Class of 2009 Difference Makers

Doug Bowen

President and CEO of Peoples Bank
Doug Bowen

Doug Bowen

Carol Katz says Doug Bowen possesses what she calls a “strong moral compass.”

By that, she meant that the president and CEO of PeoplesBank in Holyoke has a sound sense of direction when it comes to giving back to the community and the manner in which those contributions are carried out — by the bank and by Bowen himself.

And, as president of the Holyoke-based Loomis Communities and one who is very active in that city, Katz should know.

Bowen has served on her board for years and was a corporator before that, and she now sits on the bank’s board. Meanwhile, they’ve served together on the board of the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce. Thus, Katz has seen the time, energy, and insight that Bowen brings to a host of nonprofits he serves personally — Holyoke Community College and the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. are on that list, among others. And she’s also seen first-hand the tone he sets at the bank — one that takes a number of forms.

These range from a strong philanthropic platform — the bank ranked 52nd among all state businesses in the Boston Business Journal’s list of largest charitable contributors — to a strong leadership position when it comes to lending to ‘green’ businesses and sustainable-energy-related ventures. And then, there’s simply the direction he’s providing the bank in terms of growth and profitability.

“He has his priorities straight,” said Katz, summing things up neatly and with conviction. “He feels strongly about his responsibilities and the bank’s responsibilities to be a leader within the community — and you don’t always see that among business people and in the banking industry today.”

It’s been this way since Bowen joined PeoplesBank 33 years ago as a teller in its management-development program soon after graduating from college. He remembers working at the High Street main office, cashing checks for hundreds of uniform-clad factory workers and giving them back large sums of cash.

“That was back in the days before direct deposit, ATMs, and debit cards,” he said. “People would just come and cash their checks.”

Holyoke — and the banking industry — have changed considerably over the past three decades, as have the titles on Bowen’s business cards (“I think I’ve had every position in the place”), but his moral compass hasn’t. And that no doubt played a role in his ascension to president two and a half years ago, succeeding Joe Lobello.

“I’ve been very fortunate … I’ve had a number of careers, but all with the same organization,” he said. “I’ve been on the finance side, the lending side, and the retail side. That’s kept it interesting and challenging.”

Bowen’s community-focused business philosophy prevails at the bank, said Katz, as does a management style she says is grounded in the tenets detailed by Jim Collins in his popular business book Good to Great.

“He’s the kind of leader who puts the organization first,” said Katz. “He builds consensus with his team; he respects his team, and the team respects him. He does what’s right.”

Recently, Bowen has steered the bank toward that leadership position with regard to ‘green lending,’ for lack of a better term. There is even something called a green team.

Membership includes virtually every department in the bank, and, from a business perpesctive, efforts range from recently approved loans for small-scale wind-power projects (the bank has by far the largest wind-power portfolio in the region) to a partnership with the Holyoke Gas & Electric Department to develop and expand hydro-electric facilities, and lending to parties working to develop brownfield sites in the region. Internally, the team is working to reduce energy consumption, curb the use of paper, and take other steps that would fall under the category of ‘going green.’

Meanwhile, the tone he’s set has enabled PeoplesBank to move steadily higher on the BBJ’s largest-charitable-contributors list. The institution donated $412,376 in 2007, just one slot below Friendly Ice Cream Corp. In 2008, the number was $700,000, which should move the bank way up on the chart because, while it gave more over the past 12 months, many other businesses scaled back in response to a worsening economy.

“The bank views its contributions to the community as an expression of its core values,” said Bowen. “It’s also part of a strategic business initiative we call ‘community spirit.’ Over the past five years, we’ve given $3 million to charitable and civic organizations, and that doesn’t include the $700,000 we gave last year.”

Beyond the numbers, however, is a commitment to giving in ways that will make the most profound impact on overall quality of life in the Pioneer Valley.

“The charitable giving by the bank is focused on putting dollars where they can help the most people and have the greatest impact on the community,” he explained, citing recent donations (coinciding with expansion in the Springfield market) ranging from Rachel’s Table to the Springfield Falcons; from the Springfield Symphony to American International College.

“My overall vision, or sense, is that a community bank has a responsibility to be a stable financial institution — but also be a trusted neighbor. And as the largest community bank in the region, we take those responsibilities quite seriously.”

The Loomis Communities has a nine-year term limit for board members, said Katz, and Bowen has just a few years left to serve.

Thus, there will be a big leadership void to fill for her organization, but she suspects that Bowen will no doubt fill the void in his schedule when it comes to giving back to the community.

That’s the direction his strong moral compass compels him to take.

— George O’Brien