Banking and Financial Services Sections

Glenn Welch Takes the Reins at Freedom Credit Union

Continuing the Momentum

Glenn Welch

Glenn Welch says the community-focused culture at Freedom Credit Union is similar to what he experienced in his previous president’s role at Hampden Bank.

Under 12 years of Barry Crosby’s leadership, Freedom Credit Union dramatically expanded its assets, employee base, membership, lending reach — pretty much all the metrics by which a financial institution is measured. So former Hampden Bank President Glenn Welch, recently chosen to succeed the retiring Crosby, is taking the reins at a time of significant momentum for Freedom. He says the institution will continue to seek out growth opportunities, while maintaining its emphasis on commercial lending and community involvement.

Glenn Welch’s move from Berkshire Bank to Freedom Credit Union wasn’t very far geographically — just a half-mile north on Main Street in Springfield — and, to hear him tell it, perhaps even less of a move culture-wise.

“One of the things I heard before coming here — from at least four people who used to work at Hampden Bank was that Freedom reminded them very much of Hampden with its community orientation,” said Welch, a 17-year veteran of Springfield-based Hampden Bank and its president from 2013 until its acquisition by Berkshire Bank last year.

“You can’t just take people’s money and make loans these days,” he added. “If you’re a community institution, you have to be involved and doing things in the community. That’s how you generate goodwill and increase your customer base.”

After the Berkshire merger, Welch stayed on for several months as executive vice president. But after Freedom Credit Union President Barry Crosby announced his retirement last June and Freedom hired a Boston-based recruiting firm to find the institution’s next president, Welch was among the names chosen as possibilities.

“It was a long process, and we were very thorough,” said Lawrence Bouley, who chairs Freedom’s board of directors. “We brought other candidates forward as well, but found Glenn best fits with our organization, with the commercial background he has, as well as being a local banking leader; he knows the area and knows its people.”

Welch, who spoke with BusinessWest on Jan. 4, his first day on the job at Freedom, agreed that the match is a good one. “Fortunately, I was the one they chose,” he said. “Freedom Credit Union is a very community-minded organization, the same as Hampden Bank was. Plus, they’ve had a real push forward into business lending.”

Specifically, its designation as a low-income credit union allows it to avoid the cap on commercial lending — 12.5% of assets — that most credit unions must adhere to. This, and an aggressive commercial-loan push in recent years, has seen the institution recognized as a top SBA lender in the region, a shift that mirrors Hampden Bank’s commercial-loan growth during Welch’s days at the reins there. “With a real focus on commercial loans here,” he said, “it seemed like a good fit on both sides.”

Specifically, Crosby added, in the past five and a half years, Freedom has gone from no commercial loans to more than $36 million. “It has been slow, steady growth. We’ve grown the department from one individual to five positions.”

That reflects the overall growth of the credit union during Crosby’s tenure. When he came on board in 2003, the bank had one office and 38 employees; today, it boasts 11 locations and 135 employees. Meanwhile, membership has grown in the past 10 years from roughly 16,000 to more than 27,000.

Steady Growth

That growth came both organically and through a series of strategic acquisitions. The credit union’s second branch, in Northampton, came about through a merger with Franklin Hampshire Building Trades Credit Union in May 2004, followed by the opening of a Chicopee branch that November. The following year, a merger with Four Rivers Federal Credit Union brought Freedom offices to South Deerfield and Turners Falls.

Two more branches — in Greenfield and Feeding Hills — opened in 2009, and expansion to Easthampton followed in 2010. A year later, a second Springfield branch opened in Sixteen Acres, and 2012 saw the tenth site open in Ludlow. The most recent office is located in Putnam Academy in Springfield, and is staffed in part by high-school students, many of whom, once they graduate and move on to college, return to work there over winter break. Currently, 12 Freedom employees are Putnam students or graduates.

“With the continued consolidation in the industry,” Welch said, “Freedom having branches up and down I-91 provides a lot of opportunity across the Valley for local decision making.”

Go HERE to download a PDF chart of area credit unions

The broader resources that come with being a larger institution also make it easier to introduce retail and commercial products, Crosby added, from the Freedom@Home online banking platform to a program known as CUPs, or Credit Union Partners, which offers local businesses and organizations a no-cost benefit package for their employees and retirees, including special promotions for checking and savings accounts and several types of loans.

Freedom has placed much importance on financial education as well, educating area youth at schools and colleges from Springfield to Greenfield through its youth-banking and financial-literacy programs.

For each elementary school in the youth-banking program, employees visit schools to accept deposits, review monthly statements, and explain the fundamentals of saving. Meanwhile, high-school students learn about topics like the importance of maintaining good credit and the process of getting a car loan. Freedom also participates in area Credit for Life financial-literacy fairs — a collaborative effort with other institutions — that teach teens about budgeting and making life decisions with their finances.

The credit union has also conducted new-homebuyer seminars through the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and the New North Citizens Council. Welch again pointed out similarities with Hampden Bank’s activities during his tenure, which included Credit for Life and new-homeowner seminars, among other financial-education efforts.

Deep Roots

Freedom Credit Union was chartered in 1922 as the Western Mass. Telephone Workers Credit Union.  From a small office in the telephone company building on Worthington Street in Springfield, the institution grew until it had to find a new, larger home on Main Street.

As a result of telephone-company downsizing and reorganization, the credit union eventually expanded to include select employee groups. But growth was incremental until January 2001, when the institution applied for a community charter, and membership eligibility was expanded to include anyone who lives or works in Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, or Berkshire county. In January 2004, just after Crosby took over as president, the membership voted to change the name to Freedom Credit Union.

Barry Crosby, left, and Lawrence Bouley

Barry Crosby, left, and Lawrence Bouley agree that Glenn Welch’s experience, community ties, and commercial-lending acumen make him a good fit to lead Freedom.

“When I took over as president 12 years ago, we were still the Western Mass. Telephone Workers Credit Union, but we changed the name to reflect the broader community, and we are now known up and down the Pioneer Valley,” Crosby said.

Indeed, deposits in Franklin County grew from $10 million to $66 million in that time, and from $17 million to $75 million in Hampshire County. Today, Freedom is a $522 million institution.

“We’ve more than doubled our assets and membership in that time,” he went on, emphasizing the importance of a physical presence in communities, even in an age when online banking is extremely popular. “In my opinion, you need brick and mortar in key locations in the market you want to be in. You cannot just do everything online. Even Millennials need to see bricks and mortar to recognize your name.”

He cited the example of Realtors Federal Credit Union, which launched in Maryland as an online-only enterprise. “It didn’t succeed. They thought they’d run that place with 20 people nationwide, but you can’t replace bricks and mortar in key locations.”

Welch agreed. “When the Internet became popular, some people at Hampden thought we didn’t have to build any more branches. But we doubled our branches to 10. People want to come into a bank and recognize the person behind the counter and know the branch manager. Finance is very personal for people. When you don’t have a high level of touch, it just doesn’t work.”

Efforts to broaden that ‘touch’ at Freedom include financial education targeted at the region’s expansive Hispanic population — Springfield is 38% Hispanic, and Holyoke 48%, and the numbers are larger in the school systems — with efforts like Spanish-language financial-literacy articles in regional Latino publications as well as targeted messaging on TV and radio.

Future Look

Welch, who earned his bachelor’s degree in finance at Western New England University and his MBA from UMass Amherst, held a number of positions at Hampden Bank before becoming president there, including chief operating officer, executive vice president, and senior vice president of business banking. Before that, he served as vice president of the Middle Market Banking Group at Fleet Bank.

His deep roots in the region are also reflected by his civic volunteerism in the Pioneer Valley, including serving on the boards of HAPHousing, the Assoc. for Community Living, the Business School Advisory Board at Western New England University, DevelopSpringfield, and Springfield Business Leaders for Education.

He arrives at a growing credit union that continues to expand its services and recently put its staff through additional training to help them better identify member needs and match them with available products and services — an effort to create more members for life.

“We’ve built a great base for the future,” Crosby said. “We have strong capital, we’re regulatory-compliant, and we see great opportunities over the next few years.”

For his part, Welch said Freedom will continue to examine potential expansion of its geographic footprint while broading its commercial-lending reach and cross-selling services to its existing membership base.

“We see a lot of opportunity here,” he told BusinessWest — and a likelihood of continuing more than a decade of strong momentum.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at  [email protected]