Commercial Lender’s Career Has Been a Learning Experience
Maria Goncalves says she got into banking, and specifically commercial lending, pretty much by accident.
Finding herself unemployed after studying psychology and social work in college, the Ludlow native sought to capitalize on two summers of work as a bank teller at the now-defunct Ludlow Savings Bank. She responded to a Shawmut Bank help-wanted ad detailing two opportunities for trainees — one in retail, the other in commercial lending.
“When I was offered a position, I thought it was the retail job,” she told BusinessWest. “But it wasn’t. And when I looked at the two gentlemen across the table from me, I said ‘with all due respect, why would you want to hire me when I only took one economics course in college and really know nothing about business?’
“They said, ‘you have the skill set we look for in commercial lenders,’” she continued. “They told me I had the science background, which meant I had analytical ability, and that I had the people skills, which is the other half of the equation. They said, ‘ don’t worry about the rest, we’ll teach you.’”
They did — the bank financed her MBA at UMass — and more than 20 years later, the pupil is now the teacher.
That’s one of her many responsibilities as senior vice president, Commercial Loans, for TD Banknorth Massachusetts. She currently manages a large portfolio of public and private companies operating in several industries, and also mentors junior lenders and is a team leader responsible for coordinating sales and marketing initiatives.
It’s certainly not the career she envisioned while studying psychology, biology, and social work in college, but in some ways it makes sense. Indeed, when asked about her career choice and success in the commercial lending field, Goncalves said those Shawmut bank managers who interviewed her had it right; while the technical aspects of this profession are certainly important, commercial lending is a blend of people skills and analytical thinking.
“You have to be able to communicate and listen,” she said of the former, putting heavy emphasis on that second verb. “And you have to be able to talk to all kinds of people — from the CEO on down to the bookkeeper and the marketing person.
“You also need to have an analytical mind,” she continued, “and be able to read through and understand business plans and numbers, and be willing to learn about different kinds of businesses; you have to be a person who’s curious by nature — and I am.”
Points of Interest
Indeed, when asked what she enjoyed about her work in commercial lending, Goncalves repeatedly came back to the word diversity.
She used it to describe the many types of transactions that come across her desk, the circumstances of the companies or non-profits involved, and the wide variety of business sectors she has worked with.
Elaborating, she borrowed and effectively modified the old cliché ‘jack of all trades, master of none.’
“I know a little about nearly every kind of business,” she explained. “I don’t know everything about any of them, but I’ve learned a little about a lot of industries.”
The process of learning about businesses — and the art and science of commercial lending — began with an extensive, two-year training program with Shawmut. When completed, she started her career in banking as a credit analyst and eventually progressed to commercial lending.
She worked in Shawmut’s Holyoke office, focusing on small-business lending, and later in its Springfield facility with a portfolio that included mostly larger companies. In late 1991, she left to take a similar position with Bay Bank, and was then caught up in the wave of mergers and acquisitions that swept the industry. Bay Bank was bought by Bank of Boston, which was then acquired by Fleet, and Goncalves was part of the divestiture of some Fleet operations to Sovereign Bank.
She handled commercial lending there until early 2001, when she got a phone call from Frank Barrett — then regional president of Banknorth and one of those Shawmut managers who interviewed her all those years ago — and eventually accepted an invitation to join the team at Banknorth.
Today, her portfolio of clients is diverse, but includes mostly larger, mature businesses with extensive banking needs.
When asked to describe her work, Goncalves said commercial lending is an exercise in analyzing risk, one that involves crunching numbers — often very large numbers — but also assessing people and their ability to carry out what’s on the pages of a business plan.
The role commercial lenders assume, she told BusinessWest, is a blend of business analyst and devil’s advocate.
“You want to be supportive, but you’re not a ‘yes’ person,” she explained, adding that often, her work doesn’t come down to simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers, but rather finding often-imaginative ways to meet a client’s needs.
In the process of doing so, Goncalves said she’s met a number of interesting people and been witness to — and in some ways part of — some intriguing business success stories.
Indeed Goncalves told BusinessWest that one of the many rewards from her work is being part of business growth and economic development in the Pioneer Valley. The financial solutions she helps devise for companies often enable them to expand and add jobs.
“That’s one of the more exciting aspects of this work,” she said. “Watching businesses take that next step — be it adding some new equipment or acquiring another company — is very rewarding.”
While being part of the process to grow and strengthen the region’s business community, Goncalves is also active with a number of area organizations and non-profit agencies. And she brings to that work a blend of her background in financial services and her passion for social services.
She acts as treasurer of the Center for Human Development, for example, and also serves as president of Microtek, a Chicopee-based agency that employs developmentally disabled individuals to conduct cable assembly.
Recently, she was named to the Board of Directors for Springfield Technical Community College, an assignment that brings a new and different challenge she looks forward to.
“I’ve never done anything in higher education, so this will be good for me,” she explained. “And based on my first Finance Committee meeting, I’ve got a lot to learn.”
Learning has been something Goncalves has been doing ever since she entered the banking field — by accident.
She’s learned how to do her job, while also coming to understand how thousands across their region do their jobs — while often devising financial solutions to help them do it better.
In that respect, she my indeed be a jack of all trades, but by all accounts, she’s certainly mastered one.
George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]