Banking and Financial Services Sections

New PeoplesBank President Looks to Set the Bar Even Higher

The Feeling’s Mutual

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal takes the helm at PeoplesBank at an intriguing time for the institution — and the industry. Competition is keen, and efforts to achieve growth are challenged by thin margins and stagnant, historically low interest rates. The bank has made a commitment to continue this fight as a mutual institution, a strategy Senecal believes will continue to bring a host of inherent advantages.

Tom Senecal called it “going from the back room to the front lines.”

That’s how he chose to describe his decision in 2001 to leave his position as controller at Holyoke-based PeoplesBank and join the commercial-lending team led at that time by future President and CEO Doug Bowen.

Looking back on that not-so-subtle and fairly unusual career move, Senecal said that, at that juncture, he understood it was a necessary move if he was to achieve what was an already-emerging goal — to move higher up the ladder in banking administration, and perhaps to the top rung.

“I knew, career-wise, that if I wanted to be … well, where I am today, I needed more exposure and experience than just an accounting background,” he explained, noting that Bowen’s career trajectory has become common in the industry today. “So I made a conscious decision to change careers and move to the front line of servicing customers.

“This was outside my comfort zone — I was 41 years old, moving from an accounting environment to a sales environment,” he went on. “But I knew I needed that experience.”

What Senecal — who was named president last August after prevailing in a search for Bowen’s successor a few months after he made his retirement plans known — didn’t know in 2001 but does know now, is that, while leaving the back room improved his chances to advance in this industry, working in both settings will better enable him to handle that position’s varied job description.

“My experiences, both on the financial side and in lending, brought something different to the table, and that’s important given the current banking environment,” he explained. “Both jobs enabled me to see how the bank operates, but from different perspectives.”

Senecal takes the helm at PeoplesBank at an intriguing time for both that institution and the banking industry as a whole. Indeed, he officially takes both the president and CEO titles (Bowen maintained the latter until late June) just as the bank, probably not coincidentally, announced it was taking its commitment to being a mutual bank to a higher level.

Specifically, the institution changed its bylaws in a way that will make any future conversion to a stockholder-owned company exceedingly more difficult. Before, a vote to take such a step would require a simple majority of votes among corporators to move in that direction; now, it will take a super-majority, or 75% (much more on all this later).

As for the industry in general, a trend toward consolidation and gaining all-important size and economies of scale continues unabated, with the recently announced merger of Westfield Bank and Chicopee Savings Bank being the latest in a lengthy string of such moves.

Senecal acknowledged the benefits of size in this era of rising regulatory costs and razor-thin margins, but said PeoplesBank will continue to address those challenges as a mutual institution, and with an operating strategy forged by his immediate predecessors and honed by Bowen during his 10-year tenure.

Tenets include everything from calculated territorial expansion, including a strong push into Springfield, to permanent residency on the cutting edge of new banking technology and an emerging niche in lending to ‘green’ business ventures.

Describing what might come next, Senecal started by implying strongly that there won’t be any attempts to fix anything that isn’t broken (and that’s most things). Getting slightly more specific, he said the bank will continue its efforts to grow the only way a bank can grow in this region and this banking environment — by gaining additional market share.

And this brings him back to mutuality and a commitment to retain that operating structure. As a mutual institution, the bank is not beholden to stockholders, he explained, and in this case, the word ‘local’ doesn’t refer to where commercial lenders live and play golf, but rather to where decisions are made.

“We believe that local decisions really do mean something,” he noted. “There aren’t many mutuals left, and that means people don’t feel comfortable that the decisions are being made in Western Massachusetts. I think that’s a big advantage for us.”

For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest talked at length with Senecal about his career in banking, his attainment of that goal he set long ago, and what to expect — or not expect, as the case may be — from PeoplesBank moving forward.

Matters of Note

Summing up the progressive Doug Bowen administration at the 131-year-old institution, Senecal said his predecessor “set the bar very high.”

As he spoke those words, he was referring to awards and honors, specifically to the bank’s regular appearance on a host of regional and statewide ‘best-of’ lists. They include everything from the Boston Globe’s compilation of the best places to work in the Bay State to Boston Business Journal’s list of the top corporate charitable contributors, to MassLive’s Readers Raves.

Meanwhile, Bowen himself was honored in 2009 as one of BusinessWest’s first Difference Makers, and in 2011 as a Globe 100 Innovator for, essentially, creating an environment that fostered and facilitated all of the above.

But that reference to setting the bar high actually referred to much more than placement on lists and plaques for the front lobby. It was also a reference to overall growth (the bank crashed through the $2 billion barrier in total assets during Bowen’s tenure), territorial expansion in the form of six new branches, a ‘green’ philosophy (three of those branches are LEED-certified), innovation (the institution has created a Customer Innovation Lab and hired a so-called ‘data scientist’), and the bank’s strong commitment to mutuality and the many competitive advantages it brings.

Senecal will work to keep the bar where it is and hopefully raise it even higher, and he’ll bring to this task that aforementioned blend of experience in the back room and on the front lines.

A Coast Guard veteran, Senecal eventually decided the military would not become a career, and went back to school, earning a degree in business at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst.

Tom Senecal, seen with other members of the PeoplesBank

Tom Senecal, seen with other members of the PeoplesBank team, says the bank’s commitment to remain a mutual institution makes a strong statement.

He started his career in the financial-services sector with the Big 4 firm KPMG, as a senior manager and CPA. In that capacity, he provided organizational leadership and technical consulting expertise in the areas of auditing, accounting, tax compliance, and financial reporting for small to mid-sized banks in Massachusetts and Connecticut. One of the clients in his portfolio was PeoplesBank, which eventually recruited him to the role of controller.

As mentioned earlier, he drifted far out of his comfort zone a few years later and joined the commercial-lending team, where he remained until 2004, when he accepted an offer to join Florence Savings Bank as CFO and treasurer.

He returned to Holyoke in 2008 when Bowen, who took the helm at PeoplesBank a year earlier, encouraged him to take that same role with his bank.

“I looked upon coming back here as an opportunity,” he explained. “PeoplesBank is a larger, broader-reaching bank geographically that had a lot of opportunities for growth because of its name recognition and the marketability of PeoplesBank. Having had some conversations about the future with people here, I decided to come back.”

The search for Bowen’s successor, which began in the summer of 2015, eventually focused on two internal candidates, and Senecal prevailed.

Making a Statement

Since taking over as president of the bank, Senecal has put himself even closer to the front line — actually, right on it.

Indeed, he’s spent some time behind teller windows at several of the branches, getting an up-close look at what happens there, while also taking the opportunity to speak with some customers directly.

“I don’t think one of those branches is going to invite me back to scan checks, because I wasn’t very good at it — I think I kept the staff an extra hour,” he joked, adding quickly that those experiences were nonetheless fruitful and somewhat eye-opening. “As much as I can laugh about it now, that’s an example of understanding what the front line is really like.”

Beyond this time in the field, Senecal said he’s spent his first several months as president working toward that vote on mutuality and also developing a new four-year strategic plan. Dubbed Vision 2020, it will be presented to the board of directors in September.

When asked what’s in it, Senecal offered only generalities, and said it focuses on every aspect of the banking operation, including retail and commercial products and services, cash management, retail delivery channels, digital delivery channels, and more.

“We’re strategizing and looking at best-in-class products and services to compete with the larger institutions,” he explained. “Remaining as a mutual enables us to do that; we don’t have to worry about the next quarter’s earnings — we can make investments in these technologies and people and not worry about it. We’re in it for the long term.”

Elaborating, he said the bank changed two bylaws that will make converting to a public company far less likely. The first is the new requirement of a super-majority. The second is a so-called ‘protective self-enrichment clause,’ which prevents any director or senior manager from financially benefiting if that 75% vote from the corporators is actually obtained.

“Management and directors cannot participate in any initial public offering,” he explained. “This takes away all the financial incentive to convert; it requires senior management to focus on the long term and growing responsibly.”

Commenting on the decision to change the bylaws regarding mutuality, Senecal said he’s not sure such a step was necessary given that the bank hasn’t shown any interest in moving toward converting to stock ownership. But the vote does make a statement, and an important one, he went on, in terms of its commitment to the community.

“It was an opportunity to commit the institution and send a message to the community about who we are,” he explained. “I think it’s hard to deliver that message because most people don’t understand what mutuality is and how it affects them.

“Having been the CFO of two banks and having talked to other banks, I’ve gotten a real sense for what community banks do for our communities,” he explained. “You can talk to the big banks and the public banks, and they’ll tell you they’re committed and they’re creating foundations, but take a look at what they contribute to the community compared to what the mutual banks contribute, and you’ll see a huge difference.

“The public doesn’t see that,” he went on. “But on the inside, we see that.”

On-the-money Analysis

Still, despite the apparent advantages of mutuality, it does bring some competitive challenges, especially when it comes to size and its benefits, and capital (which ultimately determines how much a bank can lend) and how to attain it.

“Size is not overrated,” Senecal said, adding that it is the best method for coping with costs that continue to rise (compliance costs have nearly tripled for PeoplesBank over the past three years, from $1 million to $2.5 million, for example), while banks cannot recover them by adjusting rates for loans and deposits.

As for raising capital, public banks do so through stock offerings, he noted, while for mutual banks, the only source of capital is earnings, which are elusive in this era of those rising operating costs and in a region generally defined by the compound modifier ‘no-growth.’

But Senecal said there is room for growth in market share, and, as an example, he pointed to the residential mortgage market.

“We were a top-four mortgage lender in Hampden and Hampshire counties last year,” he explained. “There were probably 190 originators in our market, and we had 4% of that market. To me, there’s a lot of market share that can be acquired — and in many ways beyond bricks and mortar.”

This was a reference to emerging technology in the financial world and digital ways of doing business, a realm the bank has been on the leading edge of for years, Senecal noted — a trend he expects to continue.

Meanwhile, there is also room for growth in commercial lending, he said, adding quickly that the market remains highly competitive, despite the fact that the spate of mergers and acquisitions has actually created fewer players.

“There may be fewer banks, but there aren’t fewer lenders — this remains a very competitive environment fueled by historically low rates,” he explained, adding that area institutions are raising the already-high stakes by recruiting not simply individual lenders, but entire teams of lenders.

“I think the public institutions are feeling that they can steal market share by acquiring a group of commercial lenders,” he explained, adding that PeoplesBank has a different strategy, one focused on creating and maintaining relationships through stability.

“We’ve had very little turnover in our commercial lending area,” he explained, “and that has definitely helped us grow that part of our business.”

As for the overall growth strategy, Senecal said PeoplesBank has historically done it organically (it has never acquired another institution), and this trend will continue.

“When I arrived in 1995, this bank had $450 million in assets; today, we’re just about $2.1 billion,” he explained. “We did that through organic growth — putting branches in, increasing our loans, increasing our deposit base. We will continue to focus on that same strategy, although it’s definitely challenging.”

A Strong Bottom Line

When asked to compare and contrast work in the back room and on the front lines, Senecal said there are basic and very important differences.

“Having worked in the finance area, I’d say it’s very easy to make decisions looking at numbers and not understanding the customer impact,” he explained. “When you get to the front lines, you realize those decisions impact your customers, and they become more difficult.”

As he noted earlier, working in both environments will benefit him immensely as he goes about trying to move an already-lofty bar still higher.

He said he’s ready for the many challenges facing the banking industry today, and so is the institution he now leads.

In other words, the feeling is mutual — in all kinds of ways.

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

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