Peaking Their Interest
Bob Fraser acknowledged there’s a good deal of real estate between the Berkshires and the Bay State’s South Shore. He knows because he traverses that distance regularly.
But for the somewhat unique financial-services institution known as MountainOne, which can trace its roots back to 1848, having bank branches and other facilities on opposite ends of the state, with nothing in between, really … works.
“It has worked out well for us,” said Fraser, MountainOne’s president and CEO. “In the Berkshires, we have tended to be more of a traditional retail, community-based bank, and on the South Shore, we are much more commercially oriented. We do a lot of construction lending in and around the Greater Boston markets, and we also do commercial lending; we have a pretty strong group of commercial lenders.
“In the Berkshires, we see ourselves being able to fill a void, with a high level of expertise in commercial lending within Berkshire County and surrounding areas,” he went on, adding that this void has been created through large regionals either moving their headquarters from the Berkshires (as Berkshire Bank did) or expanding in other areas — leaving what Fraser considers opportunity for his bank in their wake.
Actually, there are many things that work for MountainOne, besides these differing focal points on either end of the state, including that aforementioned strong focus on commercial lending; the diversity of the business (there is an insurance division and an investment arm); its size — large enough to handle the needs of most businesses but small enough to provide a brand of personalized service — a strong focus on technology and how to use it to better serve customers, including a new digital platform for commercial customers to go live this month; and even the name, which doesn’t tie it to one community or one region and now has strong brand recognition in the Western Mass. region, with a mascot — actually, a ‘spokesgoat’ — named Mo.
“Being headquartered in the Berkshires, we want to be seen as the go-to bank for commercial accounts and borrowers throughout Berkshire County and the surrounding areas in Western Mass.”
MountainOne, now with roughly $1 billion in assets, will continue to maximize these various strengths and qualities and work to attain greater market share in both regions it serves, especially in the Berkshires, said Matt Lauro, senior vice president of Commercial Lending, noting that, like the rest of Western Mass. — and the state, for that matter — the region is overbanked.
But it is also, in his view, underserved to some degree.
“There aren’t enough banks that are servicing large commercial clients, or commercial clients as a whole, that are really focused in Western Massachusetts,” he said. “You do have players that are primarily focused here, but there is a void resulting from the larger regionals that have tended to pull back on lending capabilities in Western Mass., and it has left C&I clients, and larger commercial-development clients, with less service than they’ve had historically.”
Added Fraser, “being headquartered in the Berkshires, we want to be seen as the go-to bank for commercial accounts and borrowers throughout Berkshire County and the surrounding areas in Western Mass.”
Both Fraser and Lauro noted that the bank’s strong roots, diversity of services, and strong track record in the Berkshires will serve it well during what can only be described as a time of challenge and uncertainty — when it comes to the economy, banks, and the foreseeable future.
“This environment we’re in … I’ve never experienced so much uncertainty as to where we’re headed,” Fraser said. “And an environment of uncertainty makes decision making so difficult, whether it’s running a bank or running your company; it’s incredibly challenging to feel confident about what the next few years are going to look like.”
For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest talked with Fraser and Lauro about MountainOne and what can and should come next for this bank as its marks an important milestone.
Scaling the Heights
Team members at this institution are known as colloquially as ‘mountaineers.’
And on Sept. 19, all of the MountainOne offices will close at 1 p.m. so that the mountaineers can attend a celebration for all employees marking the bank’s 175th anniversary.
There will be much to celebrate, said Fraser, listing a rich past, and a potential-laden future, for the reasons cited earlier.
The institution can trace its roots to 1848 in North Adams, when it was known as Hoosac Bank. Fast-forwarding considerably, Fraser noted that, in 2000, Hoosac Bank and Williamstown Savings Bank came together to create the holding company to be called MountainOne Financial, which became the mutual holding company for those two banks.
“If you’re a sophisticated business owner, you understand that you don’t need a branch at the end of your street; you need a relationship manager, a loan officer who is going to be at your business when you need him, to speak with him, to work with him.”
And in 2007, South Coastal Bank, headquartered on the South Shore, merged its holding company into MountainOne’s holding company, creating what Fraser, formerly president and CEO of South Coastal, believes is the first three-bank mutual holding company.
“We’ve seen a lot more of that now, but MountainOne was the first to actually do it,” he said, adding that, over time, the three banks have been merged into one entity under the Hoosac charter and rebranded as MountainOne. Additionally, Hoosac Bank had owned two insurance agencies, which were merged under the name MountainOne Insurance Agency, while the investment division was rebranded MountainOne Investments in 2013.
Today, MountainOne has some combination of bank branches, ATMs, insurance offices, and investment offices in six communities, three on each end of the state: Quincy, Rockland, and Scituate on or near the South Shore, and North Adams, Pittsfield, and Williamstown in the Berkshires.
When asked if there was future expansion under consideration in the Berkshires region — and, if so, where — Fraser said it’s possible, but what is more likely is continued commitment to advancing internet banking capabilities that allow banks to serve customers more efficiently, with less reliance on brick-and-mortar facilities.
“The world is changing,” he explained. “You don’t need as much of a physical presence in a specific geography as you did before to manage and serve a business customer’s banking needs.”
“If the client is in the surrounding area, we are wherever the client is,” he explained. “Wherever the client is, we are happy to be there, to work with them; that has been our opportunity, and it’s a big thing for us. If you’re a sophisticated business owner, you understand that you don’t need a branch at the end of your street; you need a relationship manager, a loan officer who is going to be at your business when you need him, to speak with him, to work with him.”
And this is what MountainOne brings to the table, Fraser said, noting that, despite the ability to serve clients through the use of technology, commercial banking is a “personal relationship-oriented service,” said Fraser, noting that MountainOne boasts lending professionals like Lauro and Richard Kelly, also a senior vice president of Commercial Lending based in Pittsfield, who are focused on the region and its economic health and well-being.
“Our vision, at the end of the day, is to help ensure the economic vibrancy of the community,” he said. “And by doing that — by supporting local businesses and entrepreneurs — we’re helping to fulfill that mission.”
Economies of Scale
As he talked physical expansion — new branches — in other communities within the Berkshires, Fraser told BusinessWest that it would be “challenging to invest in a branch location in a market that has a declining population base and is already overbanked,” and that the bank’s strategy is, as he said, geared more toward technology.
But he noted quickly that the Berkshires has seen an uptick in population in the wake of the pandemic, with some choosing more rural areas over larger cities, as well as some demographic shifts, with more young people moving to the area, and a surge in entrepreneurship, in part because of COVID and how it prompted many to pursue long-held dreams of working for themselves.
And all of these trends are certainly positive signs for the Berkshire County market and its business community.
Indeed, as they talked about the next chapters in MountainOne’s history, Fraser and Lauro noted that, independent of what is happening with the economy, interest rates, and other factors, there are many reasons for optimism when it comes to broadening the book of business and gaining additional market share.
Some of this has to do with COVID-related population surges, demographic shifts, and that aforementioned surge in entrepreneurship, the size and scope of which are still to be determined. But much of it comes down to what the bank can bring to the table beyond what all banks can provide — money.
“Hospitality is the number-one industry, and we’ve been involved in a number of projects involving hospitality-related businesses, but we also have a number of commercial accounts that involve meaningful employers and well-known companies in the Berkshires,” Fraser said. “And I think there’s a greater opportunity for us over time to continue to expand in that market as we see younger entrepreneurs establishing roots in the Berkshires. Businesses may be looking for an entity that is based in the Berkshires, is local, and obviously has a commitment to the region; we’ve been here since 1848.
“Being a mutual organization, we can look a little bit longer-term strategically than if we were a stock-owned company,” he went on. “It’s just a different business; we can be patient and look beyond the next quarter or two quarters — we have that luxury.”
Elaborating, he said MountainOne has experienced lenders who understand business and what it takes to succeed and can step into the role of adviser as well as banker.
“We’re not just a vendor that is providing you a product, which is the loan,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re also a resource. It’s a relationship, and it’s probably the most unique relationship a business will have. Anyone can sell you something — we’re the only relationship where we have to get what we sold you back.
“Another aspect of it is that we really enjoy this part of the business — it’s in our DNA,” he went on. “We love being with our customers, and we love understanding their businesses. We love talking about what we know, what we’re thinking about, and sharing those ideas.”
As for Mo the mountain goat, he’s the perfect spokesperson for the bank, as detailed in a bio on its website. “Goats are tough,” it reads. “They turn challenges into opportunities every day, and even in the most demanding, unforgiving environments, goats know how to adapt and thrive.”
MountainOne has done a lot of that over the past 175 years, and that collective work has put it in a position where it can turn challenge into opportunity and scale new heights — in all kinds of ways.