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Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Pedal to the Mettle

Monson Savings Bank’s birthday celebration

Monson Savings Bank’s birthday celebration

Monson Savings Bank has been commemorating its 150th birthday in many different ways, from a time capsule to assembling and donating $15,000 worth of bicycles to several area charities. Through all these efforts, the bank is celebrating its continuity and its commitment to a community that is now much larger then when it took its first deposit back in 1872.

Dan Moriarty called it a ‘trial run.’

That’s how he referred to his 60-mile bike ride, which he also called the ‘Tour de Branches,’ on July 17, during which he visited all seven Monson Savings Bank (MSB) locations — five branches, the headquarters, and a loan center — on a trek that took him from Monson to East Longmeadow, with stops along the way in Ware, Wilbraham, and Hampden.

Moriarty, the bank’s president and CEO, said this was a tuneup for a ride two and a half times that length, a number that is significant because 150 is also the number of years the bank is celebrating this year, and the ride, still very much in the planning stages, has now become a poignant part of the celebration.

Dan Moriarty’s ‘Tour de Branches’

Dan Moriarty’s ‘Tour de Branches’ helped him prep for a 150-mile ride as part of Monson Savings Bank’s birthday celebration

“My goal is to raise money to give to a local charity … I’m thinking I could ask for per-mile pledges from friends, family, customers, and businesses,” Moriarty told BusinessWest, adding that the charity is still to be determined. “I’m guessing no other bank president belonging to a bank older than 100 years has done this.”

He’s probably on very safe ground with that statement. Not many bank presidents pedal such distances, although he’s certainly comfortable doing so having competed in several Ironman triathlons, where participants cycle 120 miles while also swimming 2.4 miles and running a full 26.2-mile marathon. And, more to his point, there simply aren’t many banks that can boast about being around for 100 years, let alone 150.

And that, more than anything else, is what MSB is celebrating this year, said Mike Rouette, executive vice president and chief operating officer, noting that this longevity, this stability — not only the same bank, but the same name since Ulysses S. Grant was patrolling the White House — is rare in this era of ongoing mergers and acquisitions.

bank employees buried a time capsule

As part of the 150th birthday celebration, bank employees buried a time capsule filled with a number of items reflective of 2022.

It is reflected, he said, in a borrowed slogan that the bank has adopted: ‘Never forget who you are and where you came from; it’s an important part of you that you will find strength and peace from.’

“It’s short, and it’s sweet, and it says a lot about us,” Rouette noted, adding that, while the bank has grown and expanded its presence within the region, it remains loyal to the principles on which it was founded in 1872.

Moriarty agreed.

“I think it takes a strong sense of loyalty to the legacy of the organization to hang on for that long,” he said. “As we know, in this area, some long-lasting institutions decided to go a different route and either merge or combine. It starts with the organization and how it feels the future can be laid out for a bank that’s been around a long time; if they feel they’re not going to make it, they look to a different situation or combination. So far, we’re not committed to looking in a different direction.”

Moving forward, he said the bank “has a lot to talk about” at its upcoming annual meeting and strategic planning sessions in September, from where, when, and how to expand geographically to anticipating where technology is going and how to maximize it to better serve customers.

“We had very big ideas, and I’m happy to say that we made most of them happen — and very successfully.”

“It’s all about delivery systems, customer service, where we’re physically going next, which means market analysis and possible branch expansion,” he explained. “We’re going to do it in a controlled and managed method.”

 

To a Higher Gear

While Moriarty is, indeed, a veteran of Ironman triathlons, it had been a while, seven years by his estimation, since he had taken part in one of those competitions. Thus, he admits to being a little sore after that 60-mile trial run.

“It was a reality check when I came off the bike that day,” he explained. “I said, ‘whoa … that was 60 miles; I have to do that twice plus another 30 miles.’ This will be a good challenge for me; there was about 3,500 feet of climbing for one loop — that’s like going up half of Mount Washington.”

Monson Savings Ba

Monson Savings Bank has retained its original name and home city for 150 years, a rarity in the banking world.

He’s presently training with long-time friend and Ironman coach Kevin Moloney, who took the 60-mile ride with him. He’s also mapping out a course, one that will essentially take him on the 60-mile loop twice, with an additional loop, totaling 30 miles, tacked on.

As he said, it’s a work in progress when it comes to planning the ride, choosing a beneficiary, and filling in other details. And this ride will, as noted, will be a capstone — along with a formal gala in September to be attended by employees, board members, and plus-ones (total guest list of … you guessed it, 150) — to what has been a full year of activities marking the bank’s milestone.

Recapping them, Caitlin O’Connor, vice president and Marketing officer, said there has been a wide variety of events and programs, from the burying of a time capsule to the commissioning of a painting of the bank’s first president, Charles Merrick; from a traveling historical display featuring antique currency to monthly $150 cash prizes; from the placing of a marker where the original bank building stood at the corner of Main and State streets in Monson to several build-a-bike initiatives, whereby bank employees have assembled and donated $15,000 worth of bicycles to several nonprofits in the area, including I Found Light Against All Odds, Educare Springfield, and the South End Community Center.

“We had a ‘Cheers to 150 Years’ event starting on March 19 to really kick things off; that’s was an employee event and the starting point,” O’Connor told BusinessWest. “And from then on, it just grew and took on a life of its own. We had very big ideas, and I’m happy to say that we made most of them happen — and very successfully.”

Collectively, these events and programs have punctuated the bank’s place in the community — literally, as with the marker placed at the original bank location, but also figuratively, as a community bank that is very much involved in the cities and towns where it has locations, and the region as a whole, Rouette noted, adding that the 150th anniversary has been a great vehicle for making introductions, forging new relationships, and reinforcing existing ones.

“What a great way to walk into a nonprofit that you’re hoping to bring into the bank or a commercial or residential customer,” he said of the celebration and everything that it conveys about the bank, its history, its stability, and a future that will look very much like the present and the past.

“It’s an opportunity to give them your story — who you are, what you’re about, and your overall legacy,” he went on. “People want to do business with people that have been around, that are part of the community — not just here today and gone tomorrow, but institutions that are truly the cornerstone, the bedrock of the area.”

 

The Ride Stuff

That word ‘area’ has taken on new meaning for MSB since its last major anniversary — its 100th, in 1972 — and especially since 1998.

It was during that year that the bank opened its first location outside of Monson, a branch in Hampden. Five years later, a third branch was opened in Wilbraham, and new locations were added in Ware in 2103 and East Longmeadow in 2020. During that same memorable year, MSB’s Loan and Operations Center moved to a state-of-the-art facility in Wilbraham.

‘Build a Bike,’ where employees assemble bikes and donate them to area charities

The 150th celebration has featured a number of programs and events, including ‘Build a Bike,’ where employees assemble bikes and donate them to area charities, in this case, I Found Light Against All Odds.

With these moves, the bank is now serving a much broader area and becoming more involved in the region’s unofficial capital, Springfield, and serving a broader demographic mix of commercial and residential customers, said Dina Merwin, senior vice president and chief risk and senior compliance officer for the bank.

“We’ve well beyond the towns in which we have branches, and so we recognize that we want to reach all potential customers in our market,” she explained. “We recognize also our desire to include financial inclusion in reaching all potential customers in our market, whether that cuts across lines of income levels, race, ethnicity, and any other basis.

“Many of our recent events were focused in the Springfield area,” she went on, “while we continue to support and celebrate all the communities in which we are committed. We also recognize that there have been some demographic shifts in our market area in age and different types of population, so it’s important for us to recognize that and make sure we’re inclusive in all our efforts.”

While the area being served by the bank has changed, the name over the growing number of doors hasn’t, said Moriarty, noting that his institution, unlike many others, has chosen to keep the name of the community where it began as part of the brand, as well as that word ‘Savings.’

“I think the recession will be short and challenging, but I think Monson Savings and other banks are positioned well to weather, manage, and help customers through this period.”

“We’re going against the grain on that in some respects,” he noted. “Mike and I met with the board of directors during a strategic planning session, and we feel that the reputation that the bank has built the past 150 years does mean something, and we believe it’s recognizable in the community. We want to leverage that from a standpoint of legacy — Monson itself, where it all began — and then ‘Savings’ connoting security and trust, even though we feel we are a commercial player in the market.”

Indeed, while celebrating its 150th anniversary in all those ways mentioned above, MSB has also been carrying on with business, said Moriarty, noting that it has been a solid year in many respects, despite a sagging economy, with continued growth in commercial lending and, overall, a $30 million increase in total assets, bringing the bank near the $650 million mark.

“We’re working to strengthen existing relationships while also fostering new ones across the board, from individuals to businesses,” he said. “We’re trying to help them navigate where this challenging environment is going.”

On the commercial-lending side of the ledger, an already competitive landscape has become even more so as rates start to edge up, said Rouette, adding that many businesses are being more cautious amid general uncertainty about where the economy is headed and, overall, a decline in confidence.

“You’re seeing a bit of a slowdown, especially as people hear of the inflationary environment we’re in,” he went on. “People are pushing back potential projects that they have; maybe they were going to start in the third quarter or fourth quarter of this year, and now they’re saying, ‘let’s pump the brakes a little bit and possibly look at next year and see where we land from a rate standpoint and with the economic environment.’

“We had a great first and second quarter,” he went on. “But when you’re out talking to customers, you can hear the apprehension and cautious tone of voice that business owners are using right now.”

Moriarty concurred, and noted that a recession is now more likely than not, in his opinion, and this will add to the many challenges business owners and managers are currently facing.

“I think the recession will be short and challenging,” he said, “but I think Monson Savings and other banks are positioned well to weather, manage, and help customers through this period. And once the Fed gets control of inflation and the employment market evolves a little bit, we’ll see some improvement.”

Looking ahead, and toward creation of a new strategic three-year plan for the bank, Moriarty said a number of topics will be considered, including the need to be more “customer-centric versus product-centric,” as he put it.

“That means that we have to make sure we’re creating frictionless opportunities and delivery systems that make it easy for customers to manage their banking,” he explained. “That includes digital banking; we know we have cutting-edge products now, but we know things are going to change drastically in the next three to five years, so we have to make sure we’re positioned to give those offerings to our customers.

“Artificial intelligence will come more into play in the next three to five years,” he went on. “The usefulness or the quickness with which we can do data analysis of what our customers have and what they need will be important. Customers want to have things at their fingertips; they want to maximize and analyze their financial situation and be able to look forward and make good decisions.”

As for possible geographic expansion, Moriarty said there are many possibilities, and he’s not ready to talk about any of them.

He did say that the consensus among experts in the industry is that the recent pattern of consolidation within the sector will continue, leaving opportunities for smaller, community banks like Monson Savings.

“We feel that we benefit from other mergers and acquisitions because we’ve been around for so long, and we know that where there’s shakeup, there’s also opportunity,” he said. “We’re going to keep an open mind to that.”

 

Going the Last Mile

Returning to the subject of his planned bike ride, Moriarty joked that now that he’s started to talk about it, he’s pretty much committed to doing it.

He’s training two or three times a week with Moloney and looking at a number of options for which charity or charities (probably the latter) he will be fundraising for.

It’s been a while since he’s taken part in an Ironman competition or even a marathon — he’s run in several of those as well, including Boston a number of times. But he said it’s like … well, riding a bike. Not really, but close.

In any case, like the institution he now leads, he’s proven that he’s in it for the long haul — as in the very long haul: 150 miles for him, 150 years for the bank.

They’ve both put the pedal to the mettle.

 

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

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

They’re Still Goal-oriented

Dan Moriarty, left, and Mike Rouette.

Dan Moriarty, left, and Mike Rouette.

Michael Rouette says he keeps a copy of the 36-year-old news story in his office. He’ll take it out and read it on occasion, and will proudly show it others, usually without much prompting.

“Moriarty-Rouette Team Buys Ticket to Finals” is the headline over that item in the Palmer Journal Register from November 1984, which goes on to note how goals by Rouette, then a junior, and Dan Moriarty, a freshman, along with a “tenacious defense,” propelled the Monson High School soccer team to a 2-1 win over Monument Mountain, giving the Mustangs, as that headline noted, a ticket to the regional finals in Chicopee a few days later.

Today, the Moriarty-Rouette team is still focused on goals, but now as president and executive vice president and chief operating officer (a new position), respectively, at Monson Savings Bank. They are the leaders writing the next chapter in the bank’s history after the retirement of long-term president Steve Lowell.

As the two talked with BusinessWest earlier this month, just weeks before Moriarty was to add the title CEO to his business card (Lowell is still acting in that capacity until mid-February), they talked often about their time on various fields together — they were both three-sport stars — and made frequent use of sports terms and phrases.

Indeed, when talking about the transition in leadership at the top and work to make it seamless, Moriarty said he will try to act as a good referee would — “you don’t know he’s on the field during the game.” And the two of them made early and very frequent references to the importance of teamwork at this (and any) institution.

Meanwhile, when it comes to the pandemic and this transition in leadership, both said there is no playbook for a such a challenging passing of the baton, so they will essentially write their own.

“We’re driven, we’re motivated, but we’re humble enough to know that teamwork gets you further than individual performance.”

“As far as meeting with customers and being out in the community more, Mike and I haven’t had the opportunity to really do that, for safety reasons,” Moriarty said. “And that makes things more difficult, but we’re adjusting and preparing for that day when this is over.”

As for that article, both men say it conveys more than coincidence that two high-school soccer teammates, now in their 50s, are leading the bank headquartered in the town where they grew up. Much more. They say it conveys other ‘C’ words, including commitment to the community and continuity.

“That article reminds me of who we are and where we’re from, and not to ever forget that,” Rouette said. “But it also speaks to how we’ve grown as individuals, as friends, as co-workers, as partners, and as leaders. That article symbolizes how our lives have changed but really haven’t changed, and how success can be built on people who have the same vision, the same mindset, and the same family values.”

Moriarty concurred. “We’ve known each other for so long, but the values are the same, even though we’re a long way from the soccer field. “We’re driven, we’re motivated, but we’re humble enough to know that teamwork gets you further than individual performance; we try to bring that culture to the bank and to our employees, and we try to lead by example. But we also understand that each individual in the bank is a contributor, and we want them to be part of the team and the success of the bank. We did that before we became leaders of the bank, and we’re just going to continue that and build on that culture of teamwork.”

The two take on their new roles at an intriguing time for the bank — and all banks. The pandemic has created both challenges and opportunities — certainly more of the former than the latter, and made some aspects of being a bank leader more difficult. Meanwhile, there is immense competition in a region described by most in the industry as ‘overbanked.’

Monson Savings’ newest branch, on North Main Street in East Longmeadow

Monson Savings’ newest branch, on North Main Street in East Longmeadow, was opened at the height of the pandemic last year, but it is nonetheless off to a solid start.

Both Moriarity and Rouette said that Monson Savings, now with more than $508 million in assets, has been on a steady growth trajectory and they are committed to moving the bank toward further expansion, geographically and otherwise.

 

They’re on the Ball

As noted earlier, Moriarty and Rouette were both three-sport athletes. While most noted for their exploits on their soccer field — both would go to play in college; Moriarty at Providence College and Rouette at Old Dominion — they were also teammates in baseball and basketball.

And as they recalled those days, they often leaned on some self-deprecating humor to make their points.

Indeed, when discussing their time as starting guards (and captains) on the hardwood, they made it clear they were not exactly go-to options when the Mustangs were looking for points.

“I was the point guard, and I couldn’t shoot,” said Moriarty, as he looked at Rouette, who nodded energetically, but said his front-court mate was ultimately the better alternative.

“I was pretty fast … I could steal the ball, but I could only dribble left-handed,” Rouette recalled. “I would have a breakaway, and our coach, Bill Devine, would essentially tell me to stop, hand the ball to Moriarty, and let him shoot it, because it would be like throwing a brick against the backboard when I let it go. I couldn’t put the ball in the ocean.”

Despite those references, the two were much-heralded for their exploits on various fields, and for their work together, even if it was only for two years.

Indeed, while Moriarty continued to make headlines at Monson High in the mid-’80s, Rouette was playing soccer at Old Dominion, majoring in Economics, and, when home from school in the summer and winter, working as a teller at Monson Savings Bank. During those short stints, he impressed those at the bank enough to get a job offer of sorts — specifically an invitation to become part of the lending team when he graduated.

“When I was a junior at Old Dominion, I already knew where I was heading,” he said, adding that he did join the bank and has been there ever since.

Moriarty, who would take a far more circuitous route to his hometown bank, has memories of seeing Rouette heading for a work in a suit while he was toiling for the town’s Highway Department while he was home from college for the summer. “It’s 95 degrees out, Michael’s going to work in a tie, and I’m thinking, ‘I want to work in air conditioning.’”

He would, first at Coopers & Lybrand in Hartford, and later at Aetna, HealthSouth, and then Unicare.

“But the attraction to Monson Savings was always in the back of my mind,” he recalled, adding that, during some conversations with Rouette, he brought up the possibility of joining the bank, and eventually did so in 1998 as an accounting manager.

The two have risen in the ranks over the years, with Rouette rising to senior vice president and chief lending officer, and Moriarty eventually climbing to senior vice president and chief financial officer in 2011.

When Lowell announced his intentions to retire not quite a year ago, both men sought to succeed him as president and CEO. Those titles would eventually go to Moriarty, but the two essentially form a new leadership team, one that brings complementary strengths and shared values.

Moriarty noted that, through his career at the bank, he’s been focused on the finance side of the equation, while Rouette has concentrated on lending and customer relationships, and, in his new role, will add retail to his list of responsibilities.

“Mike is very customer-focused, while I have somewhat different responsibilities — strategy, human resources, finance, marketing, compliance, and technology,” said Moriarty. “I think the bank is positioned to use our strengths in a proper way.”

 

Net Results

All this prompts more flashbacks, and the inevitable analogies, to 1984 and that soccer semifinal against Monument Mountain, where Moriarty notched the first goal of the game, and Rouette, then the all-time scoring leader for the Mustangs, recorded the game clincher.

As for the finals game … that did not go as well — a loss to an undefeated Wahconah team that still stings three and half decades later. (Moriarty wasn’t able to play in that contest due to a broken ankle he suffered in the semifinal.)

But while they do like to look back, Moriarty and Rouette are obviously far more focused on the present and the future.

As for the former, that means everything from coping with the many aspects of COVID-19 to growing the bank’s latest branch, on North Main Street in East Longmeadow, which opened last summer, in the middle of the pandemic.

That timing wasn’t perfect — many branch lobbies were still closed — but the new facility is off to a solid start.

“We had a good core group of customers in Longmeadow and East Longmeadow,” Moriarty said. “We transitioned them internally to the East Longmeadow branch, so we had a good start, and we’re looking to have that branch in a good position in a shorter period than you normally would in a new market.”

As for the pandemic itself, it’s been a time for the bank to play to its strengths — yes, that’s still another sports phrase — and use its focus on customer service to not only take care of (and retain) existing customers, but also gain some new ones. This has been the case on all fronts, but especially with the commercial lending portfolio and the bank’s strong track record handling applications for Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) loans.

“We basically got out in front of it,” said Rouette as he explained the bank’s basic strategy with the PPP program and its commercial customers in general. “We knew that that they [customers] couldn’t be chasing us. We had a great team effort to reach out to all our business customers; we said, ‘we know there’s an issue, we know PPP is coming down the road, and when the spigot opens, we’ll be there for you.’ And we did it.

“People needed to hear your voice,” he went on, adding that every commercial customer was called in an effort to gauge their needs and concerns and update them on the status of their application. “And that calmed people, that they weren’t on voice mail or weren’t able to get through.”

This high level of customer service enabled the bank to handle PPP loans for non-customers, gains that both Moriarty and Rouette chalked up to word-of-mouth referrals that should have some long-term benefits for the institution as a new round of the program begins later this month.

Dan Moriarty, left, and Mike Rouette both found a common denominator

Dan Moriarty, left, and Mike Rouette both found a common denominator between their soccer squad from the ‘80s and the staff at Monson Savings — the importance of solid teamwork.

Looking back, and ahead, Moriarty said he was mentored by his two immediate predecessors, Lowell and Roland Desrochers, and he understands what has made the bank successful — especially its employees and community-bank look, feel, and operating values — and has no intention of altering the game plan.

“The vision for the bank is to continue to be the community bank that these communities need,” he told BusinessWest. “From a business side, commercial customers as well as retail customers, we want to stay competitive in our delivery systems — digital, mobile … we can have people bank with us from Monson to the Cape and into Connecticut. We want to be relevant in the communities we serve for not just today, but for years to come.

“The culture will remain the same,” he went on. “And we’re just going to leverage the talent we have inside the bank.”

Meanwhile, both men intend to continue their active involvement in the community, which mirrors the work of Lowell, Desrochers, and others that came before them. This work comes in many forms, with Moriarty devoting time and energy to several groups, including the East of the River Chamber of Commerce (he’s a board member), the Baystate Health Community Benefits Advisory Council, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, the Brightside Golf Classic, and Monson High School, where he’s the assistant varsity soccer coach.

As for Rouette, he is similarly involved, but focuses most of his time on the YMCA of Greater Springfield, with which the bank has long enjoyed close ties. “Everyone has a passion, and that’s mine,” he said, adding that he’s been a long-time board member and supporter on many levels.

 

Bottom Line

Summoning still another sports analogy of sorts, Moriarty said it is customary, at least with good teams, to look ahead, not back, when a season ends.

“Because it’s January, we say, ‘last season’s over … we finished December, we did well, but now it’s 0-0, and we’ve got a new season ahead of us,’” he noted, adding that, given the many variables confronting banks — and all businesses, for that matter — it’s impossible to know how this new season will go.

What these two do know is that Monson Savings Bank will, as noted, continue to play to its strengths, honed over many years and under leaders that these two have learned from.

In short, there’s a winning formula at the bank, and their only real plans for the future are to continue using it.

 

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

 

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