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Banking and Financial Services

Matters of Interest

 

team of mortgage consultants

James Sherbo (third from left), senior vice president of Consumer Lending at PeoplesBank, with his team of mortgage consultants.

 

Mike Ostrowski remembers signing for his first mortgage.

The year was 1982. The 30-year adjustable rate was … wait for it … 16.37%.

“You could put a house on a credit card and beat that rate,” said Ostrowski, president and CEO of Arrha Credit Union. From that historical perspective, he noted, today’s rates, typically between 5% and 6%, don’t seem so onerous.

“We don’t make the market. We would like to see a nice, steady rate that does not fluctuate and move, but the fact of the matter is, even if the rates are hovering around 5% or 6% right now, that’s still a great rate,” he went on. “Did you catch the bottom of the market at 3%? Maybe some people did, and that’s great, but 6% isn’t ridiculous. It needs to be put in perspective. People forget.”

That they do, said Kevin O’Connor, executive vice president of Westfield Bank. “People were really used to rates of 3% for 30 years fixed,” he said, though he was quick to note that doubling that rate does alter the affordability of some houses when shopping in today’s market, and he’s sensitive to that reality. Still, “people are surprised right now, but 15 years ago, 8% to 9% was common, so a lot of us still view 5% as a good rate.”

Mike Ostrowski

Mike Ostrowski

“The whole goal in all of this is to cool down the overheated market, try to slow it down. If the Fed doesn’t take any action, you could be mired in inflation for a long time. And that’s certainly not to anyone’s benefit.”

James Sherbo, senior vice president of Consumer Lending at PeoplesBank, had similar thoughts, noting that, while 5% to 6% mortgage interest rates are historically low, they don’t seem low when people have been accustomed to a long stretch of much lower rates. And he understands why those interest rates, which are not directly tied to the Federal Reserve’s actions but tend to follow that pattern, are rising.

“Overall, it’s to slow inflation down, and part of that formula is the housing market,” Sherbo explained. “The thought is that, as rates increase, it will slow down the activity we’ve seen in the market the past couple of years.”

That activity has included an unprecedented swelling of home prices, driven by the laws of supply and demand — the former dragging way behind the latter in the wake of the pandemic and building-supply shortages.

“The whole goal in all of this is to cool down the overheated market, try to slow it down,” Ostrowski said. “If the Fed doesn’t take any action, you could be mired in inflation for a long time. And that’s certainly not to anyone’s benefit.”

O’Connor noted that the Fed’s recent moves to boost the prime lending rate, which has led to increases in other areas of the rate environment, including mortgages, have required banks to balance that reality with the needs of borrowers.

“In our case, how do we best position that rate for what the bank needs as well as what is good for customers and the community as a whole?” he said. “When rates were rising, we were probably looking at it daily. That’s not typical; we try to set rates as best we can for a week, so customers and Realtors are looking at something they can rely on, so they can plan.”

That daily whiplash has stabilized somewhat, to where the bank may alter the rate an eighth of a point during any given week, he added.

For this issue’s focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest talked with several area industry leaders about why mortgage interest rates have been so volatile lately, and how they’re addressing the needs and concerns of borrowers.

 

Bottom-line Impact

Craig Boivin, vice president of Marketing at UMassFive College Federal Credit Union, understands the historical picture of mortgage rates, but also sees consumers’ side: that buying a house in 2022 will cost them significantly more on their monthly bill than a house bought for the same price in 2021.

“Compound that with the fact that rents are higher, and it puts people in a position of ‘should I bid on houses when the values haven’t come down yet, or pony up another year of rent, which has increased a couple hundred dollars as well?’

“We’ve had a lot of conversations internally about how to help people get into homes,” Boivin went on. “Home ownership is one way people move into a higher economic class. We also know how homeowners benefit from values going up, as they can tap into home equity. So, how do we help people navigate this crazy environment?”

Craig Boivan

Craig Boivan

“We often tell folks who are getting into the homebuying game, especially people entering this crazy world for the first time, ‘take the workshop. We’ll show you different rate options, who you’ll be working with, finding your agent, all those things. Just talk to us.”

One way is by offering a wide range of products and matching borrowers to the right ones. For instance, UMassFive’s adjustable-rate mortgage product, which offers lower fixed rates over the first several years, followed by variable rates later on, can be a solid option for certain people.

“Those loans got a bad rap in the 2000s leading up to the housing burst because there was a lot less strict criteria around granting mortgages; some financial institutions were giving loans to people who couldn’t afford them,” he explained, which led to financial pain when a loan’s rate shot up.

But some customers are ideal fits for these types of loans, he said, such as first-time homebuyers who are already planning to move to their next home early in the loan, or medical residents who move around often, or professors who don’t have tenure and expect their current job to be transitory.

“One of the main reasons we can offer such a wide range of products is the way we set up our mortgage department,” Boivin said, noting that UMassFive invested in a credit-union service organization, or CUSO, called Member Advantage Mortgage, back around 2008. CUSOs allow a number of credit unions to create scale by pooling their resources on a particular program — in this case mortgages — which allows them to craft unique products for their members while weathering the kind of economic volatility that can upend business.

Lauren Duffy, chief operating officer at UMassFive, is executive chair of the Member Advantage Mortgage board of directors, “so we have direct oversight and a lot of influence,” Boivin noted.

O’Connor said Westfield Bank helps potential borrowers through its pre-qualification program, called ‘lock and shop.’ “They leave here knowing what their level of affordability will be, and their payment, based on current market rates. Then they can go out there and do some shopping.”

The idea is to avoid situations where shoppers think they’ve found the perfect home, only to find it’s unaffordable later, based on current rates, he explained.

Kevin O’Connor

Kevin O’Connor

“We want to take the uncertainty off someone’s head and give them some stability. We try to work with people in that way in these unsettled times.”

“That’s certainly helpful. We want to take the uncertainty off someone’s head and give them some stability. We try to work with people in that way in these unsettled times. Certainly, as a community bank, we feel a strong obligation to the community to find security and peace of mind for customers through this process.”

Boivin said UMassFive likes to “lead with education,” which is the motivator behind its educational programs, like Home Buying 101.

“We often tell folks who are getting into the homebuying game, especially people entering this crazy world for the first time, ‘take the workshop. We’ll show you different rate options, who you’ll be working with, finding your agent, all those things. Just talk to us.’”

 

Dollars and Sense

While mortgage volume hasn’t gone down at most institutions, refinancing has understandably taken a hit.

“We saw lots of refinancing from 5% to 3%; these people are not going to give up their rate now for any reason,” O’Connor said. “But a home-equity line of credit is an alternative, so they can preserve their lower interest rate, and we’re seeing home-equity volumes back up. A line of credit is variable to prime, and people understand that, but for many people, it’s worth doing that rather than give up their fixed-rate mortgage.”

Ostrowski said there will always be some refinancing business “because there’s always a need for money. People always need to send their kids to college, and they always want to make improvements to their homes.”

On the mortgage-origination side, the first-time homebuyer segment is most affected by higher interest rates, Sherbo said, simply because they don’t have a home to sell in this inflated market.

“They have the double whammy of higher rates and higher prices at the same time, and they often don’t have the wherewithal to withstand a bidding war on a property. So we have to do our best and be as competitive as we can on our products and our rates. We historically have low loan fees compared to our competitors, and a strong relationship with the real-estate community here in our footprint. Over time, we’ve developed a very good reputation for getting things done.”

The good news is that higher rates, married with a slight easing of the supply-and-demand conundrum, may push prices down, “but I don’t think we’ve seen that happen quite yet,” Sherbo added. “I think things should at least start settling down a little bit. We’re not seeing the bidding wars as hot and heavy as we have in the past. In some areas, there are some signs things are cooling down a little bit, which will help prices stabilize.”

He emphasized the importance of a community bank’s role in guiding customers to good decisions. “We know the market, and we can make adjustments quickly. We’re very agile when we have to adjust and change our programs a bit. We have to be focused on being competitive on rates, and we want to give buyers options. As soon as you feel you’ll be in the market, come talk to us, get pre-qualified, and we can guide you through what your options are.”

Ostrowski hopes home prices ease as well, but new housing starts nationally remain slow, which is indicative of the still-high cost of building materials, among other factors. But considering the big picture, he doesn’t think current mortgage rates should stop potential buyers from jumping into the pool.

“Realtors care about making a sale as quickly as possible. I don’t blame them; that’s their job. So they’re going to take a more negative view on this,” he told BusinessWest. “I don’t look at it as negative. You have to deal with normal fluctuations in this business. It might be slightly more than normal right now, but I wouldn’t hesitate in buying in the current market.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Forward Progress

President and CEO Mike Ostrowski

Arrha President and CEO Mike Ostrowski says credit unions have in many ways filled the void left by many of the smaller community banks that have disappeared from the landscape. To take full advantage of opportunities that are presenting themselves, an institution must have a blend of size and nimbleness — and a name that resonates. He believes Arrha has all three.

Mike Ostrowski calls it his ‘jungle home.’

Because … that’s what it is. The Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica is quite remote, and that’s what Ostrowski, president and CEO of Arrha Credit Union, likes about it.

“I have a little hut there — there’s no electricity, there’s no anything,” he explained while grabbing his phone to show photos of the area. “I typically go down there for two weeks; I alternate between living in the jungle and this tiny fishing village where I’ll stay for a few days. That’s my release.”

The upcoming trip, one coinciding with his 60th birthday later this month, will be a shorter stint, only six days, he said, adding that this is a good time of year to go because the fishing is good — he’ll be looking to land blue marlin and black tuna — and it is not rainy season.

“That comes in June,” he said. “And when it rains, it rains. It’s unbelievable how much water comes down. It’s like standing in a shower.”

He’ll return from this trip to a jungle of a different sort — a rapidly changing landscape in banking and financial services. It’s not exactly a hostile environment, but there are plenty of challenges — from razor-thin margins resulting from historically low interest rates to ever-escalating regulation — and competition that comes in all shapes and sizes and from all directions.

To survive and thrive in this environment, he told BusinessWest, an institution needs a solid blend of size and nimbleness and he believes Arrha — that’s the new brand that the former Springfield Teachers Credit Union assumed roughly five years ago — is strategically aligning itself to achieve both.

“We’ve been building that [commercial real-estate] business slowly and methodically for several years now. But it’s accelerating because of that vacuum created when banks like United leave; there’s no question that we’re taking advantage of opportunities like that.”

While size has become increasingly important in this age, that nimble quality is critical as well, he said, especially with all that competition, including the ever-growing roster of fintech companies offering everything from platforms with which the pay bills to risk-management services to payment-protection solutions.

“They’re all nipping at our heels for the dollars that a typical credit union or bank might get,” Ostrowski explained. “We’re fighting the battle on that front, and, fortunately, we have some of the best technology available; we can do anything they can do, and we can probably do it better because we’re local.”

But amid these many challenges there are also opportunities, he said, especially as a pattern of mergers and consolidations within the banking industry continues, such as with the recent acquisition of United Bank by Peoples United Bank.

As banks get larger and more of them become publicly held, he noted, credit unions have in many ways taken the spot once occupied by many of the smaller community banks that have disappeared from the landscape.

“And that’s a healthy thing,” said Ostrowski, who has spent the past 37 years in the financial-services sector and worked for a number of those community banks, including United, where he got his start, and Ludlow Savings. “That’s a normal progression of the industries; we’re looking to fill a void, a vacuum; people want to deal locally. The solid credit unions are taking the place of those local banking institutions that were around.”

To take full advantage of these opportunities and effectively and efficiently fill this void — something many other players are trying to do as well — Ostrowski said Arrha needs to be nimble, take full advantage of technology, stress its personable brand of service, and do what’s needed to attract the younger generations.

All of this, in a nutshell, is the strategic plan moving forward, he said, adding that the bank is looking to introduce ITMs (interactive teller machines) in its two locations, possibly by the middle of the year, and create what he calls the ‘branch of the future,’ something that will become a model for possible future expansion into smaller physical spaces.

This model involves the interactive technology, the ITMs, but also the human touch in the form of banking professionals making sure customers are comfortable using that technology and that all their needs are met.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” he said, noting that the technology is already in place in several area institutions. “We just want to be on the cutting edge; this concept will be taking off soon, and I want to be on the forefront of it.”

For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest talked with Ostrowski about Arrha’s strategic plan moving forward, one that calls for smart growth, taking advantage of the opportunities presenting themselves, and positioning itself for life in this jungle.

Points of Interest

Ostrowski has a small collection of bobbleheads residing atop a bookshelf in his office at Arrha’s Springfield’s facility on Industrial Drive.

When asked about it, he quickly deferred to a different collection, one that has more meaning.

This is an assemblage of coffee cups bearing names of financial institutions he once worked for. A few have been turned upside down, Ostrowski’s way of indicating that the bank in question made some key strategic mistakes, which in some cases led to that brand disappearing from the landscape.

Mike Ostrowski says Arrha will soon be introducing ITMs and creating what he called the ‘branch of the future.’

Opting not to go into specific details about any of these institutions, he hinted strongly that many of these mistakes involved trying to grow too quickly, taking unwarranted risks, and becoming something the bank wasn’t.

And he’s committed to not making these mistakes with Arrha, a credit union that first operated out of a classroom at Commerce High School in Springfield at the dawn of the Great Depression. His plan is for slow, steady growth — in memberships, assets, deposits, commercial loans, and perhaps locations, although he has no immediate plans to broaden the portfolio beyond the current two.

In short, he intends to continue living up to the credit union’s still somewhat new and unusual name — Arrha, an old English word that translates into ‘money in exchange for a contract, a pledge in earnest.’

Ostrowski said the name change was needed because the former name, Springfield Teachers Credit Union, and even the shortened version, STCU, didn’t adequately convey that membership was open to anyone who lives or works in the three counties of the Pioneer Valley.

The new name does — sort of — but often needs to be explained. Ostrowski doesn’t mind; in fact, he looks forward to doing it.

“That’s exactly why we picked the name — it gives us a chance to tell the story,” he told BusinessWest. “So, from a marketing perspective, I think it’s brilliant.”

The story, at present, is of a still relatively small credit union — it’s in the middle of the pack among area institutions of this type with roughly $140 million in assets — working to grow and position itself for success in the long term.

As for growth, Arrha has seen a steady rise in membership, said Ostrowski, noting that, over the past 18 months or so, it has gained more than 1,500 and now boasts more than 11,500.

“If we were Boston, where there’s a lot of inflow of people, I would not be too happy with those numbers, but given where we are and what the statistics show, I’m quite pleased,” he said, noting, as all other bank and credit-union leaders do, that this is, by and large, a no-growth area. Meanwhile, even though Arrha’s expanded criteria for membership — Hampden, Hampden, and Franklin counties in addition to some of Northern Conn. — appears broad, it is still somewhat restrictive, at least when compared to most banks in the region.

In this no-growth environment, the institution must look to do more with existing customers and offer more services, such as commercial lending and commercial checking accounts. Arrha expanded into this realm several years ago, and has built a solid portfolio, most of it involving commercial real estate.

“We’ve been building that business slowly and methodically for several years now,” he explained. “But it’s accelerating because of that vacuum created when banks like United leave; there’s no question that we’re taking advantage of opportunities like that.”

As with all other aspects of the credit union’s operation, the commercial side of the ledger is driven by relationship-building efforts, he said, adding that these relationships are developed far more through trust than interest rates.

By All Accounts

While working to build the membership base and commercial portfolio, Arrha is also taking a number of steps to attract younger audiences, said Ostrowski, noting that these initiatives involve everything from financial-literacy programs involving area high-school students to digital marketing programs, to making sure the credit union remains on the cutting edge of technology — something that’s quite necessary to get and keep the attention of Millennials and those behind them.

“It’s a tough generation to reach,” he acknowledged, adding that digital marketing is fast becoming the most reliable method. “And some of them have never been inside a bank or credit union.”

Still, all members of this generation will eventually need what he called a “warm hug” — the personalized service they’ll need when filling out their first mortgage application or looking to buy a business.

“And we’re here for them when they need that warm hug,” he went on, adding that Arrha is enjoying some success with attracting the younger generations, as evidenced by the fact that the average age of its members has gone down — by two years — while that number has been going up industry-wide.

“That tells me that we’re achieving what we’re intending to do when it comes to reaching out to that generation,” he said, adding that, specifically, this is the 25-to-35 age group.

And if all goes according to plan, when these individuals — and all other customers — enter one of the Arrha locations later this year, they’ll be stepping into that ‘bank of the future’ Ostrowski mentioned.

The credit union is currently in the exploratory stage on the new technology, with plans to implement the changes perhaps six months from now, he noted, adding that the institution will do its homework and due diligence and make sure this important work is undertaken properly.

He expects that the blend of technology and human touch will resonate with not only Millennials, but all generations. And he believes it could also serve as an effective model for smaller, highly efficient branches in the future, facilities that could enable Arrha to expand its physical presence to other communities.

“This will give us the ability to do additional branching at a lower cost structure,” he explained, adding that a facility with a few ITMs and perhaps two or three staff members would need only 1,000 square feet, and perhaps half that, as opposed to a traditional branch several times that size.

Ostrowski said he was inspired by what he saw at an institution in the Washington, D.C. area, which had ITMs and three roving employees qualified to handle everything from car and mortgage loans to wire transfers, and is looking to do something similar here.

“They had the ability to handle every banking need — but they weren’t wasting their time doing transitional deposits or withdrawals,” he said. “It’s a far more efficient way to do things, and it’s still very member-friendly.”

Bottom Line

That branch of the future seems a long way from that hut on the Osa Penninsula — in every way imaginable.

But they’re both in a jungle in some respects.

This jungle in the 413 is a highly competitive environment where, as noted earlier when mentioning banks not around anymore, survival is not assured. It can be secured by being forward-thinking, on the leading edge of technology, and customer-friendly.

In short, it happens by avoiding the kinds of mistakes that would prompt Ostrowski to turn a coffee cup upside down.

And that, in plain, basic terms, is the business plan for Arrha.

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

Construction

Powered Up

Mike Ostrowski says having the right tools and resources for each job matters, but so does a focus on the personal service and small details.

Mike Ostrowski says having the tools and equipment to be able to do any job is at the top of his priority list.

In fact, it has been that way since the day he started his business. 

Right after high school, Ostrowski went to work for an electrical company in Westfield. For 10 years, he gained extensive experience beyond what many believe is the typical job description of an electrician. 

“When people think of electricians, they think lights and plugs and stuff like that,” said Ostrowski. “While that’s part of it, my specialty and what I got into is automation controls and machinery.”

While he felt he gained an ample amount of experience at this position, he did not feel appreciated for what he brought to the table, so he left the company to start his own business in 2004.

“I went out to see my dad and said, ‘hey, can I borrow enough money to buy a van?’” Ostrowski told BusinessWest. “So, I went out and bought a van and put tools in it.”

“When people think of electricians, they think lights and plugs and stuff like that. While that’s part of it, my specialty and what I got into is automation controls and machinery.”

The rest is history.

This van — and Ostrowski’s dream‚ turned into Ostrowski Electrical, which became AMP Electrical in 2006. He gained a partner that year, and before they parted ways in 2010, they were still able to grow the company from seven employees to 35.

AMP has since downsized to 12 staff members, and while the company has taken some twists and turns over the years, Ostrowski continues to promote the same values he started with, specifically focusing on delivering strong personal service to customers.

“Quality and neatness still count for us,” he said. “Sometimes that’s missed in projects that I’ve seen. Even though we’re a smaller company, we have all the tools and equipment that it takes to do big projects, which a lot of smaller guys don’t have.”

Around the World

As Ostrowski said, many tend to view electricians as just that: people who install lights. But one way AMP Electrical is able to stand out from the crowd is its automation and support services, which have taken Ostrowski everywhere from local cities and towns to all the way to Egypt.

“I like watching the whole process run from start to finish,” he said. For example, beginning in 2005, he picked up a couple projects for Qarun Petroleum Co., based in Cairo, where he designed, built, and tested control panels and wired pump skids locally. He then shipped them off to Cairo, flew there himself, and ran the startup process.

While this is certainly not a regular occurrence, Ostrowski says this is a process that he encounters locally as well.

More recently, AMP Electrical worked on a bleach-dilution process for KIKCorp, a leading independent manufacturer of consumer packaged goods. Ostrowski and employees programmed the valves and controls so the bleach could be diluted to whatever temperature the company wanted.

Of course, AMP is capable of much more than these complex jobs. The company also offers complete electrical construction services, municipal water and wastewater controls, building electrical maintenance, telecommunications solutions, complete service to industrial manufacturing, electrical testing, and bucket-truck services.

The key, as Ostrowski said, is having the tools for every job.

But this field does not come without its challenges. With the wide array of services they offer, AMP has managed to stand out from area competition, but has struggled, as many in this and related industires have, with a lack of skilled workers. “There are not enough skilled people out there,” he said. “There’s a gap in knowledge.”

This, he noted, is partially due to the solar boom, which has created a deficiency in electricians. When people go into solar as apprentices, they come out with the skills to put solar panels on, but often lack basic electrical skills.

“The biggest challenge today, being in this field, is finding talented electricians,” he told BusinessWest. “The solar industry has created a lot of electricians that don’t have a lot of the basic pipe-bending skills and electrical knowledge that you would get working for a traditional electrical contractor.”

Ostrowski himself has quite a few more skills than the average electrician. Moving from business owner to employee, he’s had to do some research to strengthen his expertise in areas including finances, estimating, and business management, all without a college degree.

“I’m a licensed electrician that basically figured it out and made it happen,” he said.

Getting the Job Done

No matter what hat Ostrowski may wear at any given time, electrician or business owner, he makes sure his employees have the tools to get the job done and sets an example of what quality service should look like.

“You’re still going to see my face on job sites,” he said. “When the phone rings and everyone’s busy, my boots are in the corner. I’ll grab my tools and go out and fix somebody’s piece of equipment, or I’ll plug my laptop in and be able to look at somebody’s process and take care of them.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

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