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Banking and Financial Services

Collaborative Culture

 President Paul Scully

President Paul Scully

When Country Bank sought to overhaul its space on South Street in Ware a few years ago — a former mill building that houses about 110 employees — its leaders banked on what they call a collaborative culture, where low cubicles, glass walls, and comfortable, casual meeting spaces all aim to promote better communication and interaction, and a work environment that appeals to the young professionals that comprise the bank’s future.

Walking down the wide main hallway of Country Bank’s headquarters in Ware, you notice certain things. The central, glass-walled café. Conference spaces with names like ‘Integrity Room’ and ‘Prosperity Room,’ reflecting the bank’s values. The occasional beach ball.

Wait, what?

“Someone said to me, ‘what’s the deal with the beach balls?’” bank President Paul Scully said. “Well, we had them at a company event, and they ended up in the hallway. And when you’re walking down the hall and someone’s coming toward you and there’s a beach ball there, what do you do? You kick it.”

It can be an icebreaker of sorts, he went on, as the roughly 110 employees who work in the former mill building on South Street — almost half of the entire Country Bank organization — don’t necessarily all know each other. But it’s also, well, kind of fun.

“For people who visit, it’s unexpected,” said Shelley Regin, the bank’s senior vice president of Marketing, who estimated about 40 such balls reside somewhere in the building. “Normally, the hallway’s full of beach balls, but they make their ways into the offices, too.”

While fun to kick around, Scully said, the balls also promote interaction, a concept which was, frankly, the driving force in a recent, multi-year renovation of Country Bank’s main office. It’s the reason cubicles were lowered, solid walls were replaced by glass, and some of the gathering spaces feature couches rather than traditional chairs.

“When we moved in here 13 years ago, everyone had a cubicle as tall as me, and you couldn’t see one another,” he told BusinessWest. “That didn’t foster good collaboration. And there was no daylight because the work stations were so tall, they blocked the daylight.”

Scully had a catchy description of what the renovation aimed to reflect — “Google comes to Ware” — and explained why that type of culture is important.

One of the casual meeting spaces at Country Bank

One of the casual meeting spaces at Country Bank, is meant to spur creative thinking in an informal setting.

“We love the fact that we are in a mill town and that we’re a flourishing business here. But how can we attract the talent we need? We’re a $1.6 billion bank with 14 locations and growing — and we need to have Millennial talent to help move it forward. And they’re not going to want to hide in a cubicle and come out twice a day, for lunch and to leave. We said, ‘let’s really look at what is happening in workspaces that’s breeding collaboration and fun, and people just working together as a whole unit.’”

Like the low cubicles, the glass promotes more openness as well, Regin said.

“They put me behind glass walls so they can keep an eye on me,” Scully joked, before noting that his office used to be tucked away in a corner, as opposed to its current spot at the end of that main hallway. “You never went there unless you had to. It didn’t do anything for collaboration, nor did it allow me really to be a part of things. Now, right here, at my desk, this is the hub.

“We’re a $1.6 billion bank with 14 locations and growing — and we need to have Millennial talent to help move it forward. And they’re not going to want to hide in a cubicle and come out twice a day, for lunch and to leave.”

“The glass just opens everything up,” he went on, “and it supports the philosophy that we’re all equal components of the organization, and it’s not like you have to be behind a closed wall to do important things. We do have shades that come down. But if you put the shades down, everyone’s going to want to know what’s going on in Paul’s office, so you might as well just have them up and let them see.”

For this issue’s focus on banking and finance, BusinessWest paid a visit to Ware to learn how Country Bank is using its thoroughly 21st-century space — and several touches of fun that go well beyond the stray beach ball — to better position itself as an employer of choice at a time when competition is high for young talent.

Milling About

When Country Bank moved its headquarters in 2005 from Main Street to 44,000 square feet of former mill space on nearby South Street, it had options to relocate in another town, but the bank’s leaders felt it important to remain an economic engine in the community it had called home for more than 150 years.

“We looked at adding onto the main office, which was a Band-Aid approach, and then this fell in our lap,” Scully said of the former American Athletic Shoe plant, famous for its ice skates. “It was a very large employer, and had maintained the building meticulously. We have a lot of space here. You could easily say we could use half of it, but it works well for us; it allows us to have a big area for innovation and technology, and we have a whole education facility as well.”

The first renovation, to make the space suitable for bank operations, took place 13 years ago, and included those high cubicles and some decidedly unattractive color schemes and décor.

“Everything was kind of a pale yellow,” Scully said. “I started to walk around one Saturday and said, ‘this is awful. The color tones aren’t energizing. You can’t see anything. Let’s bulldoze it down and make it something where people are going to come in and say it’s is a really cool space.’

“It’s a great company, too, which is more important than being a cool space,” he was quick to add. “But you have to have those two together in order to really have it become a destination.”

As opposed to 2005, however, the latest renovation, which began around 2015, took place while people were working in the building — and often shifting around to accommodate the changes. “I moved five times in a year,” Regin said.

One of the casual meeting spaces at Country Bank

One of the casual meeting spaces at Country Bank, is meant to spur creative thinking in an informal setting.

“Really, the key piece was that group that moved into the first section that was done,” Scully recalled. “They were going to make it or break it for us, because if they said, ‘oh, it’s awful,’ we were doomed. Like anything else, when you say you’re going to change something, people immediately think of 1,000 reasons why it’s not going to work. It’s like Who Moved My Cheese? — ‘you’re throwing me off, you didn’t ask my input.’

But when that first group of employees settled in, they were more than satisfied. “Within the first week, they invited everybody in the building for brunch on a Friday because they were so excited about their space. We didn’t pay them for that. I think it spoke to just how much they loved it.”

The renovation stretched over two years because of the need to work around each department. In addition to the collaborative elements, the building also features a conference center with state-of-the-art multi-media equipment, an expansive IT space, and a number of small activity rooms. A gym was considered at one point, but Scully worried that it might turn into wasted space if interest waned, and besides, there’s a gym around the corner that Country didn’t want to siphon business from.

He had reservations about the central café as well, but that has proven to be a big hit. The fridge is stocked with fresh fruit all week, and Fridays feature a brunch with pastries or a yogurt bar. Then there are the Friday-morning games, like Hangman or Pictionary, that began with a few employees sneaking away from the brunch.

“We would all be hanging in the café, and one of the departments would go in a conference room and close the doors every Friday, and that wasn’t really working with me,” Scully recalled. When he found out they were using the short morning break to play games, however, “I said, ‘how about if you do that for everybody?’ They said, ‘really? We can do that?’”

bank based in an old mill building.

Paul Scully says visitors are often surprised to see a bank based in an old mill building.

So now, employees get an e-mail telling them what that Friday’s game is, and anyone is welcome to join in. It’s as much a way to get people talking and collaborating as are the small meeting spaces decked out with couches.

“When you go into a conference room, so often people think there’s a protocol of behavior, in the way you interact with one another,” Scully said. “It’s different when you’re sitting on a couch, bouncing ideas around. That’s what we really wanted to do — have it so people can think in an innovative fashion and look at things totally differently.”

Have a Ball

If visitors and new employees are surprised by the culture being fostered inside the building, he added, the exterior can be unexpected, too.

“I had a gentleman come in last week, and I explained, ‘OK, we’re in a mill building. And you’re going to think, this can’t be it. But you’re in the right place.’ And he said to me, ‘Scully, you’ve explained to us your building before, but this is not the typical bank,’ and I said, ‘at many levels, we’re not the typical bank.’ And that’s fine with us.”

He recalled speaking with someone who had also renovated a mill some years ago. “When I explained about the beach balls, he said, ‘beach balls?’ I couldn’t decide at that time whether we had just lost his confidence in us as a bank or not. But that wasn’t the case at all. The next day, I Federal Expressed him a bunch of beach balls and got a text from him the following day saying, ‘where’s the pump?’ I have every reason to believe those beach balls are flying through the air at his office as well.”

Banking, admittedly, has a staid reputation, and it’s not necessarily a field young people get excited about, he noted. But it is an industry where the culture is changing, and banks with an ear toward what Millennials prefer — when it comes to collaboration, flexibility, and even fun — will have an edge in attracting them.

“We would all be hanging in the café, and one of the departments would go in a conference room and close the doors every Friday, and that wasn’t really working with me.”

“This isn’t about a space,” he said. “It’s about the present and the future. Clearly, my generation is the minority this building, which is great. The Scully generation can’t be the generation that dictates how we’re going to do business. We want to be able to attract young talent and then unleash them, and let them think about how to do things differently.”

In that sense, the physical space is critical, Regin said. And it’s working. “A few years ago, most of our people who worked here were very local — 20 minutes to a half-hour away — and now they’re coming an hour. When they come to this space and realize what Country Bank has to offer, they’re willing to travel that hour, or even longer.”

In a job market where banks have to compete for talent, she added, Country Bank has plenty to offer when it comes to culture. “When people walk in here and see there’s a collaborative atmosphere, that’s important. That’s what people are looking for, especially the Millennial segment — they want to be at a place where they feel valued and there’s room for growth. It’s a destination, not just a job, where they sit in their cube all day and don’t see anyone.”

Scully agreed. “It’s important to have a place where, if someone is comparing their options, hopefully they say, ‘hey we like the option of coming here.’”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Expanding the Footprint

Glenn Welch

Glenn Welch

Although many Freedom Credit Union members have ties to West Springfield, Glenn Welch said, the institution has never had a physical branch there.

But that will soon change, following the announcement that Freedom has agreed to a merger with West Springfield Federal Credit Union (WSFCU), bringing the West Side institution under the Freedom umbrella.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to extend our products and services to West Springfield, an area where we do not have a branch but where many of our members live and work,” said Welch, Freedom’s president and CEO. “We promise our members accessibility to us, whether it’s at a branch location or through mobile banking. This merger delivers on that promise.”

Freedom, which is headquartered in Springfield and serves members in the four counties of Western Mass. with 10 branches, was originally chartered as the Western Massachusetts Telephone Workers Credit Union in 1922 and renamed in 2004. It currently has $491 million in assets with 28,000 members who live, work, or attend school in Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, or Berkshire county.

West Springfield Federal Credit Union, which was initially chartered in 1960 as the West Springfield Municipal Employees Credit Union before its name change in 2003, has nearly 3,000 members and more than $29 million in assets.

Welch noted that WSFCU members will have access to many new products and services, including member business lending, use of 55,000 surcharge-free ATMs across the worldwide Allpoint Network, and robust mobile-banking products and services. All employees of WSFCU will become part of the Freedom Credit Union family. The West Springfield Federal Credit Union location will remain open at 58 Union St. and conduct business as Freedom Credit Union.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to extend our products and services to West Springfield, an area where we do not have a branch but where many of our members live and work. We promise our members accessibility to us, whether it’s at a branch or through mobile banking.”

“The additional products, services, and opportunities available to both our members and the employees who serve them is a win-win proposition,” said Ann Manchino, manager of West Springfield Federal Credit Union. “We are excited for a new chapter in our history and to be part of the Freedom Credit Union family.”

The merger will require regulatory and member approvals, and is anticipated to be complete by the end of 2018.

Pending regulatory approval, Freedom Credit Union will have 11 total branches, including three offices in Springfield and locations in Feeding Hills, Ludlow, Chicopee, Easthampton, Northampton, Turners Falls, and Greenfield.

Credit unions are cooperative financial institutions owned by their members. As a not-for-profit organization, Welch noted, Freedom Credit Union returns its profits to its members in the form of high rates on deposit accounts, low rates on loans, and low or no fees for its services.

Banking and Financial Services

Giving Some Insight

By Terri Judycki

Terri Judycki, CPA, MST

Terri Judycki, CPA, MST

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) has resulted in many changes for taxpayers. One area in particular is charitable giving.

For those who regularly make charitable contributions, changing philanthropic giving habits may result in greater tax benefits. This article will explore various strategies for maximizing the tax benefit of charitable giving under the new law.

The TCJA increases the standard deduction to $12,000 for a single taxpayer and $24,000 for a married couple filing a joint tax return. In addition, the itemized deduction for taxes has been capped at $10,000 for all combined state and local tax payments. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that these changes will reduce the number of taxpayers who itemize deductions by more than half.

To maximize the benefit of the higher standard deduction, consider bunching charitable contributions in alternating years. For example, if a married couple with no mortgage ordinarily gives $12,000 to charity each year, they will likely take advantage of the $24,000 standard deduction ($12,000 to charity plus $10,000 in state and local states is less than the $24,000 standard deduction). If, instead, they give $24,000 every other year, they will use the $24,000 standard deduction in the ‘off’ year and $34,000 in itemized deductions in the year with the gifts ($24,000 charitable contributions plus $10,000 state and local taxes), resulting in lower taxable income without any increase in cash expenditures.

From the charity’s perspective, though, this could leave some budget challenges.

Another way to bunch deductions without bunching the charities’ income is through the use of a donor-advised fund (DAF). DAFs are funds controlled by 501(c)(3) organizations in which the person establishing the fund has advisory privileges as to the ultimate distribution to charities.

In our example above, the married couple might establish a DAF with $24,000 in one year and direct or ‘advise’ that donations be made to specific charities over time. Amounts used to establish the DAF are deductible charitable contributions when transferred to the sponsoring organization.

“For those who regularly make charitable contributions, changing philanthropic giving habits may result in greater tax benefits.”

Whether the idea of bunching appeals to you or not, don’t overlook the benefits of gifting appreciated stock to charity. The stock must have been held for more than a year to take advantage of this planning opportunity. The charitable deduction is the fair market value on the date gifted. Gifting the stock instead of cash avoids income tax on the appreciation.

For example, if a taxpayer wants to make a gift of $10,000 to a charity and sells stock worth $10,000 for which he paid $7,000, he would have a $10,000 deduction and $3,000 taxable gain. If, instead, he directs his broker to transfer the stock to the charity, he is still entitled to a $10,000 deduction, but does not report the $3,000 gain.

Finally, taxpayers age 70½ or older have another option available. An individual who is 70½ or older on the transfer date can direct the trustee of his IRA to distribute directly to a qualified public charity. The distribution is called a qualified charitable distribution (QCD). The amount transferred counts as a distribution for purposes of meeting the minimum distribution requirement but is not included in the taxpayer’s income.

There are a few requirements. The charity cannot be a private foundation or a donor-advised fund. No more than $100,000 can be donated by an account owner each year. The gift to the charity must be one that would have been entirely deductible if made from the taxpayer’s other assets — for example, the donor should obtain adequate substantiation from the charity, and the donation should not be one that entitles the donor to attend a dinner, play golf, or receive any other benefit.

In our example above, the couple who makes a QCD from IRAs for the $12,000 each year reduces taxable income by $12,000 and still uses the standard deduction.

Another possible advantage is the effect the reduction may have on other taxable items. Depending on the taxpayer’s total income, reducing adjusted gross income could result in reduction of the amount of Social Security benefits that are taxed, an allowed loss from certain real-estate rentals, or a reduction in the net investment income tax (if the amount of excess AGI exceeds the net investment income).

Reducing income may also result in lower Medicare premiums that are based on income for higher-income taxpayers. In addition, some states do not provide deductions for charitable donations, but do follow the federal treatment of excluding the QCD from income.

These changes may result in tax savings that could be used to make an even larger donation to a favorite charity.

Terri Judycki is a senior tax manager with the Holyoke-based public accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 322-3510; [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Tale of Two Cities

Connecticut has had its share of economic challenges in recent years, including a slow but steady outmigration of residents. Many might not be aware, however, of how stark the differences are between Connecticut and Massachusetts when it comes to long-term job recovery from the Great Recession — including Springfield’s relative strength when compared to Hartford. Farmington Bank’s economic adviser recently broke down the numbers, painting a picture that should be encouraging to those north of the border.

As an economic adviser for Farmington Bank, Don Klepper-Smith spends most of his analytical energy on Connecticut, but when he compares that state’s recent performance with its neighbor to the north, the numbers are stark.

“When we talk about Springfield and Hartford, I think the analogy ‘tale of two cities’ is appropriate,” Klepper-Smith said during a recent Farmington Bank webinar on the national and regional economy.

Since the low point of the Great Recession in 2009 — when unemployment spiked across the U.S. before the gradual recovery kicked in — the Greater Springfield area has created 32,000 new jobs, while Greater Hartford has created 37,000.

“So you’ve got close to 70,000 new jobs in the I-91 corridor between these two areas,” he noted. That’s all good. “But when we look at them in the context of our job-recovery rate, you can see Springfield is clearly outperforming Hartford — and looking a lot like the nation.”

The key takeaway is how much of the 2008-09 job losses have returned, he explained, and that’s where Springfield has really outpaced Hartford. While Hartford is now 4,200 jobs above full recovery — that is, above where the job picture stood in March 2008, before the economy collapsed — Springfield is 16,600 jobs above that line. To put it another way, Hartford has recovered 112.7% of its recession-era job losses, while Springfield has recovered 209.2%, gaining back its losses more than twice over. The national recovery figure, by the way, is 217.8%.

“When I think of Springfield, two words that come to mind are ‘stellar performance,’ with a job recovery rate that’s about twice that of Hartford,” Klepper-Smith said. “I think Hartford has its own challenges. We know the fiscal situation there has been tenuous, but I think economic-development policies are the reasons why Springfield is doing as well as it is.”

That’s good news for Springfield, which has been on a hot streak of good economic news for some time now, with the MGM Springfield casino at the forefront of that. But the numbers also reflect an overall disconnect in the way Massachusetts and Connecticut have respectively recovered from the economic downturn of a decade ago — and it’s a striking gap.

Tale of Two States

It’s hard to believe, Klepper-Smith says, that the U.S. recovery from the trough of the recession is now nine years old.

“The average postwar recovery is five years, so we’re getting a little bit long in the tooth here, and we’re looking for what could go wrong and trying to keep a positive attitude as we move through the balance of the year,” he went on. “Looking at the tea leaves and looking at the fundamentals, I’d say there’s a two in three chance we go forward with positive but slower economic growth — in the 2% to 2.5% range.”

Don Klepper-Smith

Don Klepper-Smith says economic-development policies have contributed to Springfield’s recent successes.

Yet, Connecticut continues to struggle — in fact, Hartford is among its strongest metropolitan areas in job growth, putting the rest of the state into stark relief. “State budget issues have undermined business confidence and promoted outmigration,” Klepper-Smith said, noting that the Nutmeg State has been shedding 428 people per week on average to other states.

“But as we go forward,” he said, “it boils down to consumers. Right now, what are consumers going to be doing for rest of 2018?”

Consumer confidence is rooted firmly in job creation, he was quick to note on more than one occasion. And Massachusetts job creation has been running circles around its southerly neighbor for much of the past decade.

Let’s go back to job-recovery rates, this time on the state level. Connecticut peaked at 1,713,000 jobs in March 2008, dropped to 1,594,000 by the following year — a 7% erosion — and has returned to a level of 1,687,000 jobs. That’s a recovery rate of just 78%, far below any other New England state.

“We seem to be stuck in this 80% range for job recovery, and right now we’re the only state in New England not to see full job recovery,” Klepper-Smith said of Connecticut. “I’ll be honest: I don’t see that number going above 100% any time soon. I don’t see robust job growth materializing any time soon.”

Massachusetts, in contrast, has been a model of recovery. From a 3,331,000 peak in 2008, the Bay State fell to 3,191,000 jobs at its 2009 trough — a 4.2% erosion — but now stands at 3,645,000, a whopping 322% recovery rate.

“In Connecticut, I’d have to use the word ‘lackluster’ for job recovery,” Klepper-Smith said, projecting that state likely won’t reach full recovery until 2020, several years after Massachusetts did so multiple times over.

The good news locally, he said, is that the Knowledge Corridor — the amorphous region stretching from Greater Hartford to Hampshire County — is doing well, even on the Connecticut side.

“We’ve got varying degrees of both strength and weakness. What we can say is the regional economy in the I-91 corridor is clearly performing well,” he noted, adding that the total non-farm job-growth rate is currently 0.8% in Hartford and 1.2% in Springfield, while the national figure is 1.6%. Again, Hartford pales in that comparison, but it’s behind only Danbury (1.0%) among Connecticut’s metro areas.

“I think the Connecticut economy seems to be moving sideways more than anything else, with pockets of both strength and weakness. We’re seeing signs of decelerating in many of the economic metrics we have,” Klepper-Smith said, noting that Connecticut’s gross state product ranks 49th nationally, ahead of only Louisiana.

“I’m hoping we can make some progress there as we move into 2019. We’re underperforming in job growth and income creation — and job growth will be what it’s all about. Jobs, jobs, jobs — they’re so important because of income, spending confidence, tax revenue, and all those linkages.”

National Picture

Nationally, Klepper-Smith said, the U.S. continues on a moderately positive path, growing at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of about 2.2%, though inflation — and rising costs of gas, healthcare, and home prices — are a concern.

“One of the things we can all agree on is that there are some pros and cons of living in an interconnected global economy,” he said. “And in economics, there are always tradeoffs; there’s never really a sense of clear winners and losers. Sometimes we have to wait and see how that all shakes out.

“But what we do know is what’s going on with the consumer sector,” he went on. “Consumers are so important to what’s going on because personal consumption accounts for roughly two-thirds of real gross domestic product.”

On one hand, he said, consumer-confidence measurables are strong — up 8% from last year and approaching 1990s levels, which is encouraging. But that trend could be tripped up by any number of factors.

“What we do know is that consumer fundamentals are being pressured, and risks to the current business expansion are becoming imperiled with rising energy prices, higher interest rates, and the expectation of higher healthcare costs heading into 2019. I think that’s a table setter for where we are, with the consumer feeling a little more squeezed and a little less comfortable compared to where we were back in March.”

Klepper-Smith expects the Fed to move with caution for the rest of the year. “We can now say the Fed sees rising inflationary pressures, and I honestly don’t feel they’re going to be aggressive on rate increases going forward. We’re probably not looking at more than two rate increases for the balance of 2018.”

If there’s one indicator to watch closely through the rest of the year, he said, it is, quite simply, how are consumers feeling? “One of the factors is the fact that the labor markets themselves have not shown meaningful progress. What that means is that we have not seen meaningful growth in consumer spending power.

“People ask me, ‘why doesn’t this feel like economic recovery the way I understood it in the past?’” he went on. “The answer is that we haven’t seen robust growth in consumer spending power.”

Back to Work

That comes down to jobs, of course, and Klepper-Smith admitted his dampened enthusiasm is mainly due to what he sees in Connecticut — which, again, puts Massachusetts in a very good light when it comes to its continuing recovery and expansion after the Great Recession.

“The good news is that we’ve seen job recovery in both regions, but I think that the problems that we have in Hartford are a bit more pronounced on the fiscal side, and I don’t think they’ll be going away any time soon,” he concluded.

It’s a sobering reflection of the myriad factors at play in creating an economic outlook — and a reminder that, even on the most challenging days in Massachusetts, things could be a lot worse.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]