Sections Supplements

Making a Statement

Easthampton Savings Has Aggressive Plans for Expansion and Growth
ESB President Bill Hogan

ESB President Bill Hogan

Easthampton Savings Bank turns 140 this year. It does so with some ambitious plans for continued expansion — physically and with products and services — that its longtime president, Bill Hogan, believes will effectively position it to thrive in this region for years to come.

Bill Hogan says there a definite, yet informal strategy in place when Easthampton Savings Bank expands into a new community with a branch.

“Even though we’re the new kid on the block, we want to make it look and feel as though we’ve always been there,” he said as he described this mission and noted that it’s been accomplished in several cities and towns, with Westfield being the latest and Agawam next in line.

How?

In several ways, actually, said Hogan, the bank’s long-time president and unofficial dean of the Western Mass. banking community, listing everything from the designs incorporated into the branches — often carved out of existing and historic structures — to involvement in the community in question, to a newsletter the bank started publishing recently. “We call it immersing ourselves in the community,” Hogan explained. “Reputation will only get you so far, and then you have to deliver on the promises.”

Easthampton Savings, or ESB, as it’s called, has been getting considerable practice with this ‘looking like it’s always been there’ assignment in recent years. Indeed, the bank, which this year turns 140, has moved well beyond its roots on Main Street in this city over the past 15 to 20 years, with the footprint now stretching from Belchertown to Hadley. With this expansion has come growth in assets; the bank is approaching the $800 million mark, and had $242 million on its 125th birthday.

And there is likely to be more expansion on the way.

That’s because, as Hogan, who took the reigns at ESB in 1992, and other banking leaders in this region have noted time and again, this is a low- or no-growth region, meaning that, to grow, banks must take a greater piece of the existing pie. And while banks like ESB have traditionally done well in communities where they have not had a physical presence, they fare much better when they do.

Meanwhile, there are other factors at play, said Hogan, who noted that, in the current economic climate, many customers, commercial and residential, are casting a wary eye on some of the large regional banks that are part of the local financial-services landscape, and some are finding more peace of mind with community banks. At the same, there is agreement among many observers that there will be further consolidation within the local market and, perhaps sometime soon, fewer of those community banks.

Thus, the long-term strategic plan for ESB is to effectively position itself for the opportunities that will arise from all these factors.

As at most banks these days, said Hogan, ESB must confront immediate challenges posed by the severe downturn — everything from balancing some sharp rises in deposits with greater loan volume to writedowns from the meltdown of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to simply, and repeatedly, conveying the message that the institution is on solid ground — while also looking and thinking long-term.

In this issue, BusinessWest looks at how ESB is approaching both assignments, and why this venerable institution — one of the region’s oldest banks — is generating some interest, both literally and figuratively.

Geography Lessons

As he talked about long-term planning, Hogan said that phrase, while always subjective by definition, is now even more so.

Indeed, the five-year plan is essentially obsolete, he explained, adding that things are changing so quickly — in terms of technology, the competitive landscape, the process of opening a new branch (as in Westfield, where it took much longer than originally planned), and, yes, the economic conditions — that even a three-year plan is probably inappropriate.

“As much as we plan for where we think the bank wants to be and needs to be, a lot of what happens to us happens to us,” he explained, referring to current economic conditions and their impact. “We may be proactive in a lot of ways, but the market and the competition have a lot of influence on how that all plays out. So for us, sometimes the best-laid plans don’t come to fruition.”

But while it’s harder to plan these days, banks must, in broad terms, have a plan, said Hogan, who said ESB’s can be described as aggressive-but-smart growth — putting the bank’s name on signs and buildings in more communities, and then using a broad array of products, as well as that ‘always been there’ approach, to gain greater market share today and position the bank for a changing landscape in the future.

This was the approach taken in Westfield, he told BusinessWest, and the results roughly one year after the branch on Broad Street opened its doors have far exceeded expectations, said Tom Brown, ESB’s senior vice president of Retail Banking. “We did in one year what we originally projected to do in five,” he explained, noting that there were several factors contributing to this strong performance. “Taking 3% market share in a year … that’s quite an accomplishment when you consider there are $800 million in deposits there.”

The bank is hoping for something similar in Agawam.

ESB officials put plans on the table last fall for a new branch — what will be the ESB’s eighth full-service facility — on Main Street, in the city’s National Register Historic District. The branch will be built on three parcels adjacent to the fire station, said Hogan, noting that preliminary plans drafted by the Springfield architectural firm Dietz & Co. call for a facility modeled on the Hastings Store, a general store that operated on the site more than a century ago. Later, the Agawam Public Market operated on the site.

While the historic district is considered by some to be Agawam’s downtown, it is essentially a residential neighborhood, said Hogan, adding that ESB’s philosophy in recent years — including the moves into Belchertown in 2004 and Westfield in 2007 — has been to locate in, and be part of, neighborhoods.

And the goal — more like a mission, as he said — is to present a look and feel that says the bank has been there for a century, not a decade or a year or two.

In Westfield, for example, rather than demolish the 1858 structure that sat at 85 Broad St., the bank and Dietz & Co. worked to renovate the Italianate home and design an addition that complemented the existing structure. The same approach is planned for Agawam.

While Hogan couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say with any degree of certainty where ESB might be expanding next, he said the plan obviously calls for common-sense moves, connecting dots where it is appropriate, from both geographic and competitive standpoints, and go where a bank with ‘Easthampton’ in its name would be able to affectively compete.

“Agawam isn’t near Easthampton, but it is near Westfield, so this move makes sense for us,” he said, noting that similar progressions, from Easthampton into Northampton, and from Hadley into South Hadley, have been successful, and that after Agawam, West Springfield may be a suitable landing point.

Overall, the bank will likely avoid some of those communities generally considered to be ‘overbanked,’ said Hogan, putting East Longmeadow, Ludlow, and Amherst in that category, and he would certainly not rule anything out.

Brown said the bank has done well in many communities, including Amherst, where it does not have a physical presence, and thus a new building is in some ways a crap shoot. “It comes down to how much more business you think you acquire with a branch, and whether it’s worth that expenditure.”

Interest Bearing

While positioning itself for what many believe will be an altered banking landscape years down the road, with perhaps fewer community banks and more regionals, ESB, like other institutions in Western Mass., is living in the moment, which is an assignment loaded with challenges and opportunities.

The news stories nationally have concerned everything from banks failing — several dozen have already done so in 2008 — to whether the federal government should allow big institutions to fail, to plummeting stock prices (Citibank was trading for about $1 a share at press time).

“Every time people pick up the paper they read that banks are in trouble, and we often get painted with that same brush,” said Brown, adding that ESB, like others in the market, have had to explain, and in various ways, that what people are reading isn’t a reflection of what’s happening locally. “We didn’t change — the world did; for us, it’s still business as usual.”

Having been around since 1969, when it was founded by Edmund Sawyer and Samuel Williston, ESB has survived a number of recessions, including the one in the early ’90s that claimed many local institutions, as well as the Great Depression. “So we’re not in unfamiliar territory, although it’s certainly different for all of us,” said Hogan, adding that the formula for today is the same as it was for those other downturns — focusing on customer service, controlling expenses, and, in general, making smart business decisions.

Overall, he said the outlook for 2009 is for a good year, he continued, but with likely slower growth.

“There will be some opportunities for us, and for other banks as well,” said Hogan. “We have to make the most of them, and to do that, we have to convince our customers that there are opportunities for them as well.”

Kenneth Bordewieck, ESB’s senior vice president and senior operating officer, described what he called a “barbell effect” that should work to the advantage of banks of ESB’s size and competitive situation.

“The largest banks — Bank of America, Sovereign, Citizens, and others — have all reported drastic earnings and drastic situations, and they’re simply not lending as much as they have in the past,” he explained, adding that, conversely, smaller banks, with $250 million in assets and lower, do not have the wherewithal to cope with the heavy regulatory restrictions placed on them. “They don’t have the ability to adapt and bring new product to the market.

“There’s a niche, somewhere between $250 million and $1.5 billion,” he continued. “Banks of that size are a little more nimble, are more capable of expansion, have the name recognition, and can grow; they have opportunities in front of them. We fit in there nicely.”

In the current economic climate, many smaller banks are seeing surges in deposits, said Richard Kozak, ESB’s senior vice president and treasurer, who listed several reasons for this. These include a desire among some investors to put more money in the bank and less into the stock market, and also a penchant to flee the large, regional banks, or the type people are reading about in the newspapers. Kozak groups both actions in the category of “flight to safety.”

But while this is good for customers, the challenge for banks is to balance the interest they must pay on those deposits (albeit at very low rates) with growth in loan volume on both the residential and commercial sides of the ledger. And this can be a big challenge, said Hogan, when the bank was projecting roughly $12 million in deposit growth for ’08, but saw nearly $40 million instead.

Fortunately, there is a considerable amount in the loan pipeline, said Denise Laizer, ESB’s senior vice president and chief lending officer, noting that, with most new-branch scenarios, deposit growth comes first, with loan activity following.

Laizer said there has been considerable activity on the residential side of the ledger, a great deal of it (perhaps 80%) in refinancing transactions. And with mortgage rates at or near historic lows — and expected to remain at such levels for the rest of this year — there is promise for the year ahead, if consumer confidence picks up.

“We went from having $12 million in the pipleline late last fall,” she said, “to having $60 million to $65 million now — that’s what low rates will do. And there’s little reason to think they’ll be going down any time soon.”

Meanwhile, the bank is continuing to diversify its products and services to attract new business and provide a larger bundle to existing customers. Examples include everything from wealth-management products, provided through ESB Financial Services, to an increasingly popular online banking service called ESBOnline.

Looking at the big picture, Hogan said 2009 will certainly be a challenging year, and he is both realistic and optimistic.

As for the long-term perspective, he said ESB continues to effectively position itself for that day when the competitive picture changes, as most expect it will.

“I think we’re in a good place,” he said, referring to both the present and future tenses. “When you look at the competitive situation for the future, it’s not how many competitors you have; I’d much rather compete against a large regional bank than a community bank that looks like us, because it’s easier to differentiate ourselves. And that’s what we’re going to see down the road.”

By All Accounts

ESB’s main branch has moved a few times, but it has been on Main Street since 1869. For all intents and purposes, it has always been there.

The bank is a relative newcomer in most of the other communities where it has a sign over a door, and it certainly can’t trace its presence back to when Ulysses S. Grant was in the White House. But it can, and has been, presenting a feel of ‘being around forever.’

This ability, as well as the many competitive forces mentioned by the administrators we spoke with, should put ESB in the right place (or places) at the right time.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

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