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Banking and Financial Services

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]