Lending a Hand
Westfield Bank Keeps the Focus on CommunityWestfield Bank has long embraced its role as a community institution, and it does so in a number of ways, from being a charitable force in the cities and towns it serves to promoting economic development through ambitious lending, and even bolstering ongoing improvements in Westfield by renovating and moving into a second building downtown. Overall, it’s been a good year for the bank, which continues to see its bottom line expand while making a difference in the lives of people whose year has not been so good.
Early in the year — well before the unexpected summer of storms in Massachusetts — the American Red Cross was soliciting donations for an emergency-response vehicle to serve communities in and around the Pioneer Valley.
“They came to us and talked about a particular need in Western Mass. — a medical facility on wheels,” said James Hagan, president of Westfield Bank.
It’s not an ambulance, he noted. Red Cross volunteers man this vehicle and use it to support disaster victims in several ways — for example, providing them with credit cards to help purchase food, clothing, shelter, and bedding, as well as temporarily housing and feeding disaster victims and volunteer responders alike.
“Volunteers go out, often in the middle of winter, with different provisions to help folks who may have suffered a fire or flooding from ice melting, that kind of thing, when they were out of their house and out in the cold,” Hagan said. “The Red Cross came up with a traveling medical facility which people could utilize to come out of the cold, have a warm meal, do paperwork, deal with their emotions, and have some immediate counseling, if you will — to let them know somebody cares about them.”
It was precisely the type of community need that appealed to Hagan and bank employees who make decisions about charitable giving.
“With the economic climate, the Red Cross was falling short with what they needed to secure the vehicle,” he explained. “We thought we should support them in this endeavor. They asked us to fund a certain dollar amount, and we said, ‘what if we just give you the rest of the money you need?’
“That’s just being part of the community,” he continued. “And we can make those decisions independently; we don’t have to go a board. We just said, ‘this is a great cause; let’s support it and get the vehicle on the road for them.’”
Obviously, the rest of the weather year — which saw everything from persistent ice damage in the winter to tornadoes and tropical-storm flooding in the spring and summer — demonstrated the need for what the Red Cross does, and Westfield Bank, like most of the area’s financial institutions, poured plenty of money into its disaster-relief work. In the case of the tornado, again, “we were able to act quickly,” he said. “Being a community bank, we can make those decisions right here in the office.”
It’s all part of being a true community institution, Hagan said, but that ethic goes beyond donating money to worthy causes. In this issue, we’ll examine how WB has strived to weave itself into the fabric of the cities and towns it serves, and how it’s marketing some innovative products to attract more business and remain a significant entity on the regional financial scene.
According to Cathy Jocelyn, Westfield Bank’s marketing manager, being a community bank means actively working to improve the environment, economic and otherwise, in the towns under the bank’s umbrella.
To that end, she said, Hagan recorded a commercial with Westfield’s mayor promoting the massive town green project and other improvements that will benefit the city, targeted at residents who right now see only construction and traffic when they drive through downtown.
“And we put our money where our mouth is, too, when we opened our consumer loan center right here,” Jocelyn added. “We took a vacant building directly across the street from the bank and redeveloped the property. That helps with economic development in the business corridor. So, yes, we did the ad, but we also took a building; it wasn’t just lip service.”
The bank itself, while it hasn’t added any new branches in the past three years, is clearly riding high, with developments such as a $56 million increase in loans from August 2010 to August 2011, an 11.5% increase.
“That’s tremendous growth,” Hagan said. “We’ve seen growth in commercial real-estate loans and residential loans, and we’re still lending. We have a lot of capital — we’re extremely strong in terms of our capital base — and we’re looking for ways to deploy that in the community.”
While he credits the bank’s well-capitalized status, he says that success also reflects its simple position as a high-profile community lender.
“I think it reflects the fact that people are coming back to community banks,” he told BusinessWest, and moving away from the national institutions that were pummeled by the toxic-loan crisis of 2008 and 2009.
“People want to work with someone they trust in the local community,” he continued. “And we’ve worked really hard from a marketing and advertising perspective, and also created seminars for people to attend. We’ve gotten the word out that we’re ready and able to lend — it’s a combination of our strength and being in the local communities and having the positive reputation we have.”
Deposits tell a similar story, with volume up by $40 million over that same August-to-August period.
“One of the things we’ve done over the past year is, we’ve taken a look at all our products and services and repackaged them, and added some free products, so we can meet the needs of all customers,” Jocelyn said.
The bank has aimed many of its services at specific demographics; for instance, a product called WB 18-25 Checking is targeted to that age group and features free checking and savings accounts and rebated ATM fees. There’s also a basic free checking account, as well as the interest-bearing WB Investment Checking and WB Performance Checking, which adds a few extra services for customers who can keep a higher balance.
Mobile banking, accessible on smartphones and other devices, has taken off as well, Hagan said.
“I think mobile banking is great for the 18-to-25 generation, and we’re seeing a lot of activity from them,” added Jocelyn. “It can give them balance alerts; if their checking or savings account gets down to a certain amount, they get a text on their mobile device.
“It’s the wave of the future,” she continued. “People want to be able to see information very quickly. Instead of calling a number, they can check a mobile device to check their balance, or do account transfers if they’re signed up for that. We’re told that most banks have been slow to do this, but we’re putting so much energy into establishing relationships with people that age, and the results are starting to show.”
This emphasis on youth — from continued support of bank-at-school programs to teach financial literacy to kids to more ATMs at Westfield State College and American International College to make the bank’s services more accessible there — is part of an overall effort to attract and cater to younger customers and strengthen WB’s future.
“A lot of wealth is going to be transferred from the aging Baby Boomer population to the up-and-coming generations,” Hagan said, “and we want to make sure Westfield Bank has products and services to meet their needs as they continue to evolve.”
Hitting Their Targets
The bank’s specialized services continue on the commercial side, with accounts targeted specifically for municipalities and nonprofits, among other customers with specific needs. And the targeted products have paid off.
“There’s a comfort level in having their accounts here; it’s much easier to work with us than a large institution,” Hagan said. “Our commercial checking and consumer checking are up 18% combined; we’ve been able to grow in the categories we wanted to grow in.”
Meanwhile, the bank will continue its emphasis on community involvement, particularly focusing on education and youth development through its nine-year-old Future Fund. WB has supported organizations such as the Westfield High School band, the West Springfield Boys and Girls Club, East Longmeadow libraries, and other youth-oriented endeavors, as well as launching a scholarship program two years ago. This year, the bank gave out 10 such scholarships, covering all the communities where it has a presence.
As for its own future, branch expansion is always a possibility. “We’re looking at a number of sites as we speak, and we’re certainly looking to grow our branch network. There are a number of communities we’re looking at and evaluating,” Hagan said.
“The good news,” he added, “is that all community banks in our region continue to thrive and do well, and we’re proud to be a part of that.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]