, collect their taxes, and regulate their cannabis markets effectively,” said Sherwood. “ABA supports the SAFE Banking Act and urges the committee to mark up and advance this legislation as soon as possible.”

Banking and Financial Services

On the Way Up

PeoplesBank joined Google, Facebook, BMW, Southwest Airlines, and more top companies on the 2019 WayUp Top 100 Internship Programs list. WayUp is a professional networking application that connects college students and recent graduates to career opportunities with reputable employers.

According to WayUp, the bank was selected because “PeoplesBank interns not only get a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to operate a bank, they also get hands-on experience to work on passion projects like Habitat for Humanity’s Build Days.” The list is determined by a panel of industry experts who consider everything from public votes to internship-program highlights. More than 1,000 employers participated in this year’s assessment.

“Our internship program instills that we can learn just as much from our interns as they can learn from us.”

“PeoplesBank interns make an immediate and direct impact on the organization and the communities that the bank serves,” said Danielle St. Jean, HR Coordinator and Training Specialist. “Each intern is also assigned to a home department at the bank. In addition to day-to-day assignments and value-add projects completed within that department, the group of interns are involved in several hands-on activities.”

PeoplesBank interns participated in on-site professional development, a Habitat for Humanity Build Day, employee-engagement planning, banking-topic webinars, and job shadowing. They also were able to discuss their career paths with senior leadership in the bank’s finance, human resources, information technology, marketing, and retail operations. After spending the summer at PeoplesBank, the interns have returned to study at colleges throughout Massachusetts as well as Connecticut and Colorado.

“Our internship program instills that we can learn just as much from our interns as they can learn from us,” St. Jean said. “We ask for lots of feedback from our group of interns, and even have a private ‘PeoplesBank Internship Alumni’ group on LinkedIn so that we keep in touch with them at the conclusion of the program.”

Recruitment for the next PeoplesBank summer internship program kicks off during the winter. Interested students are encouraged to complete an application on the bank’s career page, www.bankatpeoples.com/careers.

Banking and Financial Services

In the Dark

By Susan Atran

Bank of America recently announced the findings of a new study conducted by Merrill Private Wealth Management, which found that 64% of wealth holders have never talked with family members about how or why they intend to pass on their assets. While 48% plan to communicate this information eventually, or assume family members already know, 10% vow never to divulge details of their estate plan, primarily because they consider it personal and no one else’s business. But is that a good decision?

“This research is designed to help families make better decisions and secure the promise of wealth, including the impact it can have within and beyond one’s family and lifetime,” said Andy Sieg, president of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management.

For this study, Merrill asked more than 650 high-net-worth individuals across the country how different types of financial decisions are made and communicated within their family. Part of an ongoing series of white papers on wealth sustainability from the Merrill Center for Family Wealth, findings from this study were published in a report titled “How Do Families Make Effective Wealth Decisions?” Among them:

• Decisions about family money — such as gifting to family and charities, dividing assets among heirs, and establishing trust provisions or limitations — ranked as the most important and hardest to make, compared to decisions about saving, investing, spending, and other day-to-day finances;

• Just 33% of people have informed their family of lifetime gifts already made or committed to, such as assets held in a trust or funding of education, a down payment on a first house, or another purpose;

• Seventy-two percent have not discussed their philanthropic commitments;

• When asked what they consider to be the most important idea to communicate when discussing wealth with family, the top response was to be a good steward and handle family money wisely. However, only 46% have talked with heirs about fundamental family values and operating principles;

• On the distribution of their estate, 69% of wealth holders plan to divide their assets equally among heirs, while the rest say allocation decisions are based on specific criteria, such as merit for individual contributions (11%) or need (8%); and

• While 22% plan to openly share details of their estate plan with the whole family, 17% would share information only as it applies to each person.

“Decisions about family money have the potential to change lives, yet the outcome depends on how well the purpose and reasoning behind those decisions are understood, and too often that is left unsaid,” said Stacy Allred, head of the Merrill Center for Family Wealth. “Misunderstanding can lead to family conflicts, resentment, and other unintended consequences, including the misuse or loss of family wealth.”

The Merrill Center for Family Wealth specializes in helping families define the purpose of their wealth. This study found that, in six in 10 families, there is no formal structure or rigorous process in place to ensure family wealth decisions are made and communicated effectively. When asked how wealth decisions are typically made, the most prevalent response was an autocratic and top-down approach whereby one person makes decisions with little or no input from anyone else. Seventeen percent of families make financial decisions democratically with collective input or representation of all members.

Three-quarters of participants, including more men (79%) than women (68%), report complete confidence in their financial decisions. Looking back on decisions they’ve made, however, just 56% of people said their decisions always turned out well. The rest reported mixed results, including 21% who said their decisions turned out badly or they delayed making decisions because they were unsure of the outcome.

“The best form of financial parenting and a big part of improving the outcome of decisions involves putting more care into the decision-making process itself,” said Matthew Wesley, director of the Merrill Center for Family Wealth. “Family wealth decisions can be complicated by family dynamics, a long-time horizon, and unrecognized biases that call for a deliberate and disciplined approach.” u

Susan Atran is senior vice president of Communications for Bank of America.

Banking and Financial Services

Steady Course

President and CEO Michael Tucker

President and CEO Michael Tucker

Like most all bank presidents in the 413, Michael Tucker would concede that a great many of the region’s communities are heavily populated with financial institutions, or “overbanked,” to use the term most would put into play.

He’s inclined to include Greenfield on that list, and gestures out the window of his office to make his point. “They used to call the other end of the street Bank Row,” he said, referring to a stretch of Federal Street now occupied by what once were stately bank offices, many of them redeveloped for other uses. “They really should call this Bank Row now.”

Tucker, president and CEO of Greenfield Cooperative Bank (GCB) and Northampton Cooperative Bank (the two institutions merged in 2015, and the former name was kept) was referencing the number of competitors who call a different stretch of Federal Street home, and it’s a large number.

But, unlike most of the other bank leaders who bemoan the overbanked nature of this region, Tucker sees the landscape through a slightly different lens.

“Some bankers would say we’re overbanked; I would say we have choices,” he explained. “It forces you to be more competitive, and it gives people choices. It doesn’t hurt to have competition — otherwise, you get complacent.”

So perhaps all that competition should get some of the credit for what has been a consistent pattern of growth for the bank, especially since Tucker took the helm at GCB in 2003. Since then, the bank has seen assets rise from roughly $175 million to more than $630 million, its branch count soar from three to 10, and its commercial-lending portfolio take a quantum leap.

Overall, the bank’s strategy has been to gradually expand its footprint in Franklin and Hampshire counties, growing mostly via the organic route (although the merger with Northampton Coop certainly accelerated that process), and achieve more of the size that is needed to thrive in today’s banking landscape.

The plan also calls for seizing opportunities when and where they arise, which brings us to the institution’s latest expansion effort — a branch in South Hadley at the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza that will bear a Northampton Cooperative sign over the door and open next January.

Formerly a Bank of America branch — that institution has been closing a good number of facilities in recent years — the new location gives Greenfield Coop presence in another Hampshire County community, but one that enables it to serve residents of several nearby Hampden County cities, especially Chicopee and Holyoke.

The plan for the foreseeable future is summed up neatly in the bank’s annual report, issued just a few weeks ago.

“Our primary strategy remains to look for prudent and measured organic growth right here in Western Massachusetts,” Tucker wrote in the report, noting that many of those aforementioned competitors have ventured into Central Mass., Connecticut, or both. “We need to remain a lean organization, especially in light of the growth of mobile and electronic banking in today’s world. Our branch strategy recognizes the new world order with the continued growth of the internet.”

Michael Tucker says the GCB branch is just one of many banks located on Federal Street

Michael Tucker says the GCB branch is just one of many banks located on Federal Street, a proliferation that provides competition, which he believes makes his bank better.

For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest asked Tucker to elaborate on all those points and essentially draft a quick blueprint of the bank’s plans for the future. In a nutshell, it simply calls for more of what of what the bank has been achieving under his leadership — smart growth.

Points of Interest

Tucker said he ventured into banking, if that’s the word for it, while he was in law school at Western New England University.

He took a teller’s job at the institution known then as Springfield Institution for Savings (SIS), while attending night classes, not knowing this would be his employer for some time to come.

He remembers his first boss, John Collins, telling him that his law degree could be put to good use in the banking industry.

“He said, ‘I have a lot MBAs who could use some help, because we have this new thing called compliance,’” he recalled, referring specifically to the Truth in Lending Simplification Act of 1981. “That was my first foray into banking law.”

He took the title ‘counsel and compliance officer,’ and later worked his way up to senior vice president and general counsel. When Peoples Heritage acquired SIS, Tucker, like many others, was soon out of work, but he eventually landed at what is now bankESB for several years before being recruited to lead GCB.

When he arrived in Greenfield, he took over one of the smallest banks in the region with a simple goal — “I told the board I was going to keep this place mutual and hopefully leave it a better bank than I found it” — and set about a course of steady if unspectacular growth, which was by design, as he explained with a little humor.

“Our growth is roughly 4% to 6% a year,” he noted. “If we were a stock bank, they would have thrown me out the door. Because we’re a mutual bank, we can take our time. Where I see banks get in trouble is when they try to grow too fast and lose sight of their basic principles.”

GCB hasn’t done that, and its strategic goal — and operating philosophy — are summed up by its web domain name, www.bestlocalbank.com, and a comment from the annual report. “As I’ve often said before, we’ll probably never be the biggest bank,” Tucker wrote. “But we always strive to be the best bank in Western Massachusetts.”

During Tucker’s tenure, the bank has, as noted, expanded to 10 branches. There are two in Amherst (although they will soon be consolidated; more on that later), one in Florence, another in Northampton, two in Greenfield, as well as a commercial and residential and loan-services facility, and single locations in Northfield, Shelburne Falls, Sunderland, and Turners Falls.

Meanwhile, it has also greatly expanded its commercial-lending team and its commercial portfolio, which, like that at many banks in the region, is dominated by commercial real-estate loans, but also reflects the diversity of the local economy, especially in the bank’s hometown.

Indeed, this is an intriguing time for Greenfield, said Tucker, noting that the community once dominated economically by manufacturing has varied its economy, making great strides in technology and hospitality.

“Our growth is roughly 4% to 6% a year. If we were a stock bank, they would have thrown me out the door. Because we’re a mutual bank, we can take our time. Where I see banks get in trouble is when they try to grow too fast and lose sight of their basic principles.”

“There is a lot of energy in the town,” he said. “We have the new courthouse and the new parking garage; they opened the Olver [Transit Center], and there have been many other new developments.”

Still, this region, and especially Franklin County, where many communities are struggling to maintain population and especially young people, would be considered a low- or no-growth area, he acknowledged, meaning growth is a challenge for any financial institution.

This is why many area banks, as he noted in his annual-report comments, have ventured into Connecticut, Central Mass., or both, and why others have grown through acquisition or merger.

GCB has done some of that with its merger with Northampton Coop, a move that Tucker described as “logical” for both institutions because of that overbanked nature of this sector, and the lack of population growth in Franklin County.

“That’s why we looked at Hampshire County and why I talked to Northampton [Coop],” he explained. “It would have been silly for us to build another branch down in Hampshire County and fight 10 other banks for the money when we can partner with another bank.

“That worked out well for everyone because we didn’t have to lay anyone off,” he went on, adding that he spends one day a week in Northampton at that division of the institution. “It was a smooth transition. We were both very small — and we’re still one of the smaller banks — but we now have more size, and that helps. It was a good merger.”

By All Accounts

As he talked about his bank’s branch strategy, Tucker reached for his cell phone and held it aloft.

“This is our fastest-growing branch,” he said, noting that internet banking is becoming an ever-stronger force in this sector.

But brick-and-mortar branches are obviously still needed, he went on, adding that they probably don’t need to be as large as they once were, and they are far less transaction-oriented than they once were.

But they serve an important purpose in that they give a bank a presence and enable it to better serve customers in a particular region or community.

Which brings us to the new South Hadley branch.

The most logical expansion point for the bank moving forward is probably Hampden County, said Tucker, adding that the South Hadley branch provides an opportunity to make some strides in that direction.

Tucker found the branch while on one of his many drives around the area looking for opportunities.

“We keep our eyes open, and I drive around the area a lot and take a look at the communities,” he explained. “South Hadley was a community that I thought had some upside, and I was surprised when I read that Bank of America was closing that branch because they had a fair amount of deposits in that office.

“With this branch, we can serve some customers that we have already in Springfield and Chicopee,” he went on. “But it also gets us to reach a base in South Hadley that BOA is telling, ‘if you want to bank with us, you have to drive over here.’”

BOA’s departure will ultimately lead to GCB’s arrival, specifically its Northampton Coop division, said Tucker, adding that, while moving into South Hadley, the bank will continue to look for other growth opportunities as well as ways to become the ‘leaner organization’ he mentioned in the annual report.

Toward that end, the bank will consolidate its two branches in Amherst into one, a nod to the fact that specific branches are simply handling fewer transactions these days.

“When I was a teller in Forest Park [for SIS], we had seven or eight tellers plus a manager and an assistant manager,” he noted, turning the clock back four decades or so. “People were lined up out the door — we didn’t have deposit — and everyone came in to cash their Social Security checks on the first of the month.”

Elaborating, he said the branches in Amherst that saw 10,000 transactions a month several years ago were down to 5,000 maybe five years ago, and are now seeing roughly 3,000 a month, thanks to ever-advancing technology.

This phenomenon will eventually lead to fewer branches, and, more immediately, smaller facilities.

“The industry is moving in that direction,” he said while again holding his phone aloft and explaining it is now a branch itself in most all respects. “But I don’t think branches will be obsolete; they will be smaller and leaner.”

As for future expansion geographically, Tucker said GCB will continue to look for potential landing spots. “We’ll continue to look south and possibly east to Worcester County,” he told BusinessWest. “A lot depends on what happens; with some of the branches we’ve opened, I didn’t anticipate doing it at that time, as in Turners Falls, but the opportunity arose.”

Bottom Line

In his annual-report statement, Tucker noted that, over the past 114 years, GCB has had three basic operating slogans.

It’s gone from ‘Traditional, Progressive, Locally Focused,’ to ‘In the Community, for the Community,’ to the current ‘Come on Over to the Coop.’

The words are different, but they say the same thing, essentially — that this isn’t the biggest bank on a block crowded with other banks, but it strives to be best, and it’s generally successful in that mission.

This is the strategy that has worked since Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House, and there isn’t any sentiment to change it, said Tucker, because it works, not only for the community, but for the institution as well.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]m

Banking and Financial Services

The Scammers Are Out There

By Jean Deliso

Jean Deliso

Jean Deliso

Have you ever been scammed by someone or received a phone call attempting to pressure you to provide personal information or send money?

If you can say yes, have you thought about what your parents or grandparents might do in similar situations?

Senior citizens are frequent victims of these criminal activities. To help protect older family members and to safeguard yourself, everyone should be better informed about these schemes and how to help prevent becoming a victim.

Scam artists are everywhere, and they are here in Western Mass. Within the past 18 months, I personally had two different clients who were defrauded by a scam tactic that preyed on their love of their grandchildren and their innocence and confusion.

One was contacted and told their grandchild had been in an accident, he had seriously hurt someone, and he was going to spend many years in jail unless money was sent. In the other situation, it was claimed that a grandchild was in a friend’s car, which was stopped by the police, and they found drugs. The scammer stated that the grandchild was not guilty, but he would be charged unless the grandparent sent cash immediately to get him assistance in court.

Both victims were told not to tell anyone, otherwise the assistance would stop. And in both situations, the grandparents went to the bank or withdrew money from their investment accounts, converted it to cash, placed it an envelope, and sent it to these unknown addresses.

These situations are happening more often, and thus there is a pressing need to educate our senior citizens to be aware of these types of scams.

There is nothing more special than the love of a grandchild. These imposters are targeting and exploiting this love and affection.

There have been other articles written on this subject, but not everyone reads them. It is important to educate your parents or grandparents that these scams exist and that, if they ever receive a call where they are instructed to be silent, they should contact a trusted family member or the proper authorities immediately.

Not all children are comfortable talking to their parents or grandparents about these situations, but I highly recommend you do.

I’ve seen too many of these scams recently amongst my clients. As a certified financial planner, it’s my responsibility to help my clients manage their assets and finances and to help safeguard against risks to their financial well-being. If a suspicious phone call or request is unusual or confusing, it’s important for the recipient to question it and alert their loved ones.

Please speak to your parents and grandparents about these threats. If they receive such a call, have them talk to other family members or the police before providing any information to the caller. They should never send cash to someone they don’t know or if they don’t fully understand why it’s being requested. Have them call the grandchild on their personal phone number, and, most importantly, tell them never to send cash to anyone they don’t know.

Jean Deliso, CFP is a principal with Deliso Financial and Insurance Services; (413) 785-1100.

Banking and Financial Services

Landmark Decision

Tom Senecal, left, and Andrew Crystal

Tom Senecal, left, and Andrew Crystal, vice president of O’Connell Development, look over blueprints for the new banking center now taking shape at the site of the Yankee Pedlar.

Tom Senecal says PeoplesBank first looked at the historic Yankee Pedlar property as the potential site a future branch roughly three years ago.

‘Looking’ didn’t advance to anything further, though, said Senecal, the bank’s president, because at the time, the efforts to ‘save the Pedlar,’ as the campaign concerning the beloved restaurant and gathering spot came to be called, was ongoing, and hopes to keep that landmark in its long-time role were still somewhat high.

Fast-forward a year or so, after many restauranteurs had looked at the Pedlar and essentially passed on it, deeming it too large and too expensive to maintain as a restaurant — and hopes for keeping the property a restaurant had all but dissolved — the bank was back for another look.

“We thought we could do something special for the city.”

And what it saw was opportunity — and in a number of forms, said Senecal.

First, there was an opportunity to save the most historically significant piece of the property, the home to John Hildreth, “overseer of the making up department of the Farr Alpaca Company,” according to Mass. Historical Commission documents concerning the property and, later, a lawyer, judge, president of Crystal Spring Aqueduct, and “president-clerk” of the institution that would become PeoplesBank.” (Note: Officials at PeoplesBank cannot confirm that Hildreth was president, but they also can’t confirm that he wasn’t).

But there was also an opportunity for the bank to consolidate and modernize two of its branches in Holyoke — one on South Street in the Elmwood neighborhood, and the other at the corner of Hampden and Pleasant Streets in the Highland neighborhood, and create a new state-of-the-art facility.

“As we’ve been remodeling all our other branches, we thought there was no better way to do this in Holyoke than put all this together in one centralized location between those two branches in an historic building that we certainly have the ability and the desire to retain and keep as an historic building,” he explained. “We thought we could do something special for the city.”

The Hildreth House, constructed in 1885

The Yankee Pedlar

The Yankee Pedlar

Specifically, that something special is preserving the Hildreth House itself — the hip-roof Queen Ann dwelling built in 1885 that was later added on to several times — for use as a community center, while also building a new state-of-the-art, 4,700-square-foot banking center.

Also to be preserved are many pieces of memorabilia from the Pedlar, including a stained glass window originally from the Kenilworth Castle, a historic Holyoke mansion torn down in 1959, wainscoting, and even ‘Chauncy the Butler,’ the wooden figure that greeted visitors to the Pedlar.

The next chapter in the history of the property will begin the Tuesday after Labor Day weekend, said Senecal, with the opening of a property that will blend the old with the new, the nostalgic with the environmentally friendly.

“We’re doing this in the long-term best interests of the community; quite frankly, no one would spend the kind of money we’re spending on refurbishing this and doing this — no one.”

It’s a project Senecal said is in keeping with the bank’s large and visible presence in the community, and also in keeping with its desire to be on the cutting edge of both of emerging banking technology and ‘green’ architecture and building practices.

He chose to categorize the undertaking, which comes with a pricetag he opted not to disclose, as an investment, one he described this way:

“We’re doing this in the long-term best interests of the community; quite frankly, no one would spend the kind of money we’re spending on refurbishing this and doing this — no one,” he said. “We’re going to be here for a long time. Holyoke is our mainstay, it’s our headquarters. It’s our community.

“We’re a mutual bank, and we want to do the right thing for the community,” he went on. “This bank is going to be here for a long time.”

Building Interest

Senecal told BusinessWest that that the bank has long had a pressing need to modernize those branches in the Elmwood and Highland neighborhoods, both nearly a half-century old in his estimation.

And it was with the goal of finding a replacement for the latter that he said he personally drove the length of Northampton Street to scout potential options.

“I went all the way from Hampden Street to Beech Street looking for various properties that might work,” he explained, adding that the Pedlar property was among those considered. He said he was aware that other businesses were looking at the property, located at the well-traveled corner of Northampton St. (Route 5) and Beech Street, but this was at a time when hopes to keep the Pedlar a restaurant were fading but still alive.

As those hopes eventually dissipated, the bank eventually came forward to acquire the property and announce plans for the consolidation of both branches in that area into the new location that, as noted, would blend new construction with renovation of the Hildreth House — it’s ground floor, anyway, into a community center.

The 4,700-square-foot banking center will feature state-of-the-art banking technology, such as video tellers and cash dispensers, but also include memorabilia from the Yankee Pedlar.

The 4,700-square-foot banking center will feature state-of-the-art banking technology, such as video tellers and cash dispensers, but also include memorabilia from the Yankee Pedlar.

“At the time, I was looking at something to replace the Highland location,” said Senecal. “But as I got closer to the South Street location, it made all the sense in the world to consolidate both branches, because the Pedlar was far more centralized than I thought when I set out.”

Beyond geography, the Pedlar site offered a chance, as he said earlier, to modernize banking at the institution’s Holyoke branches, and do so seamlessly.

“If you look at our branches in West Springfield, Westfield, East Longmeadow, and Sixteen Acres, those branches were built 10-15 years ago — they’re pretty modern and up-to-date,” he explained. “Our brand in Holyoke is extremely dated compared to those. So in order to get existing branches up to our current brand, you’d have to gut the branch, and if you gut the branch, you can’t operate the branch. This provides us an opportunity to close on a Saturday and open on a Tuesday, with no customer traffic impact.”

The bank’s plans were initially greeted with some resistance by those behind the ‘save the Pedlar’ initiative, but it waned as it became clear that the bank would not demolish the Hildreth House, the historically significant portion of the property.

“This project provides a statement of who we are in the Holyoke community.”

As Senecal explained, the property is not on the National Register of Historic Places (it is on the state’s list) essentially because of those aforementioned additions, including the so-called Opera House, a banquet room, and the enclosure of a wrap-around porch to expand the restaurant, undertaken in the ’80s.

While the interior of the Hildreth House was gutted to make way for the community room — to be used by area nonprofits free of charge — and other portions of the property were razed or moved, visitors to the new branch will certainly get a taste of, and feel for, the Pedlar when they head inside, said Senecal.

“The final product will incorporate a lot of the significant historic memorabilia from the Pedlar,” he explained, adding quickly that, originally, there were hopes and expectations that more of these items could be on display. However, due to size constraints and functionality issues, the collection won’t be as large as anticipated.

“Chauncy the Butler will be in the lobby, and in the Hildreth House will contain other historic memorabilia,” he went on. “The ‘hunter’ stained glass painting, which used to be in the main restaurant portion of the Yankee Pedlar, has been refurbished, and that will hang in the main branch, and the wainscoting from the entrance to the original Pedlar will be in a similar area in the community room, and some of the pictures will hang in the corridor between the branch and the community room.”

Also, a few historic gas lanterns, more than a century old, that were mounted on and around the Yankee Pedlar have been refurbished, he said. They’ve been converted to electric and will be positioned on a patio constructed outside the Hildreth House.

Beyond the historic and nostalgic, however, the new facility will also feature state-of-the-art banking technology, including video-banking machines and cash dispensers, as well as cutting-edge ‘green’ building practices. Indeed, the bank will look to have the project, being undertaken by O’Connell Construction (the general contractor and construction manager) and Western Builders, become LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified.

“This project provides a statement of who we are in the Holyoke community,” said Senecal, summing up the initiative and its many characteristics.

The Bottom Line

Returning to the scouting trip be took down Northampton Street a few years ago, Senecal said there were very few properties that both suitable for what he wanted to do and for sale at the time.

One that fit both categories was an old BayBank Valley branch that he looked at and thought about. But another party beat him to the punch.

“I’m kind of glad they did,” he said, noting, in retrospect, that the site probably was not big enough for what he had planned. And if he had pursued that property, he probably could not have gone ahead with the Pedlar project.

One that, as he said, provided a chance to do something special — for the bank and especially the city.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Adding It Up

It’s no secret that too many Americans make poor borrowing decisions, fail to save for retirement, even lack basic budgeting skills. That financial-literacy deficit begins early, say local bank and credit-union officials, which is why area institutions offer programs and classes to help people — both teenagers and adults — forge better strategies for making their money work for them, not drag them down.

So much, Lena Buteau says, comes down to tiny decisions that add up.

Take that morning coffee. If someone spends $2.69 at Dunkin’ Donuts every morning, that comes out to well over $900 a year. Spend $7 or $8 on lunch five times a week instead of packing a lunch at home, and you’re looking at around $2,000 a year.

“When you think you can’t afford something, look at your daily expenses,” said Buteau, vice president of Retail Administration at Monson Savings Bank, while explaining the importance of MSB’s financial-literacy programs, many of which target students, but which are needed by many adults, too.

For instance, people of all ages often struggle to understand the long-term impact of buying on credit, she noted, using the example of someone who buys a $650 laptop at Best Buy but takes a $150-off deal to put it on a store credit card at 25% interest, then pays only the minimum every month. At that rate, that laptop would be paid off in seven years — eventually costing more than double its original price tag.

“When you explain this, the kids are shocked at the numbers,” she said. “It really touches home.”

Because so many habits and philosophies are forged early, Buteau said, “we go in and teach students about saving, lending, credit scams, how to keep your money safe, and much more.”

And it’s not just schools, she added. “We want to go to church groups, Boy and Girl Scout troops, anybody that will give us an hour of time for a financial-literacy class.”

“No disrespect to the schools, but they’re not preparing kids for real life — how your credit score affects your insurance and buying a car, how to handle a checkbook.”

Michael Ostrowski, president and CEO of Arrha Credit Union, said his institution has an internal focus on financial literacy.

“No disrespect to the schools, but they’re not preparing kids for real life — how your credit score affects your insurance and buying a car, how to handle a checkbook. People don’t go into banks anymore; they do stuff online, and you can get ripped off if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

For that reason, Arrha has worked with high schools in the past on financial-literacy programs and is currently planning another program for local students.

“When we were kids, we had home-ec class, and they used to explain how to do a checkbook. They don’t do that anymore, and I don’t know why,” Ostrowski said, before offering one possible reason. “With all the regulations schools are under, for MCAS and other things, they’ve bailed on programs like this, but they’re absolutely critical for kids’ development and future life.”

Jon Reske, vice president of Marketing at UMassFive College Federal Credit Union, pointed out that financial literacy, and education in general, has long been part of the credit-union culture.

“Why? Because, unfortunately, your parents and my parents probably never taught us anything about personal finance, especially if things weren’t going well in the household,” he told BusinessWest. We take the opposite approach — we say your kid should be involved in understanding how the budget works in your house.

Jon Reske says even good budgeters can be tripped up by a bad loan — with long-term consequences.

Jon Reske says even good budgeters can be tripped up by a bad loan — with long-term consequences.

“We also do workshops on a regular basis — everything from homebuying 101 to how to create a budget to understanding credit,” he added, noting that the latter is especially critical, as the average American, between the ages of 21 and 65, will borrow about $1.5 million, and bad decisions can compound quickly and have a long-term impact. “You can be the greatest budgeter in the world and be smart about your pennies, but if you make bad borrowing decisions, you can be overwhelmed by debt.”

Monson Savings also conducts workshops for adults, such as first-time homebuyers, and offers a Credit Builders loan program, which is an effective way to, as the name suggests, build credit without going into unmanageable debt. The customer borrows a certain amount from the bank, which is deposited into a savings account and cannot be accessed until the loan is repaid. Not only does the borrower build positive credit through on-time payments, but at the end, the balance, plus interest, is available for a down payment on a car or home, a cushion for emergencies — anything, really.

In short, area institutions understand the deficits that exist when it comes to financial literacy and how that impacts the decision-making process — and how bad decisions can turn into years of heartache. And they’re doing something about it.

A Matter of Confidence

A new national survey by Junior Achievement USA and Citizens Bank shows that more than 30% of teens do not believe they will be financially independent of their parents by the age of 30. Sixty percent believe they will own a home by that age, 44% believe they will begin saving for retirement, and 43% think they will have paid off their student loans.

“With a strong economy, you would think teens would be more optimistic. It just demonstrates the importance of working with young people to help them better understand financial concepts and gain confidence in their ability to manage their financial futures.”

“These survey findings show a disconcerting lack of confidence among teens when it comes to achieving financial goals,” said Jack Kosakowski, president and CEO of Junior Achievement USA. “With a strong economy, you would think teens would be more optimistic. It just demonstrates the importance of working with young people to help them better understand financial concepts and gain confidence in their ability to manage their financial futures.”

Financial literacy has long been a cornerstone of Junior Achievement, but there’s no shortage of educational programs available at credit unions and banks.

“Money is very emotional. It’s one of the hardest things to talk about, even with your spouse,” Reske said. “And it’s hard to be objective. That’s why it’s nice when people come to our workshops and say, ‘I’m not emotional now; I’m looking at the objective side of it. I wish I’d taken this before getting that loan.’”

While money issues can seem overwhelming at times, he added, financial-literacy tools are much more accessible than they were 10 years ago if people know where to look. He also outlined a number of concepts people attending UMassFive’s workshops might learn. For example:

• If you’re able to pay bills weekly, as they arrive, do it. It reduces the risk of missing a deadline and winding up with a late fee, which is easy to do when you pay the whole pile of bills once a month.

• Start building an emergency fund. According to a U.S. News & World Report study, two-thirds of Americans would struggle — and often do — to come up with $1,000 for an emergency, like an urgent car repair or medical procedure.

“So what happens? You put it on a credit card, and now you’re paying 21% interest, and soon $1,000 turns into $1,200,” Reske noted. “And an emergency fund can keep you from missing a rent payment or not getting something fixed on your car, which could lead to a bigger repair in three to six months.”

• Check out your credit report on an annual basis, if only to make sure everything is correct. “If the activity on your credit report is inaccurate, you’re getting an inaccurate score, and most rates you get are based on your score.”

• Put every credit card on a minimum automatic payment so you don’t miss any payments — and then pay more principal when the bill arrives in the mail. Also, it’s not a bad idea to dedicate one credit card to online purchases only, to more easily identify instances of identity theft.

• Finally, it’s never too early to start saving for retirement. According to Forbes, 33% of adults have zero saved for retirement.

“Social Security will pay a portion of your expenses, but not all,” Reske said. “Time is more valuable than money because of compounding interest. If you start planning at 50 or 55, you just don’t have enough time; you’ve wasted 20 years. And if you have a 401(k) at work with an employer match and you’re not on it, you’re being foolish.”

Budget Battles

UMassFive also conducts a workshop for high-school seniors in which they choose a career, get a salary, and then go from station to station filling out a budget in different categories, from housing, transportation, and food to luxury items and student loans — and trying to stay within that budget.

“Kids say, ‘I never knew how expensive things are,’” Reske said. “People wonder why a 40-year-old can’t come up with $1,000 for an emergency; it’s because they weren’t taught that the key is to get in front of problems as early as possible” with smart budgeting followed by spending discipline.

Monson Savings runs a similar program in local schools. “One thing I build in there is student debt. If you want to spend $30,000 a year on college and go for a $30,000-per-year job, you’re not going to be able to pay that back,” Buteau said, stressing the importance of making smart decisions about college — if college is even the best option.

In fact, she said, many kids today are so focused on college — because it’s what their schools push — that they may not be aware of careers in the trades that offer robust salaries and no long-term debt.

One thing is for sure: whether in high school, college, early adulthood, or beyond, there’s no bad time to learn more effective strategies for handling money, budgets, and credit — in other words, to become more literate.

“If you’re sick, you go to the doctor,” Buteau said. “If your car is broken down, you go to a mechanic. If your pipes are broken, you call a plumber. But if you have trouble budgeting or financing, no one thinks to go to the bank for advice or a class. And it’s free.”

And when it comes to finances, there’s nothing wrong with free.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Financial Environment

PeoplesBank recently issued its annual Corporate Green Report in conjunction with Earth Day 2019. Through its green values and actions to support environmental sustainability, PeoplesBank believes it can help make the region a healthier place to live, work, and raise a family. The bank puts these values to work throughout the year through its charitable donations, volunteerism, support of green-energy projects, and construction of LEED-certified offices.

“As a mutual bank, we are focused on our values of innovation, community support, environmental sustainability, and employee engagement,” said Tom Senecal, president and CEO of PeoplesBank. “Environmental sustainability is really the meeting place of all those other values. It is a way we can be innovative, support the community, and engage our associates in a way that is meaningful.”

Added Philippe Michaud, a loan service associate at PeoplesBank and co-chair of its environmental committee, “a business’ responsibility is to try and influence its communities toward being more sustainable. The environment is a core belief that is built into the fabric of our organization. That goes a long way toward what we do in the community.”

Community banks, like PeoplesBank, are not generally known for building green offices, but PeoplesBank has a LEED Gold-certified office in Northampton, a LEED Gold-certified office in West Springfield, and a LEED Silver-certified office in Springfield. The LEED-certified office in Springfield, the first of its kind in the city, won a Green Seal from the city of Springfield.

The bank’s newest branch in Holyoke will also seek LEED certification once construction has finished. Pursuing that objective means the new branch will be constructed and operated as a green building. Some of the highlights include:

• Reuse of a portion of the existing Yankee Pedlar building (the historic Hildreth House);

• Reduction rainwater runoff on the site and use of landscaping that requires no irrigation;

• Use of low-flow water fixtures and high-efficiency HVAC; and

• Use of building materials that have low or zero volatile organic compounds and are sourced locally where possible.

In addition, the exterior wall is highly efficient and allows for the flow of air vapor in two directions, meaning the wall will ‘breathe’ throughout the year, leading to a cleaner indoor environment.

Three PeoplesBank offices (Northampton, West Springfield, and 330 Whitney Ave. in Holyoke) have electric-vehicle-charging stations. The bank is also launching a “Choose to Reuse” campaign designed to eliminate the use of disposable paper products internally.

“As a mutual bank, we are focused on our values of innovation, community support, environmental sustainability, and employee engagement. Environmental sustainability is really the meeting place of all those other values. It is a way we can be innovative, support the community, and engage our associates in a way that is meaningful.”

During the past year, PeoplesBank was recognized by Independent Banker magazine for its environmental sustainability efforts and, for the fifth year in a row, the bank was voted “Best Green Local Business” by Daily Hampshire Gazette readers. The bank is also a past recipient of the Sustainable Business of the Year Award and Associated Industries of Massachusetts’ Sustainability Award.

Over the course of the last year, PeoplesBank provided more than $58,000 in support for green initiatives in Western Mass., including:

• A mobile farmers’ market that travels to underserved and food-desert areas of Springfield and surrounding communities;

• The Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture Food for All campaign;

• The Center for EcoTechnology’s Eco Fellows and support of over 100 community education events;

• The annual Source to Sea Cleanup of the Connecticut River, which also includes hands-on participation by a team of volunteers from the bank;

• The Mount Holyoke Wetlands Restoration Project, conducted by Restoration Ecology Summer Scholars;

• Scientific environmental education at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment; and

• ValleyBike, the region’s new bike-sharing program.

PeoplesBank is also a longtime leader in sustainable-energy financing, and the bank’s commercial lenders are recognized for their expertise in creating financing packages for green-energy power generation. To date, the bank has financed more than $183 million in wind, solar, and hydroelectric power-generation projects, an increase of $17 million in just one year.

Banking and Financial Services

What’s in a Name? Plenty

Mike Buckmaster

Mike Buckmaster, vice president of Commercial Lending for Community Bank, N.A.

Since entering the market in 2017 through the acquisition of Merchants Bank and its branch in Springfield’s Tower Square, Community Bank, N.A. has been working to build on its foundation in this region. It brings to the highly competitive local banking landscape both considerable size and an operating mindset commensurate with the name on the letterhead.

Mark Tryniski acknowledges that it sounds illogical that a financial-services institution with $12 billion in assets and more than 230 branches could call itself a community bank — let alone call itself Community Bank, N.A.

But Tryniski, president and CEO of the Syracuse, N.Y.-based institution, said ‘Community Bank’ represents more than a name — and one that fits. Indeed, it’s more like an attitude.

“As our name suggests, we’re a community bank — that’s how we’ve always operated,” he explained. “And when you put the name ‘Community’ on your bank, you’d better function as a community bank — and we do.

“There is such a thing as a community-bank model,” he continued. “You push authority down to people in the branches, as opposed to the big-bank model, where you walk in the door looking for a home-equity loan and they put you on the phone with a 1-800 number and someone working in another country. Community banks don’t do that.”

Mark Tryniski

Mark Tryniski

 “When you put the name ‘Community’ on your bank, you’d better function as a community bank — and we do.”

This operating mindset has enabled the institution to grow considerably over the past several years and into a number of different markets, including Springfield, accomplished through the acquisition in 2017 of Merchants Bank, which had previously acquired NUVO Bank, which operated a single branch within the 413 within a large footprint in Tower Square.

Since putting its name over the door on Main Street, Community Bank, N.A. has downsized that space considerably, while simultaneously working to establish itself and broaden its horizons within this market.

It has done so by essentially living up to the name over the door, said both Tryniski and Mike Buckmaster, vice president of Commercial Lending. They both said the institution possesses the formula that’s required to succeed today — a community-bank feel, but a large size that is necessary in a changing, quite challenging financial-services marketplace today.

“I think that, over a period of time, the market has accepted the fact, to a degree, that this is a consolidating industry,” said Buckmaster, who has logged more than 30 years in the banking industry, locally and in the U.K., and has carried business cards bearing the logos of NUVO and Merchants Bank, among others. “The differentiating factor tends to be the commercial banker, and if the commercial banker can continue to deliver in terms of service and business development, there tends to be a good degree of customer loyalty toward the banker, even through various acquisitions.”

That lengthy explanation helps explain why the Springfield facility has been able to enjoy steady growth in its portfolio even as the name on the wall of Tower Square has changed several times this decade.

Tryniski agreed, but said the combination of size and small-bank attitude is becoming ever more important as the consolidation movement continues without any signs of slowing down.

“I’ve been around the banking industry for a little more than 30 years, and there’s been a dramatic change in the banking landscape, mostly centered around consolidation,” he explained. “When I started, in the ’80s, there were 16,000 or 18,000 banks; now, there are roughly 6,000 banks.

“And I think the trend toward consolidation will continue because of efficiencies that can be garnered by scale and technology,” he went on. “The bigger you get, the more you can justify investments in technology to give you more efficiency. It’s hard for the smaller banks — you have to really be efficient and disciplined.”

Overall, Community Bank will look to get bigger still, and is looking at opportunities to expand within the Western Mass. and Connecticut markets, said Tryniski, but “haven’t found what the right opportunity is yet,” as he put it. Elaborating, he said growth for this institution will continue to come as it has historically, through a mix of organic growth and acquisition, with more of the latter than the former, especially in areas with slow or no growth but more than enough competition, and Western Mass. certainly fits that category.

In such markets, growth can come only by taking market share from other institutions, he went on, adding that this is generally difficult to do. Community Bank has had a good amount of success doing just that, however, because of that aforementioned enviable combination of large size and smaller-bank feel.

Community Bank, N.A.

Mark Tryniski says Community Bank, N.A. will look for opportunities to expand locally beyond its location in Tower Square.

For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest talked at length with Tryniski and Buckmaster about how Community Bank, N.A. has firmly established its presence in the local market and how it intends to secure additional market share and perhaps expand its footprint in the 413.

By All Accounts

Since acquiring Merchants, and therefore all its branches, Tryniski has visited Springfield on several occasions as part of his efforts to fully understand the broad geographic area served by the institution — one that stretches from the Northern Kingdom in Vermont to the Southwest corner of New York to the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania — and meet both team members and customers.

“We spend a lot of time on the road,” he said of the management team at the bank, adding that, when he does visit Springfield, or any other community served by the bank, he makes a point of learning as much about the region as he can.

In the City of Homes, he’s become familiar with some of the players within the business community, has found a few restaurants he likes, and is both impressed with and encouraged by the high level of energy he’s seeing in the central business district.

He said there are a great many similarities between Springfield and Syracuse, and in some ways, that has helped him understand the dynamics of not only the communities themselves, but the banking environment here.

“They’re remarkably similar, actually,” he said. “They have the same population, they have an industrial history, they have a stable-but-not-growing population, there’s a lot of education, the downtowns look very similar … they’re very much alike. Springfield feels to me like Syracuse.”

From a banking perspective, that means a community that, as he said, is experiencing comparatively little growth, population-wise and new-business-wise, and has a crowded field of competitors for financial-services products — banks and non-banks alike.

In this environment, operating with that community-bank model — but with roughly $3 billion in assets behind the institution — is what amounts to a competitive advantage — a large competitive advantage, said Tryniski.

“We tell our branch managers that we want them to be the president of the bank in their town,” he explained. “And we give them the authority to do that; we give them lending authority and authority around charitable contributions, fee waivers, fee adjustments, things like that. We try to vest as much authority in our branch managers locally as we can, and let them make decisions about their customers and their market.

“We probably have more of a community-bank business model than most community banks,” he went on, “because most don’t operate like that.”

However, in this market, there are still a large number of community banks — more than in many other markets — and this simple math requires that small-bank mindset. Meanwhile, the field of competitors continues to change and grow, thanks to technology, which has brought many non-bank players into the mix, said Tryniski.

“We compete now with all sorts of non-bank competitors on the lending side — for everything,” he told BusinessWest. “Whether it’s personal loans, business loans, car loans … it doesn’t matter what kind of loan you’re making, you’re competing against a multitude of other, non-banking enterprises. And the same is true on the deposit side as well.”

Buckmaster agreed, noting that, on the commercial-lending side, with all that competition, as well as all that consolidation, having a local address is not the same thing as having people who know the local market and have worked within it for years, if not decades.

“All that competition puts the emphasis very much on the banker and being able to provide the service and support growth going forward as clients need,” he said, adding that Community Bank is large and stable, and thus able to provide commercial-banking products of all sizes, including dollar amounts beyond the scope of many of the smaller community banks that populate the region.

The sweet spot for the bank, though, is loans between $1 million and $3.5 million, he said, adding that the bank is able and willing to continue writing loans for small-business owners, something the very large banks seem less interested in doing so.

This flexibility has enabled the institution now known as Community Bank, N.A. to continue to serve the customers added to its portfolio when it was NUVO, he went on, adding that loans have been written for businesses across virtually all sectors and for a number of commercial real-estate acquisitions as well.

“We’ve have some customers who were initially small back eight or nine years ago who have grown into significant customers that require a significant increase in loan support going forward,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve seen some good growth in commercial and industrial customers over that period of time, and in addition, we’ve also seen significant new dollars in different types of commercial-investment real estate, whether it be locally in Western Mass. or further afield.”

Worthy of Interest

Returning to some of those numbers mentioned earlier — the 230 branches and current status as the 125th-largest bank in the country — Tryniski said they certainly make Community Bank, N.A. sound big. And it is.

“But we’re a lot close to the smallest bank in the country than we are to the biggest, even though the numbers say we’re one of the biggest,” he noted, adding that, in today’s banking climate, it’s not how big a bank looks on paper that matters, but how big it acts in the markets it serves.

And with that as the benchmark, this institution does indeed live up to the words on its stationary and over those 230-odd doors.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Merging Banks

Matthew Sosik

Matthew Sosik

Matthew Sosik, president and CEO of bankHometown, and Robert Morton, President and CEO of Millbury Savings Bank, recently announced that the banks have signed an agreement to merge operations under the bankHometown name.

The combined bank will have approximately $1 billion in assets and 15 branch offices located throughout Central Mass. and Northeastern Connecticut.

“We’re excited to welcome Millbury Savings Bank’s customers, employees, and communities to the bankHometown family,” Sosik said. “This merger will expand our presence into the Worcester and Millbury markets and will add a team of talented bankers to bankHometown.”

Morton agreed. “Merging with bankHometown allows us to provide our customers with increased lending capacity, an extended branch and ATM network, and an expanded offering of products and services,” he said. “At the same time, and even more importantly, our customers will see the same familiar faces every day.”

There will be no staff reductions or branch closures resulting from the merger. The impact to customers is expected to be minimal as both banks share the same core processor.

“Banks under our Hometown Financial Group umbrella benefit from access to highly skilled executives and support teams.”

After the closing, Morton will lead the combined bank as its president and CEO. In addition, Morton and five members of the Millbury Savings Bank board of trustees will join the bankHometown board of directors.

bankHometown is a wholly owned subsidiary of Hometown Financial Group. Morton and one other Millbury Savings Bank board member will join the Hometown Financial Group board of directors. bankHometown will remain headquartered in Oxford. As part of the Hometown Financial Group family of banks, which includes bankESB, bankHometown, and Pilgrim Bank, the combined bank will benefit from the shared resources of a larger institution while operating independently in its own market area.

“We have a proven track record of success with our operating model,” Sosik said. “Banks under our Hometown Financial Group umbrella benefit from access to highly skilled executives and support teams. This allows the bankers at each of our subsidiary banks to focus their efforts on growing market share and providing best-in-class banking products, services, and solutions to customers.”

Following the merger with Millbury Savings Bank, Hometown Financial Group will have approximately $3 billion in consolidated assets and 32 branch offices operating across Massachusetts and Northeastern Connecticut. Following the merger, Sosik will continue in his role as president and CEO of both bankESB and Hometown Financial Group.

The merger agreement has been unanimously approved by the boards of bankHometown and Millbury Savings Bank. The transaction is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2019, subject to the receipt of required regulatory approvals and other customary closing conditions. Customer deposits will continue to be fully insured through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) and the Share Insurance Fund (SIF).

The merger with Millbury Savings Bank will mark the third transaction that will close in 2019 for Hometown Financial Group. On Jan. 31, the company closed on its acquisition of Pilgrim Bancshares Inc. This was followed by the announcement on Feb. 6 of the merger of Abington Bank and Pilgrim Bank. The closing of that transaction is expected in the second quarter of 2019 and will result in the formation of a $600 million bank with six branches operating in the Eastern Mass. region.

Banking and Financial Services

Understanding Section 199A

By Kristina Drzal-Houghton, CPA, MST

Kristina Drzal Houghton

Kristina Drzal Houghton

At the close of every year, most individuals and business owners begin to think about taxes. Currently, many are anxious to find out what their liability will look like considering the law change known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA).

One major provision is a new tax deduction for passthrough entities (S-corporations, partnerships, and sole proprietorships) under Sec. 199A. The deduction generally provides owners, shareholders, or partners a 20% deduction on their personal tax returns on their qualified business income (QBI). Various limitations apply based on the type of business operated and the amount of income the business has.

While the calculation of the deduction amount is beyond the scope of this discussion, a summary follows of the limitations that apply to specified service trades or businesses (SSTBs) and other benefits which may be available.

The Internal Revenue Code has historically treated professional service businesses more harshly than any other type of business, and this continues with the Sec. 199A deduction. For example, before the TCJA, professional service corporations were taxed at a flat 35% tax rate rather than the graduated tax rates applicable to other C-corporations. Under the new rules, the same corporations will benefit from a flat 21% tax. Pass-through entities did not fare as well; the 20% deduction does not apply to certain enumerated SSTBs if the taxpayer’s taxable income is above certain threshold amounts.

The threshold amounts are $315,000 for taxpayers filing jointly and $157,500 for all other taxpayers, with a deduction-phaseout range, or limitation phase-in range, of $100,000 and $50,000, respectively, above these amounts.

SSTBs are broken into two distinct categories:

1.Trades or businesses performing services in the fields of health, law, accounting, actuarial science, performing arts, consulting, athletics, financial services, brokerage services, or any trade or business where the principal asset of that trade or business is the reputation or skill of one or more of its employees (specifically excluded are engineering and architecture); or

2. Any trade or business that involves the performance of services that consist of investing and investment management, trading, or dealing in securities, partnership interests, or commodities.

QBI also does not include compensation, even compensation paid to the shareholders of an S-corporation, or any guaranteed payments paid to a partner for services rendered with respect to the trade or business, or any payment to a partner for services rendered with respect to the trade or business. As a result, if your practice is a partnership that pays out all of its income in guaranteed payments, you may want to switch to a model that instead specially allocates that income to the partners, as a special allocation of income is eligible for the 20% deduction, while the guaranteed payments are not.

This could allow individual partners whose income falls below the above thresholds to benefit from the QBI deduction even if the activity is otherwise an SSTB.

What happens if a trade or business has multiple lines of businesses, where one of the lines is an SSTB? The regulations include a de minimis rule for this situation. If a taxpayer has $25 million or less in gross receipts for the tax year from SSTB activities, it will not be considered an SSTB if less than 10% of the receipts are generated by the SSTB activity. If the taxpayer has more than $25 million in gross receipts, it will not be an SSTB if less than 5% of those receipts are generated by the SSTB activity.

The regulations do provide a couple of anti-abuse provisions to prevent taxpayers from incorrectly trying to take advantage of the tax law. The first relates to a common question I am often asked at networking functions where an employee now desires to be treated as an independent contractor to take advantage of this new tax deduction. The regulations provide that former employees are presumed to still be employees even if subsequently treated as an independent contractor. The IRS provides several tests and factors to consider if a worker is an independent contractor or employee which should be considered by an employer before changing a worker’s classification.

The second anti-abuse provision has to do with related party businesses. Here the IRS has stated that, if a business that otherwise wouldn’t be considered an SSTB has 50% or more common ownership with an SSTB (including related parties) and is providing substantially all its property or services to the related SSTB, it will be considered an SSTB. ‘Substantially all’ is defined to be 80% or more of its total property or services to the related SSTB. This is designed to prevent taxpayers from shifting income to non-SSTB businesses by adjusting the purchase price on related party sales to take advantage of the tax break.

There are several other provisions of the TCJA that benefit all businesses regardless of form. These provisions are all effective Jan. 1, 2018 unless otherwise indicated and include:

• The maximum amount allowed to be expensed under Code Section 179 is increased to $1 million, and the phaseout threshold is increased to $2.5 million. These amounts are indexed for inflation after 2018.

• The definition of qualified real property under Code Section 179 is expanded to include certain depreciable personal property used in the lodging industry, as well as certain improvements to nonresidential real property after the date such property was placed in service, such as roofs; heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning property; fire protection and alarm systems; and security systems.

• For property acquired and placed in service after Sept. 27, 2017 and before Jan. 1, 2023, the first-year deduction is increased to 100%.

• After 2022, the deduction percentage phases down by 20% per year until it sunsets after 2026.

• Most states, including Massachusetts, have decided to decouple from the new bonus-depreciation rules.

• No deduction is allowed for entertainment, amusement, or recreation; membership dues for a club organized for business, pleasure, recreation, or other social purposes; or a facility used in connection with any of the above.

• Costs for entertainment expenses such as tickets to sporting events, taking clients to play golf, and similar activities are no longer deductible.

• Meals provided for the convenience of the employer, through an eating facility or other de minimis food and beverage, are no longer 100% deductible, but now fall into the 50% category. They become non-deductible after 2025.

• Qualified transportation fringe benefits provided to employees continue to be excluded from the employees’ income but are no longer deductible by the business.

• Between Jan. 1, 2018 and Dec. 31, 2019, the TCJA allows a credit of 12.5% of the amount of wages paid to qualifying employees during any period during which such employees are out on family and medical leave, provided that the rate of payment is 50% of the wages normally paid to an employee. The credit increases by 0.25% (but not above 25%) for each percentage point by which the wages exceed 50%.

• Wage expense is reduced when the credit is taken as an alternative.

On Jan. 18, the IRS released guidance on many Sec. 199A issues when it issued final regulations. The IRS noted that the final regulations had been modified somewhat from the proposed regulations issued last August as a result of comments it received and testimony at a public hearing it held. The final regulations apply to tax years ending after their publication in the Federal Register; however, taxpayers may rely on the proposed regulations for tax years ending in 2018.

The combination of the proposed regulation and final regulations has altered some of the planning techniques originally thought to increase the tax benefits available to SSTBs under the provisions of Sec. 199A. If your business previously adopted planning techniques before the August and January regulations, you should revisit the projected benefits with your tax adviser.

Kristina Drzal-Houghton, CPA, MST is a partner at Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka and director of the firm’s Taxation Division; (413) 535-8510.

Banking and Financial Services

Developments of Interest

Richard Kump, president and CEO of UMassFive.

Richard Kump, president and CEO of UMassFive.

As the name suggests, the UMassFive College Credit Union was launched to serve employees at UMass Amherst. But it quickly expanded its mission to the other schools in that region, and then beyond employees of those institutions. Today, the process of expansion and evolution continues, and touches many realms, from new branches to new technology to new member sponsors. In short, those humble beginnings have been left well behind.

Richard Kump has spent his entire career in financial services working for credit unions. That includes a lengthy stint at St. Mary’s Bank in Manchester, N.H.

This line on a résumé leads to a story he likes to tell and has told quite often.

“St. Mary’s was chartered in 1909; it was the first credit union in the country, but they didn’t call them credit unions then,” Kump explained. “It was built out of the French Canadian Catholic parish in the west side of Manchester serving the mill workers. They’ve held onto that ‘bank’ moniker without actually being one. It’s a bit of an identity crisis.

“The one bank in town was owned by the mill owners,” he went on. “They had practiced discrimination; if you were a French Canadian mill worker, you couldn’t get a mortgage from them, because they wanted you on their housing plan, which put you right next to the factory in terrible conditions. And that’s why the credit union was created — so those mill workers could pool their nickels and dimes and lend to each other so they could buy homes.”

While Kump likes relating the story of St. Mary’s, he quickly moved on to one he likes telling even more — the one concerning the institution he now leads as president and CEO — UMassFive College Credit Union, or UMassFive, as it’s known. And it’s a compelling story.

Founded in 1967 to serve employees at UMass Amherst, as the name suggests, it has moved well beyond its somewhat humble beginnings. In all kinds of ways.

Starting with the membership. Indeed, while the credit union still serves UMass employees, and those of the other institutions that make up the Five Colleges — Amherst, Hampshire, Smith, and Mount Holyoke colleges — it also serves their current students and alumni. Membership also extends to UMass Medical School in Worcester, where there is a non-traditional branch, and, most recently, Greenfield Community College.

And UMassFive has extended its reach far beyond what might be called academia, through both acquisition and the addition of several new ‘sponsors,’ as they’re called, including CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture), River Valley Co-op, several area communities, and Mercy Medical Center in Springfield, where there is another non-traditional branch.

There are five branches in all, serving more than 43,000 members, said Kump, who became CEO last July. Meanwhile, assets, which totaled roughly $135 million when he arrived in 2000 to serve UMassFive as chief operating officer, are now approaching a half-billion; the institution expects to crash through that barrier this year.

Beyond these various forms of growth, a pattern mirrored by many credit unions over the past 20 years or so, UMassFive has changed in other ways, especially with regard to technology, said Kump, who likes to believe his institution is on the proverbial cutting edge in this realm.

As an example, he pointed to the ITM, or interactive teller machine, in the lobby of the main office just off Route 9 in Hadley. The ITMs, which are becoming increasingly prominent in other markets and are just starting to make their mark in this one, essentially replace ATMs. Customers can use one to talk to a real person (hence the name), conduct a wide range of transactions, and get answers to questions.

“This was a time when many financial institutions were burying their heads in the sand and trying to ride out the recession. Instead, we got very aggressive. We took advantage of those times, and it put us on a very firm setting.”

Beyond the ITMs, the UMassFive lobby is distinct because there are no tellers, at least in the traditional sense, said Kump, adding that each location now has banking specialists who take on what he called the ‘universal agent model.’

These individuals can assist customers with a broad range of banking needs, he went on, adding that this requires additional training and higher compensation than traditional tellers, but these are steps UMassFive is taking to better serve customers in these changing, more technology-driven times.

“What we’ve focused on is a marriage of high touch with high tech,” he explained. “We want to be able to provide the convenience of doing everything at your fingertips; at the same time, a lot of folks need help getting that done, so we want to make sure we have the staff who can help someone who is not tech-savvy.”

Meanwhile, another form of growth has been expansion into commercial products and services and development of a unique and now quite strong niche — the financing of residential solar-energy projects (much more on that later).

And while the present tense is intriguing, when it comes to the UMassFive story, there are some new chapters soon to be written, including a new branch in Greenfield, slated to open later this year, and perhaps some additional acquisitions at a time when they are continuing to dominate the landscape with regard to both banks and credit unions.

For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest talked at length with Kump about how UMassFive continues to build upon its strong foundation and grow its footprint, in every sense of that term.

Dollars and Sense

When Kump arrived at UMassFive in late 2000 after a stint at Cathedral Credit Union in Manchester, the institution was operating out of cramped quarters in a building next to the Hangar restaurant on University Drive in Amherst.

How cramped?

“My office was a supply closet — literally,” he recalled. “Because the roofs were pitched, to get to my desk I had to bend over to go around to the back of my desk.”

The inconvenience was rather easy to tolerate, he went on, because the institution was building its new home in Hadley at the time, and thus those crawls were to be a temporary nuisance.

The new facility would be the first of many positive developments in this century, one that has proven to be a good one for credit unions — at least those with the size, determination, and imagination to cope with many forms of change, from a host of new regulations to rapidly advancing technology.

As he quickly rehashed his own tenure at UMassFive, as well as that of his predecessor, Kathy Hutchinson, who served the institution for more than four decades, Kump said UMassFive, and all credit unions, for that matter, greatly benefited from both the Great Recession of a decade ago and the ongoing consolidation of the banking industry.

The ITMs installed by UMassFive allow customers to see, and interact with, an employee of the credit union.

The ITMs installed by UMassFive allow customers to see, and interact with, an employee of the credit union.

Elaborating, he noted that, as the recession was escalating and the stock market was collapsing, individuals were looking for a safe place to park their money. And many found one in the local credit union.

“During the early part of the recession, we saw unparalleled growth; we had three consecutive years of double-digit asset growth, including one year with more than 20% growth,” he recalled. “There was a lot of money coming out of the market, and it needed go somewhere safe. Meawhile, there was a lot of national bank disenfranchisement — there were ‘close-your-bank-account’ days and people protesting in front of Bank of America.

“This was a time when many financial institutions were burying their heads in the sand and trying to ride out the recession,” he went on. “Instead, we got very aggressive. We took advantage of those times, and it put us on a very firm setting.”

While this was going on, UMassFive, which has what’s known as a multi-sponsor charter (instead of a single sponsor or employer), as opposed to the more common community charter, was also taking on new sponsors, such as CISA and River Valley Co-op, that have brought many new members — and opportunities — to the institution.

“Some of the sponsors we’ve taken on recently have really been formative to our plans,” he explained. “We’ve found more members through our relationship with CISA than we have through the University of Massachusetts over the last couple of years. That’s because people who can’t join the credit union any other way join CISA, and then they’re eligible for UMassFive.”

While growing membership, the credit union has also recently been expanding its portfolio of products and services, especially on the commercial side of the ledger, specializing in loans for equipment and commercial real estate. The move was a synergistic one, said Kump, noting that many members own businesses or commercial real estate, specifically multi-family housing, and it has created many new opportunities to grow the institution.

“It was symbiotic — we felt we could help our members who had those commercial needs with a level of service we felt could compete very favorably, especially with some of the larger regional and national financial institutions,” he explained. “And at the same time, it develops a wonderful asset for the credit union.”

By All Accounts

Echoing business owners and managers across virtually all sectors, Kump said the pace of change is too great, and the number of potential disruptors on the horizon way too high, for institutions like his to write a traditional five-year plan.

Three years is about the outside for any strategic plan these days, he went on, adding that the latest such document crafted by those at UMassFive doesn’t contain any real secrets — simply ongoing expansion of current initiatives and a focus on continued, sustainable growth, because in the financial-services sector today, size — for banks and credit unions alike — really does matter because of the economies of scale it provides.

The Greenfield branch, a traditional facility, like the one the institution operates in downtown Northampton, will be perhaps the most visible — and costly —avenue of growth, he said, adding that expansion into that Franklin County community is a natural progression for UMassFive and a vehicle for better serving customers such as those at GCC and those in or related to the agriculture sector sponsored by CISA.

“This move has been in the planning stages for some time,” he said, adding that, in recent years, the credit union has been focused on other infrastructure initiatives, such as renovation of both the main office and the Northampton branch. “Now, it’s a matter of looking outward a little bit more.”

This new branch will be like the others the institution operates, he said, referring to the leading of edge of technology.

“We don’t build cookie-cutter branches; we’ve gone through branch metamorphosis the past few years,” he said, referring not only to the ITMs — which are now in drive-throughs as well as branch lobbies — but the personnel staffing these branches.

“We eliminated all tellers more than two years ago, because fewer and fewer of the transactions are coming to the branches,” he explained. “People are using mobile, they’re using online banking … they don’t have a need to come to the branch. But when they do come to the branch, it’s for something important.”

Which brings him back to that ‘universal agent,’ a phrase he uses, although he admits he’d like some better terminology.

“We’ve created a position where the individual has the knowledge that a branch manager would have in years past,” he explained. “They can help someone regardless of what they’re looking for.

“To make all this work, our hiring practices are much different,” he went on. “More of our hires have no banking experience than have banking experience, and what we’ve found works very well for us is that we hire people who are outgoing and care — they just want to help someone else.”

With the changes in technology and hiring strategy has also come a deeper commitment to training, a necessity if the machines and the people are going to properly serve the members, he continued.

“We’ve tripled our professional-development budget over the past three years,” said Kump. “And that’s because we’ve put a big onus on the employee in the branches; they have to know so much. They’re not the specialist anymore.”

Meanwhile, the institution will continue efforts to expand on the commercial side of the ledger and the solar-lending realm as well, he said, adding that UMassFive has already created quite a niche with such transactions.

“In three years, we’ve become the highest-volume residential solar lender in the Commonwealth,” he noted, adding that UMassFive has written more than $45 million in loans covering roughly 1,400 residential, and now commercial, solar projects.

And they’re being written for members across the state, he said, adding that solar installers are recommending the institution to people well outside the 413, many of whom have become members through membership in CISA.

Past Is Prologue

Returning to Manchester, N.H. and the credit union called St. Mary’s Bank, Kump said it was formed 110 years ago to serve the underserved.

“Hopefully, there’s still a lot of that left in that industry,” he said, adding that there’s quite a bit of it at UMassFive.

The institution’s unofficial slogan, put into use by Hutchinson, is “every member, every day.” That’s where its focus is and where it will stay, Kump said, even as it keeps adjusting proactively to new challenges and constant change.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Taking Account

Matt Sosik says branches serve a different role than they used to

Matt Sosik says branches serve a different role than they used to, providing more value but less volume in the age of online and mobile banking.

In this era of rampant mobile banking, opening a physical branch is a different proposition than it used to be, Matt Sosik said. But it’s still an important one.

“At this point in the cycle of our industry, branching has fallen by the wayside a little bit,” said Sosik, president and CEO of bankESB, which recently opened its 11th branch on Sargeant Street in Holyoke — a move that, despite the declining emphasis on bricks and mortar, made a lot of sense.

“We feel we’ve been banking with the people of Holyoke for years and years, so Holyoke is a natural extension of our footprint,” he said, noting that today’s branches are smaller and more efficient than those built in the past, but still must emphasize customer service — something that Tiffany Raines, Holyoke’s branch manager, has said she will emphasize there.

Indeed, online channels do change the dynamics of a branch as a delivery channel, Sosik told BusinessWest, if only because branches simply serve fewer people in person than they used to.

“Customers, as they should, love that technology can improve their banking experience, and we really encourage our customers to use those online and mobile banking products; they’re so robust and provide so much to customers,” he noted. “That said, we’ll never lose our ability to interact with them face to face. We covet that, and when we get our customers in front of us, we certainly take advantage of that and provide guidance to them.”

“Actual in-person branch transaction volume is well off over the past 20 years, so it’s really about building the initial relationships with the customer; that’s what a branch does best in 2019.”

With that in mind, he said, the new Holyoke branch, like any new branch at most banks, is designed to provide value, not volume — a more personalized experience, in other words, for fewer customers each day.

“Actual in-person branch transaction volume is well off over the past 20 years, so it’s really about building the initial relationships with the customer; that’s what a branch does best in 2019,” he went on. “It’s more a source for originating the customer relationship than it is a delivery channel — more for acute problem resolution and consultative conversations.”

Yet, new branches also reflect growth, and bankESB is certainly growing, with $1.3 billion in assets across its 11-branch network in Hampden and Hampshire counties. Meanwhile, its holding company, Hometown Financial Group, also based in Easthampton, boasts $2.1 billion in assets and 24 branches across Western and Central Mass. and Connecticut, with further expansion to come (more on that later).

Banking today, Sosik said, is less about products and “more about how we deliver those products we’ve all become very familiar with.”

Take residential lending, for example. “The mortgage world has lent itself well to the online world, where we can efficiently process a transaction for somebody to buy what is arguably the biggest asset of their life, and we can do that almost entirely online for them — and very efficiently. That’s what technology has done — improved on products we’ve all come to know and love. That’s the difference between 2019 and, say, the 1990s.”

Dena Hall, the bank’s executive vice president and chief Marketing officer, noted that bankESB has the second-highest market share in Hampshire County at almost 22%, and the expansion into Holyoke follows growing name recognition in Hampden County, where it also maintains branches in Agawam and Westfield.

“We’ve seen an increasing level of awareness across the Pioneer Valley, up and down the 91 corridor, which is important to serve customer needs in this region,” she added. “Really, we’re all about meeting customers where they want to meet us. We want them to know we’re a viable option for them.”

Lending Thoughts

To understand the importance of face-to-face relationships in banking, Hall said, look no further than commercial lending, an increasingly important part of bankESB’s business and strategic direction. The institution added three new lenders to its commercial team in 2018, all from larger local banks, in an effort to add more resources to the division and demonstrate the capability to meet the commercial financing needs of businesses in the region. The team now has seven lenders under the direction of Executive Vice President Ryan Leap.

“When you think about how the customer has gotten physically away from us, that’s less so with the commercial business,” Sosik said. “Commercial lending has a lot to do with what we do best — customer service, face-to-face interactions, and building long-term, value-added relationships. For us, it’s a very natural customer-service direction in which to grow.”

The new Holyoke branch

The new Holyoke branch is a physical extension of business that bankESB had been doing in that city for many years.

That growth comes at a time when businesses continue to invest in capital projects, he added.

“We see a lot of things going on in the economy. The economy has such a long and slow build that it’s hard to see it in motion, but take a look back at the past year and years prior, and we’ve definitely seen continuous, slow, steady growth. Thankfully for Western and Central Massachusetts, we see that growth in small and medium-sized businesses coming in and taking advantage of the economy and improvements in commercial real estate.”

At the same time, Hall said, bankESB is building its consumer divisions. “Last year, we hired a new leader for the residential mortgage and consumer loan division with several years of experience in mortgage operations and origination, most recently with Peoples United Bank,” she noted.

In addition, after a year of developing its back-office processing and underwriting area, the bank recently added two new mortgage loan originators and upgraded its online mortgage application so that customers can apply how and when they want, either in person with a loan originator or online.

“With some banks in our market pulling back on their mortgage efforts, we’re excited to make more products and sales people available to the region,” she said.

Sosik agreed. “We continue to build the depth and breadth of the team to handle our growth. That’s generally been our strategic direction when it comes to community lending.”

That’s why developing both sides of the customer-service equation — a more robust online presence and also branches focused on customer service — are equally important, Hall said.

“A lot of customers are doing research online but close the deal in the branch, and we have people ready to serve them,” she told BusinessWest. “Clients want that face-to-face interaction, and we’ve hit a nice balance of being technologically savvy with mobile offerings and very customer-service-oriented, very customer-facing. That’s a perfect fit in this market.”

Mutual Successes

Hall noted that bankESB has received some key accolades of late. In June, it was named one of America’s best-in-state banks by Forbes in a nationwide survey; of the five banks selected in Massachusetts, bankESB ranked second, and was the only bank on that list headquartered in Western Mass.

Understanding the importance of building a bank’s name, its holding company, Hometown Financial Group, continues to grow its franchise and build a separate brand presence in each region. That means three separate banks will operate under the holding-company profile: bankESB, bankHometown, and Pilgrim Bank. The latter acquisition, based in Cohasset, closes this month and adds three branches and $263 million in assets to the Hometown family.

“We have a commitment to mutuality and building those local brands, building market share in each region, then we consolidate and make efficient the back-office and operation side. We think that’s a compelling business structure going forward,” Sosik said.

“Commercial lending has a lot to do with what we do best — customer service, face-to-face interactions, and building long-term, value-added relationships.”

“We’re big believers in our mutual structure,” he continued. “First and foremost, as a mutual company, we’re not owned by stockholders. We choose to be very entrepreneurial, and we run very much like a stock company would from the business side of it. But that mutuality gives us the ability to service customers and the community in ways that stock banks cannot.”

With so many community banks operating in Western Mass., he explained, that mutual structure helps set bankESB apart. “I think that’s a real difference maker for us, showing how much we are committed to mutuality and community banking.”

At the same time, Hall said, the company’s commitment to mutuality and its holding-company structure makes it an attractive partner for other like-minded mutual banks in its current market and beyond.

“We have some exciting transactions in the works, and we hope to be able to announce those transactions within the next 30 to 45 days,” Sosik added. “I think they’re compelling; there will be market interest there. We’re really moving our company forward in a number of ways. We’re excited about that. There’s a lot going on.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Life Goals

Gary Thomas

Gary Thomas says a diversified portfolio of investments is always a good idea, with a mix of high growth potential and stable returns.

In an ever-changing world — one in which career trends, technology, and, yes, financial markets have a way of shifting — it can be daunting to craft an investment strategy. Gary Thomas, president of the Wealth Technology Group, relishes the chance to help clients do just that, by focusing on the big picture. His job isn’t just financial planning, he says, but life planning — at least, as much as one can plan for the unexpected turns of life.

It can be daunting, Gary Thomas said, to plan for the future when no one knows what the future will look like.

“As long as there are innovators in this country, there’s going to be change, and that change is going to create disruption. And we’ve seen it already in the jobs that aren’t there that were there 20 years ago,” he said.

That’s not a new trend, of course. “We don’t even know what we want until we see it,” Thomas went on. “Henry Ford once said that, if he’d asked his consumers what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.’ You just don’t know what you want until you get introduced to an idea. You always think things will be the same as they are in this little snapshot of life. You want to hang on to the past, but technology is going to be changing. And we can’t stop that.”

That’s the definition of progress, and that’s good for investment markets, which — despite their short-term fluctuations — have always grown over the long term, said Thomas, president of the Wealth Technology Group. “When the economy grows, everybody benefits sooner or later, but it doesn’t always go in a straight line.”

“Henry Ford once said that, if he’d asked his consumers what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.'”

He shared these thoughts by way of explaining why it’s important for individuals planning for retirement — or just looking to save for college and other expenses — to diversify their investment portfolios. And, indeed, Wealth Technology Group helps clients preserve assets, lower their tax burden, and pass legacies to the next generation through a broad mix of tools, including mutual funds, managed accounts, real-estate investment trusts, energy shares, annuities, and life-insurance options — with the goal of creating financial stability in what can be a volatile world.

That means trusting the long-term record of the stock market, he went on, but also making sure to place money in vehicles with a more predictable return.

“You have to have a philosophy where you basically pay yourself first,” he said. “I almost don’t care where you put it, as long as you put it away. If you’re far enough away from retirement, you should have a pretty diversified approach in equities, but as you get close to retirement, you need to make sure you have some secure money, for when markets go down.”

In other words, investors have to be both educated and flexible — especially at a time when Americans are living longer, meaning they have to make their money last longer.

“We’re in a different situation than our parents or grandparents were. It takes a more creative approach, it takes education, and it takes some hand holding, too,” Thomas said, bringing the conversation back to the role his firm plays. He cited studies suggesting that individuals with a consistent financial advisor tend to do as much as 2% better per year than those that don’t, even accounting for fees.

“Part of it is behavioral science — and having somebody to call,” he explained. “Typically, people make mistakes by moving around too much. You’ve got to have a balanced approach, where you have some secure money and some growth-oriented money for your older years.”

Thomas doesn’t only help his clients navigate this landscape in his Westfield office. He’s been active over the years delivering workshops, seminars, and classroom lectures on financial topics, so he knows the value of educating people.

“In some ways, people are more torn these days, because trying to sort out all that information on the internet is like trying to take a sip through a firehose,” he told BusinessWest. “Everybody’s got an agenda — the posts you see on websites are often promoted content, and it’s hard to distinguish. Even if they’re not, they still represent one person’s philosophy.”

The goal, he added, is for clients to develop their own philosophy.

“Money and financial security mean different things to different people, and it plays a big role in our life whether we want to admit it or not,” he said. “At the same time, there’s just too much information out there — we’re bombarded with it — and there’s a big difference between information and knowledge, or between information and wisdom.”

So, while some investors get wrapped up in “the latest shiny thing,” like Bitcoin or gold, he said, it’s more important to save consistently.

“You can make a lot of money from being average if you don’t switch things around too much, because the market’s averages are pretty darn good,” he said. “But you also have to have that nest egg because when things go down.”

Growing Need

When Thomas launched his business around 1991, financial planning was a field on the cusp of significant evolution.

“Before that, everybody just had a stockbroker, they had an insurance agent, they had an accountant, but there wasn’t much in the financial-planning world. So, basically, we started the company, and it was more estate planning to begin with, but it just sort of evolved over time into money management and financial planning, because that’s where the need was.”

For years, he built the company’s reputation through a number of call-in radio programs around Western Mass., an approach that appealed to listeners hungry for information about financial strategies. “People were looking for straight information and not a sales job. That’s been our philosophy ever since.”

It’s a philosophy that’s also middle-of-the-road when it comes to investment risk, he added.

“If you come from an insurance background, you tend to be very conservative. If you come from a stock background, you tend to be maybe more aggressive. Well, I come from a legal background, and lawyers like to question everything. So it also made me a little skeptical about some of the products. So, basically, we took a more conservative approach to money management — not ultra-conservative, but middle of the road.”

One key message, which has become a company motto of sorts, is “it’s not what you make, it’s what you keep” — which is why he helps clients navigate tax-related pitfalls as well.

“I take more of a holistic approach because of my background; I have a master’s in tax law. And what good is it if you make a ton of money but you have to pay 40% of it back in taxes? So we try to use strategies to avoid that. It’s a total approach of, where are you going to be down the road? If you take money out, is it going to be taxable? Are you going to have some tax-free money?”

While taking a conservative approach, he remains confident in the stock market, but understands that it can be scary to obsess over its fluctuations on a day-to-day basis — and that investors need to rely on other sources for guaranteed returns.

“I take more of a holistic approach because of my background; I have a master’s in tax law. And what good is it if you make a ton of money but you have to pay 40% of it back in taxes? So we try to use strategies to avoid that. It’s a total approach of, where are you going to be down the road? If you take money out, is it going to be taxable? Are you going to have some tax-free money?”

“I’ve been around long enough to see that markets don’t always go up,” he explained, “and when the markets are down, you need a conservative piece someplace to take money from when you need it.”

That said, Thomas added, “this country’s always going to grow. No matter what happens, no matter what financial crisis there is, we’re always looking for new ideas and new ways to grow. And that’s what the market does. You think of the major companies today that are big names, which were not in existence 25 years ago, like Amazon and Google. And Apple was almost out of business.”

He shares these strategies of diversified investment with mainly clients approaching their retirement years, but also many young families that are trying to figure out how they’ll pay for college for their kids, at a time when the average sticker price for four years of education is around $200,000. “It’s a real challenge today,” he noted.

In short, there are many reasons why people walk through his door.

“We do some estate planning, too, but it’s primarily holistic, complete financial planning — helping to find the right portfolio and the right financial tools for each individual, and then we actively manage that,” he explained. “It’s not just about picking an investment. It’s got to be right for you.”

As an independent financial-services firm, the Wealth Technology Group isn’t tied to any single product, and as an accredited investment fiduciary, he’s required to keep the client’s interests at the fore.

“If someone goes into a store, and the owner says, ‘that suit looks good on you,’ maybe it does — but maybe that’s just the suit they want to push that day,” he explained by way of analogy. Fiduciary responsibility simply means the firm considers more than what’s suitable for a client, but what would best meet his or her needs. “It’s not just going to benefit me as a financial advisor, but benefit you as the owner of it.”

Getting the Word Out

Long after his radio talk-show days, Thomas still enjoys conducting seminars and workshops that promote his work in more effective ways than a short radio or TV ad. They’re a means not only to help people understand the compexities of financial planning, but to get the word out that the Wealth Technology Group helps clients from all walks of life, not just high-net-worth individuals, as some firms do.

And when he shares his perspectives, both through seminars and one-on-one, he emphasizes that financial planning is really about life planning — and people are not always emotionally prepared for the changes that retirement will bring.

“Retirement brings a change in lifestyle,” he said. “It’s like you’re going 60 miles an hour, then you retire — and it can be hard to adjust when you don’t have eight hours a day filled up. If your purpose in life was to be a journalist and you were a journalist for 35 years and all of a sudden someone told you you weren’t valued as a journalist anymore, you’d better have a purpose beyond that. So we encourage people to have interests that really excite them beyond work.”

In fact, people don’t expect to be impacted by that lifestyle change, as well as the social withdrawal that sometimes comes with it, as much as they worry about money.

“I’ve had clients in the past that have come in and said, ‘I’m only 200 more Mondays away from retirement,’ and the next time I see them, they say, ‘only 150 more Mondays.’ And I say, ‘you know, what are you going to do the day you walk out the door?’”

Sometimes, the sudden change brings about problems with drinking or eating or their marriage, he went on, noting that some of the first astronauts who went to the moon came back and ran into personal issues once they were past that exciting, challenging phase of their lives.

But you don’t have to go to the moon to feel loss, he went on, and Thomas continues to help people plan for all stages of life — not just financially, but holistically. Because money matters, but it’s not everything.

“There’s got to be something beyond that ‘200 more Mondays.’ So that’s what we encourage people to think about,” he said. “Join a senior center, do something, get involved. And don’t concentrate too much on money. That’s our job.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Sowing Seeds

Julia Coffey brought this selection of mushrooms to a local farmers market

Julia Coffey brought this selection of mushrooms to a local farmers market. She also sells to restaurants, campus food services, and other food distributors.

Julia Coffey’s business was mushrooming — in more ways than one.

In fact, her enterprise, Mycoterra Farm, specializes in mushrooms. And when she was looking for a larger space in which to grow, she received a fortuitous phone call.

“In mushroom production, as with much agriculture, efficiency of scale is big — and we had maxed out capacity at our farm in Westhampton,” Coffey said.

She found a closed equestrian center on the market in South Deerfield that would make an ideal space, and initially pursued loans through the USDA Farm Service Agency. But she still needed more funding to get up and running on the new site.

“We were trying to figure out how to get the new farm online with a little less money than I needed, and it was Rebecca who reached out to me to see if we had any funding needs,” she recalled. “It was very timely.”

That was Rebecca Busansky, program manager for the Pioneer Valley Grows Investment Fund, or PVGrows for short, a regional investment and loan program launched in 2015 that provides financing and technical assistance to food and farming businesses in Western Mass.

“We really set out to help the whole food system. This is about farms and local food businesses and everything that makes a healthy food system,” Busansky told BusinessWest the day after the Franklin County Community Development Corp. (FCCDC), which oversees the fund, marked the project’s three-year anniversary with a celebration at Raven Hollow Winery at Koskinski Farms in Westfield.

It wasn’t just an anniversary being celebrated, but a funding milestone — $1.25 million, in fact, halfway to the fund’s original goal of $2.5 million. That money has helped more than 25 local farms and food entrepreneurs grow their businesses — and, in turn, a critical sector of the Western Mass. economy.

Mycoterra is a good example. The gourmet and exotic mushroom farm, as Coffey described it, grows “wood-loving” mushrooms indoors year-round. Mycoterra specializes in shiitake, oyster, and lion’s mane mushrooms, but experiments with many other varieties as well — and, in doing so, impacts scores of other food-related businesses.

“We market directly to farmers markets, about 50 restaurants statewide, and campus food services, and with the recent move, we’re increasing production and are working with a number of local distributors,” she noted.

John Waite, executive director of the FCCDC, said PVGrows offers an innovative, mission-driven way for community members to invest in their values by supporting and sustaining businesses that can make real changes to how food is grown, distributed, and purchased. “It takes the local movement to a whole new level. It’s beyond eating local — it’s investing locally.”

Good Idea, Naturally

To date, nearly 50 investors, including individuals, businesses, and foundations from New England and New York, have contributed a minimum investment of $1,000 to the fund, with interest paid annually, Busansky explained. These community investments are pooled together to provide the financing that farm and food entrepreneurs need to grow their businesses.

The fund grew out of existing FCCDC programs that provide technical assistance to local farms and food producers in the Valley, she added, noting that a need became evident for a funding source specifically aimed at benefiting these businesses.

Jennifer Ladd says supporting local food production brings cultural, economic, and even regional security benefits.

Jennifer Ladd says supporting local food production brings cultural, economic, and even regional security benefits.

Three foundations have been important to the fund’s growth: the Solidago Foundation, the Lydia B. Stokes Foundation, and the Henry P. Kendall Foundation, which collectively established a loan-loss reserve. A community pool was then established, accepting investments of $1,000 to $10,000 with a five-year term and a very low interest rate.

“We felt it was important to add this community-investment piece,” Busansky said. “The whole idea was to make it a minimum $1,000 to invest, which doesn’t make it completely accessible to everyone, but it’s not only open to wealthy people, either. It democratizes capital.”

Larger investments come with longer terms and higher interest rates, with the idea that investors with a little more money could be willing to take on more risk, Busansky added. But so far, there hasn’t been much risk for investors.

“We have 25 well-performing businesses borrow from us so far, and we haven’t touched the loan-loss reserve — in part because we give a lot of technical assistance.”

Coffey described the loan process as easy to navigate, but that straightforward experience wasn’t the only thing that impressed her.

The recent three-year anniversary celebration featured food provided by many of the fund’s borrowers.

The recent three-year anniversary celebration featured food provided by many of the fund’s borrowers.

“I’ve got a background in bookkeeping, so I feel I had some skill sets that some people don’t,” she said. “But they were prepared to offer technical assistance, too, for people and startups and agricultural food businesses that need it. They are a very knowledgeable resource, and it was great getting things established right away.”

The FCCDC has been involved in small-business lending for close to 30 years and has plenty of expertise in providing guidance to young enterprises, Busansky noted, from business plans to websites. So she’s not surprised the PVGrows fund has found early success in its mission. “We have a system in place that’s worked well, and now we’re ready to seek the additional $1.25 million in commitments.”

Jennifer Ladd is one of those investors. “You don’t have too be a wealthy person to invest in Pioneer Valley Grows, which I think is a wonderful thing about it,” she told BusinessWest.

“Supporting agriculture in this Valley feels like contributing to a sense of vitality. It’s the same kind of feeling I get when supporting the arts — there’s creativity, growth, collaborations between people,” she went on. “And there are multiple layers of assurance that your money will actually have an impact and be of service.”

Ladd said the low interest rates for investors shouldn’t deter anyone because most people getting involved in this do so because they believe in the value of supporting local farm and food businesses.

“I enjoy cheese, fruits, vegetables, and wine around here, and I don’t mind not getting much of a financial return,” she said. “I’m choosing low interest because that serves people just starting out. These new endeavors need time to get their roots in the ground, so to speak, and this money can help them do that. It will yield benefits in many ways.”

Some of that benefit is cultural, she added, contributing to quality of life and a certain agricultural fabric of the region, as well as a sense of connection with people who thrive off the land and wind up feeding their neighbors.

“We don’t have huge farms here, like in the Midwest, with thousands of acres of corn. This is agriculture we actually do benefit from immediately,” Ladd said. “I also feel like it’s contributing to my sense of security; with climate change and the volatility we see in the world, it’s good to have food being produced locally. So it’s a sort of regional security that has a payoff right now.”

Green Thoughts

Food and farm businesses applying for financing and business support through the PV Grows Investment Fund are vetted for mission fit by a consortium of community-lending institutions and food and agriculture specialists, Busansky explained.

Terry and Susan Ragasa, owners of Sutter Meats in Northampton, were among the early borrowers. “From start-up funds to get us open to facilitating a business consultation to get us to the next level, the PVGrows Investment Fund has been an incredibly supportive asset for Sutter Meats,” Terry noted.

Coffey has had a similar experience, as she grows a business that takes agriculture and sustainability seriously. Her mushrooms are handcrafted in small batches, and her natural methods of production accelerate decomposition, build soil, and cycle nutrients — critical processes for healthy ecosystems, she explained.

In turn, she also appreciates the financial ecosystem being created through the PVGrows investors and borrowers. She said she ran into an old friend recently who had invested in the fund, around the same time Coffey became a borrower, and it struck her how PVGrows is essentially neighbors helping neighbors — and helping a critical part of the region’s economy succeed.

“Western Mass. has a phenomenal agricultural economy, not just the producing, but the processing, and the loan program helps add layers to it,” Coffey said. “We eat really well locally, but the funding and the technical aspects of setting up a business — and setting up a business well — is something that is often overlooked.”

As the fund expands, the hope is that Mycoterra won’t be the only agricultural business in the region that’s mushrooming.


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Collaborative Culture

 President Paul Scully

President Paul Scully

When Country Bank sought to overhaul its space on South Street in Ware a few years ago — a former mill building that houses about 110 employees — its leaders banked on what they call a collaborative culture, where low cubicles, glass walls, and comfortable, casual meeting spaces all aim to promote better communication and interaction, and a work environment that appeals to the young professionals that comprise the bank’s future.

Walking down the wide main hallway of Country Bank’s headquarters in Ware, you notice certain things. The central, glass-walled café. Conference spaces with names like ‘Integrity Room’ and ‘Prosperity Room,’ reflecting the bank’s values. The occasional beach ball.

Wait, what?

“Someone said to me, ‘what’s the deal with the beach balls?’” bank President Paul Scully said. “Well, we had them at a company event, and they ended up in the hallway. And when you’re walking down the hall and someone’s coming toward you and there’s a beach ball there, what do you do? You kick it.”

It can be an icebreaker of sorts, he went on, as the roughly 110 employees who work in the former mill building on South Street — almost half of the entire Country Bank organization — don’t necessarily all know each other. But it’s also, well, kind of fun.

“For people who visit, it’s unexpected,” said Shelley Regin, the bank’s senior vice president of Marketing, who estimated about 40 such balls reside somewhere in the building. “Normally, the hallway’s full of beach balls, but they make their ways into the offices, too.”

While fun to kick around, Scully said, the balls also promote interaction, a concept which was, frankly, the driving force in a recent, multi-year renovation of Country Bank’s main office. It’s the reason cubicles were lowered, solid walls were replaced by glass, and some of the gathering spaces feature couches rather than traditional chairs.

“When we moved in here 13 years ago, everyone had a cubicle as tall as me, and you couldn’t see one another,” he told BusinessWest. “That didn’t foster good collaboration. And there was no daylight because the work stations were so tall, they blocked the daylight.”

Scully had a catchy description of what the renovation aimed to reflect — “Google comes to Ware” — and explained why that type of culture is important.

One of the casual meeting spaces at Country Bank

One of the casual meeting spaces at Country Bank, is meant to spur creative thinking in an informal setting.

“We love the fact that we are in a mill town and that we’re a flourishing business here. But how can we attract the talent we need? We’re a $1.6 billion bank with 14 locations and growing — and we need to have Millennial talent to help move it forward. And they’re not going to want to hide in a cubicle and come out twice a day, for lunch and to leave. We said, ‘let’s really look at what is happening in workspaces that’s breeding collaboration and fun, and people just working together as a whole unit.’”

Like the low cubicles, the glass promotes more openness as well, Regin said.

“They put me behind glass walls so they can keep an eye on me,” Scully joked, before noting that his office used to be tucked away in a corner, as opposed to its current spot at the end of that main hallway. “You never went there unless you had to. It didn’t do anything for collaboration, nor did it allow me really to be a part of things. Now, right here, at my desk, this is the hub.

“We’re a $1.6 billion bank with 14 locations and growing — and we need to have Millennial talent to help move it forward. And they’re not going to want to hide in a cubicle and come out twice a day, for lunch and to leave.”

“The glass just opens everything up,” he went on, “and it supports the philosophy that we’re all equal components of the organization, and it’s not like you have to be behind a closed wall to do important things. We do have shades that come down. But if you put the shades down, everyone’s going to want to know what’s going on in Paul’s office, so you might as well just have them up and let them see.”

For this issue’s focus on banking and finance, BusinessWest paid a visit to Ware to learn how Country Bank is using its thoroughly 21st-century space — and several touches of fun that go well beyond the stray beach ball — to better position itself as an employer of choice at a time when competition is high for young talent.

Milling About

When Country Bank moved its headquarters in 2005 from Main Street to 44,000 square feet of former mill space on nearby South Street, it had options to relocate in another town, but the bank’s leaders felt it important to remain an economic engine in the community it had called home for more than 150 years.

“We looked at adding onto the main office, which was a Band-Aid approach, and then this fell in our lap,” Scully said of the former American Athletic Shoe plant, famous for its ice skates. “It was a very large employer, and had maintained the building meticulously. We have a lot of space here. You could easily say we could use half of it, but it works well for us; it allows us to have a big area for innovation and technology, and we have a whole education facility as well.”

The first renovation, to make the space suitable for bank operations, took place 13 years ago, and included those high cubicles and some decidedly unattractive color schemes and décor.

“Everything was kind of a pale yellow,” Scully said. “I started to walk around one Saturday and said, ‘this is awful. The color tones aren’t energizing. You can’t see anything. Let’s bulldoze it down and make it something where people are going to come in and say it’s is a really cool space.’

“It’s a great company, too, which is more important than being a cool space,” he was quick to add. “But you have to have those two together in order to really have it become a destination.”

As opposed to 2005, however, the latest renovation, which began around 2015, took place while people were working in the building — and often shifting around to accommodate the changes. “I moved five times in a year,” Regin said.

One of the casual meeting spaces at Country Bank

One of the casual meeting spaces at Country Bank, is meant to spur creative thinking in an informal setting.

“Really, the key piece was that group that moved into the first section that was done,” Scully recalled. “They were going to make it or break it for us, because if they said, ‘oh, it’s awful,’ we were doomed. Like anything else, when you say you’re going to change something, people immediately think of 1,000 reasons why it’s not going to work. It’s like Who Moved My Cheese? — ‘you’re throwing me off, you didn’t ask my input.’

But when that first group of employees settled in, they were more than satisfied. “Within the first week, they invited everybody in the building for brunch on a Friday because they were so excited about their space. We didn’t pay them for that. I think it spoke to just how much they loved it.”

The renovation stretched over two years because of the need to work around each department. In addition to the collaborative elements, the building also features a conference center with state-of-the-art multi-media equipment, an expansive IT space, and a number of small activity rooms. A gym was considered at one point, but Scully worried that it might turn into wasted space if interest waned, and besides, there’s a gym around the corner that Country didn’t want to siphon business from.

He had reservations about the central café as well, but that has proven to be a big hit. The fridge is stocked with fresh fruit all week, and Fridays feature a brunch with pastries or a yogurt bar. Then there are the Friday-morning games, like Hangman or Pictionary, that began with a few employees sneaking away from the brunch.

“We would all be hanging in the café, and one of the departments would go in a conference room and close the doors every Friday, and that wasn’t really working with me,” Scully recalled. When he found out they were using the short morning break to play games, however, “I said, ‘how about if you do that for everybody?’ They said, ‘really? We can do that?’”

bank based in an old mill building.

Paul Scully says visitors are often surprised to see a bank based in an old mill building.

So now, employees get an e-mail telling them what that Friday’s game is, and anyone is welcome to join in. It’s as much a way to get people talking and collaborating as are the small meeting spaces decked out with couches.

“When you go into a conference room, so often people think there’s a protocol of behavior, in the way you interact with one another,” Scully said. “It’s different when you’re sitting on a couch, bouncing ideas around. That’s what we really wanted to do — have it so people can think in an innovative fashion and look at things totally differently.”

Have a Ball

If visitors and new employees are surprised by the culture being fostered inside the building, he added, the exterior can be unexpected, too.

“I had a gentleman come in last week, and I explained, ‘OK, we’re in a mill building. And you’re going to think, this can’t be it. But you’re in the right place.’ And he said to me, ‘Scully, you’ve explained to us your building before, but this is not the typical bank,’ and I said, ‘at many levels, we’re not the typical bank.’ And that’s fine with us.”

He recalled speaking with someone who had also renovated a mill some years ago. “When I explained about the beach balls, he said, ‘beach balls?’ I couldn’t decide at that time whether we had just lost his confidence in us as a bank or not. But that wasn’t the case at all. The next day, I Federal Expressed him a bunch of beach balls and got a text from him the following day saying, ‘where’s the pump?’ I have every reason to believe those beach balls are flying through the air at his office as well.”

Banking, admittedly, has a staid reputation, and it’s not necessarily a field young people get excited about, he noted. But it is an industry where the culture is changing, and banks with an ear toward what Millennials prefer — when it comes to collaboration, flexibility, and even fun — will have an edge in attracting them.

“We would all be hanging in the café, and one of the departments would go in a conference room and close the doors every Friday, and that wasn’t really working with me.”

“This isn’t about a space,” he said. “It’s about the present and the future. Clearly, my generation is the minority this building, which is great. The Scully generation can’t be the generation that dictates how we’re going to do business. We want to be able to attract young talent and then unleash them, and let them think about how to do things differently.”

In that sense, the physical space is critical, Regin said. And it’s working. “A few years ago, most of our people who worked here were very local — 20 minutes to a half-hour away — and now they’re coming an hour. When they come to this space and realize what Country Bank has to offer, they’re willing to travel that hour, or even longer.”

In a job market where banks have to compete for talent, she added, Country Bank has plenty to offer when it comes to culture. “When people walk in here and see there’s a collaborative atmosphere, that’s important. That’s what people are looking for, especially the Millennial segment — they want to be at a place where they feel valued and there’s room for growth. It’s a destination, not just a job, where they sit in their cube all day and don’t see anyone.”

Scully agreed. “It’s important to have a place where, if someone is comparing their options, hopefully they say, ‘hey we like the option of coming here.’”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Expanding the Footprint

Glenn Welch

Glenn Welch

Although many Freedom Credit Union members have ties to West Springfield, Glenn Welch said, the institution has never had a physical branch there.

But that will soon change, following the announcement that Freedom has agreed to a merger with West Springfield Federal Credit Union (WSFCU), bringing the West Side institution under the Freedom umbrella.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to extend our products and services to West Springfield, an area where we do not have a branch but where many of our members live and work,” said Welch, Freedom’s president and CEO. “We promise our members accessibility to us, whether it’s at a branch location or through mobile banking. This merger delivers on that promise.”

Freedom, which is headquartered in Springfield and serves members in the four counties of Western Mass. with 10 branches, was originally chartered as the Western Massachusetts Telephone Workers Credit Union in 1922 and renamed in 2004. It currently has $491 million in assets with 28,000 members who live, work, or attend school in Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, or Berkshire county.

West Springfield Federal Credit Union, which was initially chartered in 1960 as the West Springfield Municipal Employees Credit Union before its name change in 2003, has nearly 3,000 members and more than $29 million in assets.

Welch noted that WSFCU members will have access to many new products and services, including member business lending, use of 55,000 surcharge-free ATMs across the worldwide Allpoint Network, and robust mobile-banking products and services. All employees of WSFCU will become part of the Freedom Credit Union family. The West Springfield Federal Credit Union location will remain open at 58 Union St. and conduct business as Freedom Credit Union.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to extend our products and services to West Springfield, an area where we do not have a branch but where many of our members live and work. We promise our members accessibility to us, whether it’s at a branch or through mobile banking.”

“The additional products, services, and opportunities available to both our members and the employees who serve them is a win-win proposition,” said Ann Manchino, manager of West Springfield Federal Credit Union. “We are excited for a new chapter in our history and to be part of the Freedom Credit Union family.”

The merger will require regulatory and member approvals, and is anticipated to be complete by the end of 2018.

Pending regulatory approval, Freedom Credit Union will have 11 total branches, including three offices in Springfield and locations in Feeding Hills, Ludlow, Chicopee, Easthampton, Northampton, Turners Falls, and Greenfield.

Credit unions are cooperative financial institutions owned by their members. As a not-for-profit organization, Welch noted, Freedom Credit Union returns its profits to its members in the form of high rates on deposit accounts, low rates on loans, and low or no fees for its services.

Banking and Financial Services

Giving Some Insight

By Terri Judycki

Terri Judycki, CPA, MST

Terri Judycki, CPA, MST

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) has resulted in many changes for taxpayers. One area in particular is charitable giving.

For those who regularly make charitable contributions, changing philanthropic giving habits may result in greater tax benefits. This article will explore various strategies for maximizing the tax benefit of charitable giving under the new law.

The TCJA increases the standard deduction to $12,000 for a single taxpayer and $24,000 for a married couple filing a joint tax return. In addition, the itemized deduction for taxes has been capped at $10,000 for all combined state and local tax payments. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that these changes will reduce the number of taxpayers who itemize deductions by more than half.

To maximize the benefit of the higher standard deduction, consider bunching charitable contributions in alternating years. For example, if a married couple with no mortgage ordinarily gives $12,000 to charity each year, they will likely take advantage of the $24,000 standard deduction ($12,000 to charity plus $10,000 in state and local states is less than the $24,000 standard deduction). If, instead, they give $24,000 every other year, they will use the $24,000 standard deduction in the ‘off’ year and $34,000 in itemized deductions in the year with the gifts ($24,000 charitable contributions plus $10,000 state and local taxes), resulting in lower taxable income without any increase in cash expenditures.

From the charity’s perspective, though, this could leave some budget challenges.

Another way to bunch deductions without bunching the charities’ income is through the use of a donor-advised fund (DAF). DAFs are funds controlled by 501(c)(3) organizations in which the person establishing the fund has advisory privileges as to the ultimate distribution to charities.

In our example above, the married couple might establish a DAF with $24,000 in one year and direct or ‘advise’ that donations be made to specific charities over time. Amounts used to establish the DAF are deductible charitable contributions when transferred to the sponsoring organization.

“For those who regularly make charitable contributions, changing philanthropic giving habits may result in greater tax benefits.”

Whether the idea of bunching appeals to you or not, don’t overlook the benefits of gifting appreciated stock to charity. The stock must have been held for more than a year to take advantage of this planning opportunity. The charitable deduction is the fair market value on the date gifted. Gifting the stock instead of cash avoids income tax on the appreciation.

For example, if a taxpayer wants to make a gift of $10,000 to a charity and sells stock worth $10,000 for which he paid $7,000, he would have a $10,000 deduction and $3,000 taxable gain. If, instead, he directs his broker to transfer the stock to the charity, he is still entitled to a $10,000 deduction, but does not report the $3,000 gain.

Finally, taxpayers age 70½ or older have another option available. An individual who is 70½ or older on the transfer date can direct the trustee of his IRA to distribute directly to a qualified public charity. The distribution is called a qualified charitable distribution (QCD). The amount transferred counts as a distribution for purposes of meeting the minimum distribution requirement but is not included in the taxpayer’s income.

There are a few requirements. The charity cannot be a private foundation or a donor-advised fund. No more than $100,000 can be donated by an account owner each year. The gift to the charity must be one that would have been entirely deductible if made from the taxpayer’s other assets — for example, the donor should obtain adequate substantiation from the charity, and the donation should not be one that entitles the donor to attend a dinner, play golf, or receive any other benefit.

In our example above, the couple who makes a QCD from IRAs for the $12,000 each year reduces taxable income by $12,000 and still uses the standard deduction.

Another possible advantage is the effect the reduction may have on other taxable items. Depending on the taxpayer’s total income, reducing adjusted gross income could result in reduction of the amount of Social Security benefits that are taxed, an allowed loss from certain real-estate rentals, or a reduction in the net investment income tax (if the amount of excess AGI exceeds the net investment income).

Reducing income may also result in lower Medicare premiums that are based on income for higher-income taxpayers. In addition, some states do not provide deductions for charitable donations, but do follow the federal treatment of excluding the QCD from income.

These changes may result in tax savings that could be used to make an even larger donation to a favorite charity.

Terri Judycki is a senior tax manager with the Holyoke-based public accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 322-3510; [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Tale of Two Cities

Connecticut has had its share of economic challenges in recent years, including a slow but steady outmigration of residents. Many might not be aware, however, of how stark the differences are between Connecticut and Massachusetts when it comes to long-term job recovery from the Great Recession — including Springfield’s relative strength when compared to Hartford. Farmington Bank’s economic adviser recently broke down the numbers, painting a picture that should be encouraging to those north of the border.

As an economic adviser for Farmington Bank, Don Klepper-Smith spends most of his analytical energy on Connecticut, but when he compares that state’s recent performance with its neighbor to the north, the numbers are stark.

“When we talk about Springfield and Hartford, I think the analogy ‘tale of two cities’ is appropriate,” Klepper-Smith said during a recent Farmington Bank webinar on the national and regional economy.

Since the low point of the Great Recession in 2009 — when unemployment spiked across the U.S. before the gradual recovery kicked in — the Greater Springfield area has created 32,000 new jobs, while Greater Hartford has created 37,000.

“So you’ve got close to 70,000 new jobs in the I-91 corridor between these two areas,” he noted. That’s all good. “But when we look at them in the context of our job-recovery rate, you can see Springfield is clearly outperforming Hartford — and looking a lot like the nation.”

The key takeaway is how much of the 2008-09 job losses have returned, he explained, and that’s where Springfield has really outpaced Hartford. While Hartford is now 4,200 jobs above full recovery — that is, above where the job picture stood in March 2008, before the economy collapsed — Springfield is 16,600 jobs above that line. To put it another way, Hartford has recovered 112.7% of its recession-era job losses, while Springfield has recovered 209.2%, gaining back its losses more than twice over. The national recovery figure, by the way, is 217.8%.

“When I think of Springfield, two words that come to mind are ‘stellar performance,’ with a job recovery rate that’s about twice that of Hartford,” Klepper-Smith said. “I think Hartford has its own challenges. We know the fiscal situation there has been tenuous, but I think economic-development policies are the reasons why Springfield is doing as well as it is.”

That’s good news for Springfield, which has been on a hot streak of good economic news for some time now, with the MGM Springfield casino at the forefront of that. But the numbers also reflect an overall disconnect in the way Massachusetts and Connecticut have respectively recovered from the economic downturn of a decade ago — and it’s a striking gap.

Tale of Two States

It’s hard to believe, Klepper-Smith says, that the U.S. recovery from the trough of the recession is now nine years old.

“The average postwar recovery is five years, so we’re getting a little bit long in the tooth here, and we’re looking for what could go wrong and trying to keep a positive attitude as we move through the balance of the year,” he went on. “Looking at the tea leaves and looking at the fundamentals, I’d say there’s a two in three chance we go forward with positive but slower economic growth — in the 2% to 2.5% range.”

Don Klepper-Smith

Don Klepper-Smith says economic-development policies have contributed to Springfield’s recent successes.

Yet, Connecticut continues to struggle — in fact, Hartford is among its strongest metropolitan areas in job growth, putting the rest of the state into stark relief. “State budget issues have undermined business confidence and promoted outmigration,” Klepper-Smith said, noting that the Nutmeg State has been shedding 428 people per week on average to other states.

“But as we go forward,” he said, “it boils down to consumers. Right now, what are consumers going to be doing for rest of 2018?”

Consumer confidence is rooted firmly in job creation, he was quick to note on more than one occasion. And Massachusetts job creation has been running circles around its southerly neighbor for much of the past decade.

Let’s go back to job-recovery rates, this time on the state level. Connecticut peaked at 1,713,000 jobs in March 2008, dropped to 1,594,000 by the following year — a 7% erosion — and has returned to a level of 1,687,000 jobs. That’s a recovery rate of just 78%, far below any other New England state.

“We seem to be stuck in this 80% range for job recovery, and right now we’re the only state in New England not to see full job recovery,” Klepper-Smith said of Connecticut. “I’ll be honest: I don’t see that number going above 100% any time soon. I don’t see robust job growth materializing any time soon.”

Massachusetts, in contrast, has been a model of recovery. From a 3,331,000 peak in 2008, the Bay State fell to 3,191,000 jobs at its 2009 trough — a 4.2% erosion — but now stands at 3,645,000, a whopping 322% recovery rate.

“In Connecticut, I’d have to use the word ‘lackluster’ for job recovery,” Klepper-Smith said, projecting that state likely won’t reach full recovery until 2020, several years after Massachusetts did so multiple times over.

The good news locally, he said, is that the Knowledge Corridor — the amorphous region stretching from Greater Hartford to Hampshire County — is doing well, even on the Connecticut side.

“We’ve got varying degrees of both strength and weakness. What we can say is the regional economy in the I-91 corridor is clearly performing well,” he noted, adding that the total non-farm job-growth rate is currently 0.8% in Hartford and 1.2% in Springfield, while the national figure is 1.6%. Again, Hartford pales in that comparison, but it’s behind only Danbury (1.0%) among Connecticut’s metro areas.

“I think the Connecticut economy seems to be moving sideways more than anything else, with pockets of both strength and weakness. We’re seeing signs of decelerating in many of the economic metrics we have,” Klepper-Smith said, noting that Connecticut’s gross state product ranks 49th nationally, ahead of only Louisiana.

“I’m hoping we can make some progress there as we move into 2019. We’re underperforming in job growth and income creation — and job growth will be what it’s all about. Jobs, jobs, jobs — they’re so important because of income, spending confidence, tax revenue, and all those linkages.”

National Picture

Nationally, Klepper-Smith said, the U.S. continues on a moderately positive path, growing at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of about 2.2%, though inflation — and rising costs of gas, healthcare, and home prices — are a concern.

“One of the things we can all agree on is that there are some pros and cons of living in an interconnected global economy,” he said. “And in economics, there are always tradeoffs; there’s never really a sense of clear winners and losers. Sometimes we have to wait and see how that all shakes out.

“But what we do know is what’s going on with the consumer sector,” he went on. “Consumers are so important to what’s going on because personal consumption accounts for roughly two-thirds of real gross domestic product.”

On one hand, he said, consumer-confidence measurables are strong — up 8% from last year and approaching 1990s levels, which is encouraging. But that trend could be tripped up by any number of factors.

“What we do know is that consumer fundamentals are being pressured, and risks to the current business expansion are becoming imperiled with rising energy prices, higher interest rates, and the expectation of higher healthcare costs heading into 2019. I think that’s a table setter for where we are, with the consumer feeling a little more squeezed and a little less comfortable compared to where we were back in March.”

Klepper-Smith expects the Fed to move with caution for the rest of the year. “We can now say the Fed sees rising inflationary pressures, and I honestly don’t feel they’re going to be aggressive on rate increases going forward. We’re probably not looking at more than two rate increases for the balance of 2018.”

If there’s one indicator to watch closely through the rest of the year, he said, it is, quite simply, how are consumers feeling? “One of the factors is the fact that the labor markets themselves have not shown meaningful progress. What that means is that we have not seen meaningful growth in consumer spending power.

“People ask me, ‘why doesn’t this feel like economic recovery the way I understood it in the past?’” he went on. “The answer is that we haven’t seen robust growth in consumer spending power.”

Back to Work

That comes down to jobs, of course, and Klepper-Smith admitted his dampened enthusiasm is mainly due to what he sees in Connecticut — which, again, puts Massachusetts in a very good light when it comes to its continuing recovery and expansion after the Great Recession.

“The good news is that we’ve seen job recovery in both regions, but I think that the problems that we have in Hartford are a bit more pronounced on the fiscal side, and I don’t think they’ll be going away any time soon,” he concluded.

It’s a sobering reflection of the myriad factors at play in creating an economic outlook — and a reminder that, even on the most challenging days in Massachusetts, things could be a lot worse.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Take Caution with Section 199A

By Kristina Drzal Houghton, CPA, MST

Kristina Drzal Houghton

Kristina Drzal Houghton

On Dec. 22, 2017, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was signed into law, bringing the biggest changes to both corporations and individuals in the past 30 years. Having spoken before groups of medical professionals on this issue, I have found that many believe limitations in the law will prohibit physicians from benefiting from these tax reductions.

This article will focus on medical practices and highlight some techniques available to benefit from the 20% deduction which might otherwise be limited. Additionally, there will be detailed examples of said techniques that will help to provide perspective and clarity to practice owners and shareholders on this very complicated tax issue.

Over the past few decades, many practices have been formed as pass-through entities. In contrast to C-corporations, income earned by a sole proprietorship, S-corporation, or partnership is subject to only a single level of tax. There is generally no tax at the entity level; instead, owners of these businesses report their share of the business’ income directly on their tax return and pay the corresponding tax at ordinary rates.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, signed into law this past December, reduced the top rate on ordinary income of individuals from 39.6% to 37%, and Section 199A further reduced the effective top rate on qualified business income earned by owners of sole proprietorships, S-corporations, and partnerships to 29.6%. Section 199A allows taxpayers other than corporations a deduction of 20% of qualified business income (QBI) earned in a qualified trade or business, subject to certain limitations.

Business owners below the applicable threshold amount — which is $157,500 of taxable income for all filers except joint filers, and $315,000 for those filing jointly —— can enjoy a QBI deduction for the lesser of 20% of their qualified business income or 20% of their taxable income. It does not matter what type of business is generating the income, nor is there a need to analyze W-2 wages paid by the business or depreciable assets owned by the business. The QBI deduction is what it is.

Business owners over their applicable threshold who derive their income from a business that is not a specialized trade or service business may also have their QBI deduction at least partially phased out, but the full deduction may be ‘saved’ based on how much they pay in W-2 wages and/or how much depreciable property they have in the business.

Business owners over their applicable threshold who derive their income from a ‘specified service’ business — which includes doctors, lawyers, CPAs, financial advisors, athletes, musicians, and any business in which the principal asset of the business is the skill or reputation of one or more of its employees — will have their QBI deduction phased out.

The phaseout range is $50,000 for all filers except joint filers, and $100,000 for those filing jointly. Once a business owner’s taxable income exceeds the upper range of their phase-out threshold ($207,500 for individuals and $415,000 for married filing jointly), they cannot claim a QBI deduction for income generated from a specialized trade or service business.

Examine your practice to determine if all your income is from a specified trade or business. A careful analysis of your practice could identify that it consists of multiple different trades or businesses. For example, an orthopedic practice might sell medical equipment. Breaking this portion of the practice off into its own LLC will decrease the specified service trade or business income and could potentially qualify for a QBI deduction with proper planning.

Shifting Business-owned Real Estate to New Entities and Paying Rent

Many practices own the real estate out of which they operate. If this is the case for a higher-earning business owner, there is an obvious way of converting some of the specified service-business income into income from a business that may qualify for a QBI deduction. In short, the business owner can create a new entity, transfer the real estate into that entity — provided the transfer is not tax prohibitive — and then lease that real estate back to the original business.

The original business’s profits, which are not eligible for the QBI deduction (assuming the business owner’s taxable income exceeds their applicable threshold), will decrease, and profits can be shifted to the new real-estate company, which could potentially qualify for at least a partial QBI deduction.

Example: John is a dentist and is the sole owner of an oral-surgery practice organized as an LLC. His income from the practice — which falls under the specified service business umbrella — is $900,000 per year. Thus, John is currently ineligible for any QBI deduction. Several years ago, the LLC purchased the medical offices out of which the practice operates for $2 million. The upkeep on the office space, the depreciation on the property, and other expenses currently reduce the net profit of the LLC by about $100,000 per year, but the property provides little else in the way of tax benefit for John.

One option to consider in a case like this would be to spin off the medical office building into a separate LLC, or other business structure, and have the dental practice rent space in the building. Those rent payments would be deductible for the medical practice, and taxable income for the new business … except the profit in the new business may be eligible for the QBI deduction.

For instance, suppose that, after spinning the medical office off into its own entity, the dental practice leases the office space at the rate of $220,000 per year. The net result of such a transaction would be reducing the dental practice’s net income $120,000 ($220,000 rental expense minus $100,000 prior expenses ‘lost’ = $120,000). The real-estate entity, on the other hand, would now have a profit of $120,000 — a net shift of zero — but the real estate’s income could qualify for the QBI deduction. Thus, the result is an equivalent amount of business income, but a $24,000 QBI deduction for John on his personal return that, at his tax rate, would save him nearly $9,000 in federal income taxes annually.

Shifting Other Business-owned Assets to Other Entities and Leasing Them Back

For some business owners, there’s the potential to continue to push the boundary even further on shifting depreciable property out of a business, and then leasing it back to the original business entity.

Example: Continuing the earlier example of John and the dental practice above, suppose the practice also owns X-ray machines and a variety of other depreciable medical equipment as well, with an unadjusted basis of $750,000. This equipment could be spun off into yet another business, and the dental practice could lease back the equipment.

The mechanics and potential tax benefits of this move are essentially the same as when real estate is moved into a separate entity. When it comes to the QBI deduction, depreciable business property is depreciable business property. The 2.5% limitation is not impacted by the type of depreciable property or the length of time over which it will be depreciated.

Of course, the limitation to this strategy is that not all small businesses have substantial (or much, or any) depreciable property to spin off into other entities in the first place … and at some point, any and all depreciable property that could be spun off will have been. So that’s it, right? Maybe not.

If You Can’t Lease Equipment, Lease People with an Employee-leasing Company

Many specified service businesses are labor intensive but may not necessarily require a great deal of depreciable property. Anesthesia and radiology practices are both good examples of this. Outside of some office furniture and some computers, these businesses can generate substantial profits without ever owning any significant amount of depreciable property since they operate out of hospital-owned facilities. They do, however, often employ a great number of people, and spend substantial amounts on human capital.

To that end, the language in Section 199A leaves the door open to the possibility of creating an employee-leasing company and leasing back one’s employees from that company. Some practitioners believe this to be a gaping hole in the rules, while other practitioners are a little more cautious at this time. Even on the conservative side, the billing and administrative employees could defensibly be split off into a separate LLC if it can be demonstrated that it is not a specified trade or business because it is not dependent on the skill or reputation of one or more of its employees.

Notwithstanding the benefits of the above strategy, some caution is merited. Tax advisers are understandably eager for answers, but unfortunately, Section 199A is just one small piece of the most significant overhaul of the tax law in 31 years. The IRS is now charged with the herculean task of providing guidance for a host of new and changed statutory provisions, and, as a result, it may be some time before tax advisers have certainty related to some of the strategies posed in this article.

Until that guidance arrives, Section 199A will best be approached cautiously, particularly considering the potential substantial-understatement penalty that comes with claiming a deduction under this provision.

Kristina Drzal Houghton, CPA, MST is a partner with the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C. and director of the firm’s Taxation Division; [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Sections

Members Only

Katherine Hutchinson says members expect a credit union to be attuned to their needs.

Katherine Hutchinson says members expect a credit union to be attuned to their needs.

Although myths persist about what credit unions are, their leaders are cheered by statistics showing that 43% of Massachusetts residents belong to one. But they know members aren’t satisfied with mere messaging; they want the high-tech tools available at larger banks, melded with a culture of personal service. It’s a challenge they say they work hard to meet.

Michael Ostrowski has made a career in credit-union leadership, and the numbers startled even him.

Specifically, it’s the statistic that 43% of the population of Massachusetts is a credit-union member, compared to about 33% nationally.

“That’s huge. I was surprised by that,” said Ostrowski, president and CEO of Arrha Credit Union. But after considering it, he wondered why that 43% figure should be a shock at all. “I’m surprised more people don’t take advantage of credit unions, from the fees and everything right down the line. We are typically a better deal, and you don’t see any of these credit unions in the newspaper like a Wells Fargo.”

By that, he meant the financial turmoil that many national banks brought upon themselves at the start of the Great Recession — a crisis that actually led to marketing opportunities for credit unions, said Katherine Hutchinson, president and CEO of UMassFive College Federal Credit Union.

“We did see growth throughout the recession,” she told BusinessWest. “We wanted to make sure we were not letting our members down by not lending through that period, but we were also very conscientious about how we were spending our money — all the things good financial institutions do to protect the interests of their shareholders and, in our case, our members. That’s really important to us, and I think it was a time where people were taking a second look and saw credit unions as alternatives.”

The lobby walls at UMassFive’s Hadley headquarters are adorned with messaging touting the member-centric (don’t call them customers) philosophy of credit unions, and, “believe me, we try very hard to follow the philosophy,” Hutchinson went on. “I’ve been at the credit union for 42 years — I’ve kind of grown up in the industry. When I started, we were very focused on the member, and I’ve tried to convey that and live that philosophy as we grew bigger.”

Credit unions are financial institutions that look and feel like a bank in the products and service they offer, she explained, but the difference is their structure as cooperatives.

“Because of a credit union’s non-for-profit status, consumers do expect better rates and lower fees, and I think that’s what they experience,” she said. “But they also want us to be focused on what they need, on how we can help them personally — to listen to their story, hear about why they’re in a certain situation, and what would really help them.”

Glenn Welch says local leadership means credit unions can respond to members’ concerns quickly.

Glenn Welch says local leadership means credit unions can respond to members’ concerns quickly.

Glenn Welch, president and CEO of Freedom Credit Union, said member ownership of the institution is important to those who do business there. “Whether you have $5 in your account of $500,000, it’s one member, one vote,” he said, adding that members of his board of directors must hail from the four western counties. “The board is local, so members know we can make decisions and resolve situations quickly.”

Resolving situations, and writing more success stories, is a point of pride for UMassFive, Hutchinson noted. “I think it’s important that we hear those stories and share those stories to encourage our employees to listen to the members and find ways to help. The stories are important.”

Numbers Don’t Lie

The story for credit unions has been positive in recent years, Ostrowski said, pointing to statistics like a capital-to-assets ratio of 10.4%, on average, for credit unions in Massachusetts. “Over 7 is well-capitalized — we’re over 10. That shows strength in the credit-union industry.”

Meanwhile, the 167 credit unions in Massachusetts employ 6,158 people full-time and another 908 part-time, and boast more than 2.9 million members — again, about 43% of all residents.

Still, myths persist about credit unions, Welch said, sharing four common ones identified by the Credit Union National Assoc.

The first myth: “I can’t join.” CUNA points out that many Americans believe they are ineligible to join a credit union, but membership eligibility today is typically based on geography, he noted. Membership at Freedom Credit Union, for example, is available to anyone who lives, works, or attends college in Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, or Berkshire counties.

The second myth: “accessing my money may be hard.” Not true, Welch said, noting that, along with boasting a mobile application for online banking, many credit unions, including Freedom, have joined the Allpoint Network, allowing members surcharge-free ATM access at more than 55,000 retail locations worldwide.

The third myth: “they’re too small.” Rather, he noted, credit unions provide the same security and protection of a larger financial institution, but is accountable to members, rather than shareholders. “This means every customer is treated as an individual, not a number, enjoying personalized service and customized products.”

The final myth: “they’re primarily for those in need.” Based on generational notions, Welch explained, some may believe credit unions mainly serve low-income consumers. In truth, he added, they serve every population, as well as every size and type of business.

Essentially, he told BusinessWest, the CUNA survey demonstrated that many people don’t understand what membership means and how to go about applying to be a member.

“Several things came up; one was that they didn’t feel that credit unions can offer them the level of technology and products of banking institutions. But we had a good year in 2017 and approached the board with quite a few investment upgrades,” he noted, expanding the tasks that can be done online, like electronically signing for loans.

“People don’t want to set foot in a bank or credit union lobby unless they have to,” he continued. “We have the same products available at bigger banks, but at a local level.”

Ostrowski agreed that credit-union members appreciate the institution’s purpose and philosophy, but also demand current technology. In fact, Arrha is in the process of upgrading all its systems to improve electronic communication and its mobile banking platforms.

“I think the credit unions are still filling that void of the banks that had their roots in the small towns, and that really hasn’t changed,” he said. “But I think it’s important that people realize that we have the same systems all the big banks have, and we have the same cybersecurity functionality they do. Clearly, from a systems standpoint, we can compete very well with them.”

Michael Ostrowski says credit-union members expect the same high-tech products they can find at large banks.

Michael Ostrowski says credit-union members expect the same high-tech products they can find at large banks.

Likewise, Hutchinson noted that the area colleges the credit union was built upon still form its core membership group, but it wouldn’t have grown beyond that without a recognition in the region of the credit-union philosophy — and without a commitment on the institution’s side to stay atop trends in products and services and continually invest in technology. “That is important to growth and our sustainability, so we’re proud of that.”

Loan Stars

Ostrowski said messages like this — and a vibrant economy — have helped Arrha grow steadily in recent years, with deposits up, loan delinquency down, and investments in technology helping to attract new members.

Meanwhile, Welch noted that the competitive interest rates Freedom pays on savings accounts and charges for loans have both attracted new business. All that led to growth in 2017 in return on assets and total loans, as well as hiring a second commercial lender and a credit manager, focusing on individuals and small businesses.

“Typically, we don’t lend more than $3.5 million or $4.5 million, although we could, based on capital,” he noted.

But the credit-union presidents BusinessWest spoke with all noted that the model’s philosophy doesn’t stop at dollars and cents, but extends to a robust community outreach, often in the form of educational seminars.

“That goes to the concept of people helping people,” Welch said. “We find, when we’re not able to help someone, it’s usually a credit issue, and often, they haven’t been educated on the value of credit. So we participate with other banking institutions in Credit for Life fairs, reaching out to students when they’re still in high school to talk about good and bad credit, and what that means when they try to buy a car, rent an apartment, or get a credit card.”

Hutchinson said her board believes community education is important to UMassFive’s mission. “So many people need that kind of assistance. It ties back into what is best for our members — educating them on how to make decisions.

“Financial literacy is key,” she went on. “We try to have a variety of topics, from understanding your credit score to budgeting to preparing for retirement and first-time homebuying. We also work with UMass, doing some seminars for students on student debt.”

Ostrowski noted that even recent college graduates don’t understand their credit score and the impact it can have, while others take advantage of a credit-card offer in the mail and quickly wind up thousands of dollars in debt without thinking about the consequences. “All our programs in financial literacy are drivers that we make no money on — they are absolutely out of love of our members and to protect them.”

The credit-union culture runs deep in Massachusetts, the state where such institutions were first chartered way back in 1909, Ostrowski explained. State partnerships are still critical, he added, noting that Gov. Charlie Baker has backed an effort by the state’s credit unions, called CU Senior Safeguard, to fight elder financial abuse and fraud. All frontline credit-union staffers are participating in the program, while a statewide effort is targeting consumers with information about how elders are defrauded — a problem that costs some $10 billion every year nationally.

“I’ve heard wild stories about members getting ripped off by contractors,” he said, or individuals who were ready to send money to an unknown e-mailer on the promise of more in return. “I’ve literally had to argue with individuals not to send their money away.”

Better, he said, to deposit it with a credit union — and join that 43% number that, in an age of constant mergers and acquisitions among area banks, only continues to grow.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Sections

Addition by Addition

While there are plenty of banks doing business in this region, Jeff Sullivan says, there is an opportunity for a new one that is based locally.

While there are plenty of banks doing business in this region, Jeff Sullivan says, there is an opportunity for a new one that is based locally.

 

Jeff Sullivan has spent more than 30 years working in and around the region’s banking community, most recently as chief operating officer for United Bank.

So he understands fully when people use that term ‘overbanked’ to describe this area. In fact, he’s used that word himself over the years as he’s watched branches proliferate in a host of area communities.

But over the past few years as he’s done consulting work for the industry after leaving United following its merger with Connecticut-based Rockville Bank, Sullivan says he’s come to understand that just because there are branches on almost every corner in some cities and towns, that doesn’t mean the region’s population — and especially certain segments of it — are adequately served.

“There’s plenty of good local banks around,” he told BusinessWest. “But there is opportunity, because the largest financial institution based in the city of Springfield now is a credit union. So there is opportunity for a Springfield-based institution with local decision making.

“I was getting asked by a lot of people — individuals I would just bump into on the street or in the supermarket — ‘can you send me to a good lender?’ or ‘can you give me a good bank to go to?’ or ‘are you going back to work? I need to make a switch,’ he went on. “After that happened 10 or 12 times in a relatively short period of time, I began to think there was room for a new bank.”

And these sentiments, grounded in what Sullivan considers more scientific analysis and sound due diligence, has led him to partner with attorney Frank Fitzgerald and Jim Garvey, owner of St. James Check Cashing, to begin the process of adding a new bank to the landscape.

It will be called New Valley Bank & Trust, the partners announced late last week, adding that the team is now seeking approval from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) to form the new institution before launching a capital raise aimed at amassing $25 million to $30 million.

This will be the first new bank launched in the area since NUVO Bank (since acquired by Community Bank) opened in 2008. New Valley Bank & Trust almost certainly will open in better economic conditions — NUVO had the misfortune of launching just as the country was heading into the Great Recession — and it will have a different model, said Sullivan.

Indeed, while NUVO was focused on a mostly digital banking model — it has just one branch, in downtown Springfield — New Valley will have slightly more of a brick-and-mortar foundation, he explained.

It will be headquartered in downtown Springfield and will start with a full-service branch somewhere in the city (the location has not been determined) and a second location on the west side of the Connecticut River (again, that community has not been chosen) within a year after opening.

New Valley, like most banks now doing business in this region, will offer a full range of business and retail banking services for residents and small to medium-sized businesses in Massachusetts and Northern Conn.

Like NUVO, though, this proposed new institution will focus considerable energy on commercial lending, said Sullivan, who has spent most of his career in that realm. Despite stern competition in the commercial market and a huge number of established players, he sees room for opportunity.

That opportunity — on both the commercial and residential sides of the ledger — results from the spate of mergers and acquisitions in recent years, he told BusinessWest, an ongoing development that has decreased the population of community banks and, as he noted, left Springfield without a bank headquartered within its boundaries.

“With fewer local banks servicing the region, we have heard from countless residents and small to medium-sized business owners that are looking for a level of customer service and credit that is simply not available in the market today,” Sullivan said in a press release announcing formation of New Valley. “Our focus will be on meeting this demand with personalized attention and cutting-edge technology that will shorten wait times for funding decisions and opening accounts.”

On the commercial side, the bank will focus on smaller loans and quick turn-around times, said Sullivan, adding that the mergers in recent years have created opportunities to meet a specific niche.

“We have a lot of good banks around here, but they’ve grown to a larger size,” he explained. “And they’re focusing on larger deals than they probably did 10 years ago. I think there’s a real opening for personal service being delivered to small businesses.”

But another point of emphasis for New Valley will be what Sullivan described as a still-large population of area households that are “unbanked and underbanked.”

Elaborating, he said research continues to show that the volume of business at check-cashing establishments has remained fairly stable — and comparatively high — in this region, despite considerable improvement in the economy over the past decade.

Sullivan and his partners estimate there are some 20,000 households in Hampden County alone that use a bank sparingly, if at all, and in these numbers, he sees more opportunity in the form of need for a new bank.

“These are working women and men whose barrier to entry into the banking system has been too high for too long,” her went on. “As a local bank, we want to find opportunities to serve this significant segment of our community and create lifelong customers in the process.”

Elaborating, Sullivan noted that, in many cases, individuals or households don’t use banks because of a lack of trust or because of a bad experience — or several.

“The biggest reason, the FDIC says, is lack of trust,” he explained. “They don’t trust the system. People have had bad experiences; they got kicked when they were down, and it’s led to a lack of trust.”

In response, New Valley will offer products and services designed to build trust, he went on, such as bounce-proof checking accounts, incentivized savings accounts, and financial-literacy programs.

Sullivan said the need for a new, locally based, bank can be verified by the makeup of the 60 founding sponsors — what he described as a “large and diverse group of business owners and entrepreneurs from throughout the region — and the enthusiasm shown for the concept, especially among young business owners.

That’s significant, he said, because they will have to be the backbone of the customer base moving forward.

“We decided that, if we were going to do this, it has to be about a younger generation of business cohort,” he explained. “So we needed to know if the Millennials and the Gen-Ys care enough about this kind of stuff.

“We had a series of focus groups — we put about 100 people in a room, 20 people at a time, and we pitched them on what we were trying to do,” he went on. “About 60 people wrote checks to give us the seed money to get started, and of those 60, close to half of them were people under the age of 45. We were pleasantly surprised by that, and based on that response, we decided to take things to the next level, which is where we are today.”

—George O’Brien

Banking and Financial Services Sections

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act

By Sean Wandrei

Sean Wandrei

Sean Wandrei

In December 2017, Congress passed H.R.1, better known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The act is the largest overhaul of the tax code since 1986. As with any new legislation, there are opportunities and pitfalls that one needs to be aware of when trying to take advantage of the new rules and avoid unwanted situations.

There are still many questions related to the act that the IRS will need to issue guidance on. There is a lot to unpack here, so let’s take a look at some items that businesses and individuals should be aware of.

The act reduces the corporate tax rate to a flat tax rate of 21%. This means the first dollar of taxable income is taxed at a 21% rate. This reduction could cause many owners of non-taxpaying entities (e.g. partnerships, limited liability companies, and S-corporations, also known as pass-through entities) to consider switching to a taxpaying entity (i.e. C-corporation). The maximum tax rate that the income of a pass-through entity could be taxed at is 37%.

Business owners could decide that their business should convert from a pass-through entity to a C-corporation based on this. While the reduction of the tax rate sounds great, there could be some issues that could increase the overall tax due if the entity is a C-corporation. If the owner(s) want to take money out of the C-corporation in the form of dividends, it will have to pay taxes on the dividends from the C-corporation at a maximum rate of 23.8% (20% tax on the dividend plus 3.8% net investment-income tax).

This is known as double taxation, which impacts only C-corporations and not pass-through entities. This could reduce or eliminate the overall tax savings of converting the entity to a C-corporation.

While taxes paid are usually a major factor on entity selection, there are some non-tax items to consider. Owners of C-corporations can receive tax-free employee benefits that pass-through entities are not entitled to. Another tax-savings option that was available prior to the act is the exclusions of the gain on the sale of qualified small-business stock (QSBS) under Code Section 1202. This provision was amended in 2010, allowing QSBS acquired after Sept. 27, 2010 to be eligible to exclude the total gain on the sale.  There are a few rules that have to be met to allow for the 100% exclusion. Section 1202 is available only for C-corporations. This means that, when the owner decides to sell his or her stock, the gain from the sale of that stock would be tax-free. The reduced tax rate and non-tax benefits could make C-corporations more attractive to some.

C-corporations are not the only business entities that received a tax break from the act. Pass-through entities are able to take a deduction of 20% on the qualified business income (QBI) earned from the business. Individuals who are sole proprietor and file a Schedule C and individuals with rental activity reported on Schedule E also qualify for this deduction.

On the surface, this deduction seems to be straightforward, but there is a lot to this deduction. Not all businesses qualify, and the deduction could be limited. QBI can be thought of as ordinary income from the business. The catch is that the deduction is limited to the lesser of 20% of QBI or 50% of the total W-2 wages paid by the business. So wages need to be paid to be able to take this deduction.

The 50% of W-2 wages does not apply if the owner’s taxable income is below $315,000 for married filing jointly (MFJ) and $157,500 for other taxpayers. This deduction may not be available to a specified service trade or business (SSTB). A SSTB is a business involving service in many fields, including law, accounting, consulting, and financial services. Engineers and architects were excluded from the definition of SSTB in a last-minute change. If the owner’s taxable income is below $315,000 for MFJ and $157,500 for other taxpayers, the SSTB limitation does not apply.  

The planning that comes into play for this deduction is based on the entity type. QBI does not include reasonable compensation paid by an S-corporation to the owner(s). Similarly, QBI does not include amounts paid as guaranteed payments by a partnership to the owner(s).

Based on this, if the pass-through entity is an S-corporation, reasonable wages are going to be deducted from the QBI, which will reduce QBI and the deduction. A partnership and sole proprietor are not required to take guaranteed payments, so the QBI could be larger for a partnership than an S-corporation based on this. If the taxable income is below the limits mentioned above, the 50% of W-2 wages option does not come into play, and the larger deduction will be had by the partnership and sole proprietor.

If the 50% of W-2 wages comes into play, then the S-corporation will have to pay W-2 wages, and the partnership will have to pay guaranteed payments to owners or wages to non-owners to be able to take this deduction. With this in mind, the owner’s taxable income will need to be monitored.

For individuals, the elimination of exemptions and the doubling of the standard deduction will cause more taxpayers to take the standard deduction instead of itemizing. It is said that only 10% of the population will itemize in 2018 compared to 30% in 2017. If you fall into the 10% of people who itemize, you may have heard that one of the biggest deductions, state and local taxes, is limited to $10,000 per return.

This is the case if you are single or filing as MFJ; the deduction is limited to $10,000. The marriage penalty is back. If the MFJ couple was not married and filed as single taxpayers, then they each would be able to deduct up to $10,000 in state and local taxes.

In the past, the interest from a home-equity loan was deductible. The proceeds from the home-equity loan could have been used for anything. Now the interest from a home-equity loan is no longer deductible unless it is used to buy, build, or substantially improve the taxpayer’s home that secures the loan. Prior to the act, employees were able to deduct unreimbursed business expenses related to their job. This is no longer the case.

As you can see, the act has provided many new things to consider when it comes to taxes. Now, more than ever, your CPA will be counted on to help with tax planning.

Sean Wandrei is a lecturer in Taxation at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst. He also practices at a local CPA firm; [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Sections

Entertaining Thoughts

By Carolyn Bourgoin, CPA

Carolyn Bourgoin

Carolyn Bourgoin

For many businesses, corporate entertainment has long been a means of building relationships with referral sources, vendors, and strategic partners as well as providing networking opportunities for physicians and practice managers to meet new referral sources and industry influencers and to build a presence in the marketplace.

The recently enacted Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) has eliminated most deductions for business-entertainment expenses paid or incurred after Dec. 31, 2017. Drawing the line between the portion of an entertainment activity that is business-related versus for pleasure has long been an area of contention between the IRS and taxpayers. Though the TCJA did eliminate most business-entertainment expenses, certain expenditures, mainly those benefiting employees, did survive the tax cut.

Taxpayers need to understand what expenses survived the repeal so that they can properly segregate the deductible costs.

Expenditures Paid or Incurred Prior to 12/31/17

Prior to the TCJA, entertainment expenses and the use of entertainment facilities were deductible only if the taxpayer could establish that the costs were either directly related to a taxpayer’s trade or business or associated with the active conduct of a trade or business for which a substantial and bona fide business discussion occurred either directly before or after the event. In addition to meeting the ‘directly related to or associated with’ test, entertainment-expense deductions had to satisfy strict substantiation requirements, including details on the amount of the expense, the time and place of the entertainment, the business purpose, and the business relationship with the persons entertained. The term ‘entertainment’ includes activities at country clubs, nightclubs, sporting events, cocktail lounges, and theaters. Though not defined by regulations, business-entertainment expenses are to be further reduced by amounts considered “lavish or extravagant.”

Additional cost limitations apply to skybox rentals, sports tickets purchased for more than face value, and attendance at foreign conventions. Country-club dues were (and still are) nondeductible.

Business entertainment expenses that had escaped limitation at this point were then generally limited to 50% of the expense, unless they fell under one of several exceptions, including certain entertainment expenses included as compensation to the recipient and social or recreational entertainment provided primarily for the benefit of employees who were not highly compensated. These business-entertainment expenditures were fully deductible and survived the TCJA repeal and will be addressed later in this article.

Entertainment Expenditures Paid or Incurred After Dec. 31, 2017

Pursuant to the TCJA, expenses related to entertainment, amusement, or recreation that are directly related to or associated with the active conduct of the taxpayers’ trade or business are no longer deductible. As a result, a tax deduction will not be allowed for the following items incurred after Dec. 31, 2017:

• Expenses incurred for the use of entertainment facilities, such as the lease of skyboxes, are no longer deductible. However, businesses should review their lease agreements to see if there may be a component included in the rental price for advertising. This portion of the rental cost would be fully deductible as advertising if properly documented and reclassified;

• Expenses related to the entertainment of a client or prospect at a sporting event, theater, concert, or similar type venue (unless included in a 1099 as a prize) are not deductible under the new rules;

• Expenses for attending charitable sporting events, such as a golf tournament, where the entire net proceeds go to charity, will not be deductible to the extent of the cost of the golf or other goods or services provided. Until further guidance is issued, it is unclear whether the meals offered at an entertainment event are still 50% deductible. To the extent the ticket price exceeds the goods and services received, the taxpayer will be entitled to a charitable deduction; and

• As was the case prior to the tax-reform act, dues paid to any social, athletic, or sporting club or organization are non-deductible expenses.

Business-entertainment Expenses Still Allowed

As discussed previously, there are nine categories of entertainment-related expenditures that were not eliminated by the TCJA, as follows:

• Expenses for recreational, social, or similar activities (including related facilities) offered primarily for the benefit of employees other than highly compensated employees are fully deductible. A holiday party or annual picnic are examples;

• Expenses directly related to bona fide business meetings of stockholders, employees, agents, or directors are allowed. Examples of such expenditures would be refreshments offered to employees at a meeting where they are being instructed in a new business procedure. Food and beverages served at these meetings would be subject to the 50% limitation;

• Expenses directly related and necessary to attendance at a business meeting or convention held by a business league, chamber of commerce, real-estate board, or board of trade are deductible. Meals at these meetings would be subject to the 50% limitation;

• Expenses for services, goods, and facilities made available by the taxpayer to the general public, such as during a promotional campaign, are deductible;

• Expenses for food and beverages furnished on the taxpayer’s business premises primarily for the taxpayer’s employees (i.e. more than half), are deductible. The cost of meals provided for the convenience of the employer, such as when employees must be available throughout a mealtime, are only 50% deductible as of Jan. 1, 2018. Prior to the TCJA, these meals were 100% deductible. In addition, meals provided at an employer’s on-site dining facility are subject to the 50% limitation until Jan. 1, 2026, when meals for the convenience of the employer as well as the meals and cost of operating an on-site dining facility are no longer deductible;

• Entertainment expenses that are treated as compensation to employees, by including the costs in employee wages for income-tax-withholding purposes, are deductible;

• Expenses for entertainment-related goods or services, to the extent they are includible in the gross income of the recipient as compensation for services rendered or as a prize or award, are allowed. The recipient in this case would not be an employee of the taxpayer and must be issued a 1099 to the extent the goods or services received exceed $600;

• Expenses for goods or services (including the use of facilities) which are sold by the taxpayer in a bona fide transaction for adequate and full consideration in money or money’s worth are deductible. An example of this would be the cost of meals sold by a restaurant, and

• Expenses incurred by a professional firm for actual meal expenses that are charged back and reimbursed by a client, where the meals are separately stated in the invoice, are deductible.

De minimis fringe benefits, which are benefits that are so small as to make accounting for them unreasonable, such as coffee, soft drinks, and donuts offered to employees, remain fully deductible through the tax year 2025. In addition, meals associated with the active conduct of the taxpayer’s trade or business are still allowed, subject to the 50% limitation. Until further guidance is issued, it is unclear whether meals purchased at a business-entertainment event, such as after a round of golf or attending a ballgame, are a non-deductible entertainment expense or if they meet the business-related tests and are still deductible subject to the 50% meals limitation.

Classifying sporting tickets provided to clients as business gifts does not provide much relief, as the tax deduction is limited to $25 per item.

Bottom Line

Due to the recent changes in the tax law, it is important for taxpayers to consult with their tax advisors and develop an understanding of the business meals and entertainment expenses that remain deductible and develop a strategy to track them. It would be wise to set up separate accounts based on whether they are 100%, 50% or nondeductible.

Amounts paid to attend entertainment events should be analyzed to see if there are advertising or charitable components to the cost that can be reclassified as fully deductible. Consideration could be given to issuing 1099s to clients or prospects being provided with free tickets to events to make the cost deductible as prizes. Though the TCJA was not favorable to taxpayers that incur business-entertainment expenses, there are still some expenses in this area that remain deductible.

Carolyn Bourgoin, CPA is a senior tax manager with the Holyoke-based public accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 322-3483; [email protected]