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Greenfield Savings Bank Focuses on Economic Development

Rebecca Caplice, president and CEO

Rebecca Caplice, president and CEO

With almost a century and a half of history behind it, Greenfield Savings Bank has woven itself into the fabric of the community like few banks have — not just by dominating retail market share in its region or supporting local schools and charitable causes (both of which it does), but by taking an active role in promoting economic development and the overall vitality of area towns. After all, a healthy Franklin County bank begins with a healthy Franklin County.

Greenfield Savings Bank has been based in the downtown of its namesake community for 141 years. This means the insitution has witnessed a great deal of change in the central business district, and in recent years, most of it hasn’t been for the better.
The area, like many downtowns, has long struggled with vacancies and blighted properties. “Several of the buildings have been vacant for decades,” said Rebecca Caplice, the bank’s president and CEO. “In others, the upper floors were not in use because there were no elevators, or they need upgrades. And there hasn’t been any economic incentive to make the upgrades, because the owners felt they would never get the rents to pay for them.”
So the bank, working with institutions ranging from the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. to Greenfield Community College, spearheaded a unique development model that brought together about six property owners, representing more than a dozen buildings, who are using tax-credit financing, facilitated by GSB, to fund renovations of the vacant sites. “It wouldn’t have been cost-effective to do something like that on their own,” Caplice said.
The project is an ongoing one — scaffolding now covers one building across Main Street, and while some properties have been renovated, others are in flux — but results are already evident; for instance, a string of buildings on nearby Bank Row, all but one of which used to be vacant, are now thriving.
“I don’t know how many meetings we had with this table full of people,” Caplice said, gesturing across a long boardroom table where she spoke with BusinessWest. “Some have money, some don’t. There are different levels of expertise. Nonprofits and for-profit companies. It was exhausting; some days, it felt like herding cats. But when I see things happening, it’s so gratifying.”
That kind of project, said Caplice, is a natural fit for GSB, a bank that has long been involved in the civic and economic health of its communities. Five years ago, the bank launched an initiative called ‘civic action accounts,’ by which GSB donates money to school districts and other organizations based on how often customers use their debit cards.
In some ways, such community support is a reflection of how closely aligned the bank is with Franklin County life, with a 50% market share in savings deposits, as well as its position as the county’s number-one lender. For this issue, BusinessWest sat down with Caplice to talk about the bank’s role in the economic vitality of its region, and how it has succeeded through slow, steady growth and a focus on meeting community needs.

Still Standing
Amid dramatic changes in the financial-services industry that have swept some major names out of the picture, GSB and Greenfield Co-operative Bank are the only two institutions located in Greenfield 20 years ago that are still around today. Other banks have since entered the market, but GSB’s roots still run especially deep.
“We’re still here after 141 years, same name, same place,” said Caplice, who arrived at the bank in 1991 and succeeded Joe Poirier as president and CEO in 2007. “I think we’re the big fish in a small pond, and we continue to have growth.”
The bank has done so partly by differentiating itself with new products, like its trust business, which GSB started to cultivate during the 1990s when other banks with strong trust divisions, particularly Bank of New England and Shawmut Bank, left the Franklin County landscape. It now offers the region’s only in-house trust and investment department — a business most small banks don’t normally delve into.
“The trust business really sets us apart, and having officers who are local is a really unique feature,” Caplice said. “Some larger, more regional banks have trust services, but they don’t have people to deliver them locally. And as the Baby Boomers continue aging, there will be an increased demand for this.”
Joan Cramer, the bank’s vice president and marketing officer, told BusinessWest that offering a full palette of services — from retail checking and savings to commercial lending to investment products — is also critical to its continued growth.
“Our motto is, we want them all,” Cramer said of the constant challenge to add customers and grow market share. She cited efforts like free checking for retail and business customers, which began a few years ago and has proved popular. “That has drawn quite a bit of business to the bank.”
Cramer said GSB has also been boosted by its Employer of Choice designation, saying the bank has drawn a host of talent — some from other banks — who appreciate the culture of service that Greenfield has developed.
“People drawn to service industries are more likely to stay with a company that supports that culture,” Caplice said. “I want to be the best place in America to work.”

All Aboard
As workplaces go, it’s a healthy one, Caplice added. Like other community banks in Western Mass., it has a story to tell of surviving the international banking meltdown of 2008 mainly because it hewed to stricter standards than the large banks that found themselves awash in toxic loans. Or, as she put it, “we didn’t do stupid things.”
As a result, the commercial-lending window is still open to companies that are ready to make new capital investments.
“The idea that credit-worthy borrowers are having difficulty finding a loan — it’s not true here,” she said. “If you’re worthy, we’ll find you a loan.”
She told BusinessWest that people in some regions of the U.S. don’t know what it’s like to have that kind of faith in their local banks. “It’s really unique here,” she explained. “Some people think every area of the country is like us. There are community banks, but not like it is here, with so many banks that don’t lose sight of their local mission. That’s a New England phenomenon.”
Conservative growth is another Yankee hallmark, and GSB has chosen its expansion efforts deliberately. It merged in 1967 with the Crocker Institution for Savings in Turners Falls, making that office its first branch outside of Greenfield, and added another branch in South Deerfield in 1972. More recent additions included branches in Shelburne Falls and Conway, and the opening of what’s called the Amherst Financial Center in 2002 — marking the bank’s first physical presence in Hampshire County.
“We haven’t opened any new branches since, but we’ve done a lot with existing locations,” Caplice said, citing as one example the new building in Turners Falls, which resembles a train station, the former use of its site.
“We wanted to reflect the style of the town, which has many brick buildings, and the architect designed it to look like an old-style train station,” she said. “When a customer said to me, ‘it’s like I’m in a train station!’ I thought, ‘OK, it worked.’”
Other projects include the expansion of the Deerfield branch, doubling its size — “we’ve managed to expand with our growth,” she said — and ongoing renovations at the Greenfield main office, including a new building for drive-up service and a reconfiguring of the parking area to improve flow and landscaping.

Banking on an Idea
But Caplice is more concerned with the economic landscape of Greenfield, which will undoubtedly improve as those upper-floor units in several downtown buildings come to life with office, retail, and living space.
She told BusinessWest she was concerned that the newly available commercial properties would be largely snatched up by business owners already in town, leaving vacancies elsewhere, but she’s been pleased to see most occupied by out-of-towners.
“These are all-new ventures, new to the community. It really has been economic development,” Caplice said. “And I think the model could work in other towns. We’re not the only community facing this problem.”
But by working to develop a solution, Greenfield Savings Bank has set itself apart — as it has for almost a century and a half.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at
[email protected]

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