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Banking and Financial Services

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]