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Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Signs of Progress

Country Bank’s display at Polar Park in Worcester has given many businesses what Paul Scully calls “sign envy.”

Paul Scully didn’t want to say how much Country Bank has invested in that 60-foot-long sign that sits atop what is known as the Worcester Wall at Polar Park (that facility’s version of Fenway’s Green Monster), easily the most visible manifestation of the bank’s partnership with the WooSox.

Instead, he offered a gracious “you can ask…”

But he certainly did want to say that he considers the overall investment in this sponsorship, and especially that sign, well worth it.

Indeed, it is certainly an attention getter, at all times but especially at night — it’s one of the few illuminated signs at the home of the WooSox and the second-largest after the one for the beverage company that bought naming rights.

Scully told BusinessWest that he has talked with a number of business owners in Worcester, Springfield, and in between who are suffering from what he called “sign envy.” Meanwhile, upon introducing himself at various occasions, he said he’s been greeted with the response “that’s the bank with the big sign at Polar Park.”

So the display is doing what is was designed to do, although fully leveraging it and other aspects of the partnership with the WooSox is an ongoing learning experience in a different kind of branding exercise (more on that later). And it’s merely one of many signs of progress, growth, and expansion — figuratively but also quite literally — at the Ware-based institution.

Another would be the bank’s business center on the 17th floor of Tower Square in downtown Springfield, opened in 2022. There’s only a small sign at the office, but the facility gives the bank a much larger presence at this end of Hampden County. Meanwhile, Country is adding some new products, including a WooSox debit card, and it recently completed a comprehensive digital upgrade on both its consumer and business banking platforms.

Still another sign, this one not of the visible variety, is the bank’s resiliency during what has been a challenging year for all financial institutions amid skyrocketing interest rates and a sagging housing market, due in large part to those soaring interest rates, but other factors as well.

Overall, Scully said Country Bank remains in a growth mode and, like other institutions, understands the value of size to continued success. The bank is looking at where to bring its brand next, he said, adding that there are many opportunities within its current footprint between Springfield and Worcester and perhaps beyond.

And there are, obviously, many factors to consider when it comes to where to go, when, and in what fashion.

Indeed, the 3,000-square-foot branch with a few drive-up lanes is largely a thing of the past, he said, adding quickly that while customers, and especially the younger generations, have fewer reasons than ever to visit a branch, they still serve a purpose. Actually, several of them.

“What we continue to look at are smaller footprints that will provide several things; getting your name on a building or a storefront is a form of marketing and the ability to get our name and our brand out there,” he said, adding that the bank’s broad strategy will be to maximize both brick-and-mortar facilities and digital banking platforms — often at the same address.

The team at Country Bank’s business office

The team at Country Bank’s business office at Tower Square in Springfield, another sign of the bank’s continued growth and expansion.

As to what additional addresses might become reality in the future, he said that’s one of many questions to be answered in the years to come.

For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest engaged in a wide-ranging discussion with Scully, who addressed everything from broad strokes in the bank’s business plan to the outlook for the year ahead when it comes to the economy, interest rates, and other factors; from the bank’s adjustments to a changing workforce to that big green sign in downtown Worcester.


Home Field Advantage

Like the famous Citgo sign outside Fenway, the Country Bank sign at Polar Park is always on, Scully said, adding that he can see it outside the apartment he has in the city.

“They do great things at the park and with the city to keep it going year-round,” he explained, noting that the bank’s visibility certainly doesn’t end when the games stop in September. “Whether it’s a Holy Cross football game or the charity walks that are constantly going on … every time the park is being used, or whether you’re in the DCU Club, a beautiful function venue at the park, that Country Bank sign is right in your face.”

And having his bank’s name in lights — big lights — is just one component of the bank’s partnership with the Red Sox’ Triple-A affiliate, Scully said, noting that it will soon be introducing a WooSox debit card — ‘the official debit card of the Worcester Red Sox.’ Meanwhile, the organizations collaborate on a ‘teacher of the month’ program, a ‘community heroes’ initiative, and other endeavors, he noted, adding that the investment in the team and its ballpark continues to pay dividends.

And the key to a successful partnership in such cases is effective leveraging of the signage and other elements of the collaboration, he said, adding that, in many respects, this remains a learning experience for the bank. And he used the DCU Center, the indoor arena in Worcester, to get his point across.

“I was with someone a few years ago, and I said something about DCU, noting that this was Digital Credit Union,” he recalled. “And she looked at me and said, ‘that’s what that stands for?’ So you need to make sure that, if you’re going to do something like this, you have to figure out what it’s going to get you.

“And you have to really work at leveraging it,” he went on. “Whenever you take a new approach to how you market your brand, you have to do the research, and you have to know when to shift gears. Clearly, it’s not just about turning on a sign; it’s about how you leverage that to be an expansion and an awareness of your brand.”

He said the bank’s marketing team spends a lot of time with the marketing personnel at the WooSox to develop strategies for how to fully leverage the partnership between the organizations.

Elaborating, he said the bank does this in various ways — through visibility from the sign, obviously, but also with the debit card, ticket giveaways, work with the WooSox Foundation, and being on the field for promotional events, such as the police-fire charity baseball game staged at the park in September.

“We were there, and we were a big sponsor of that event,” he went on, “and that allows you to reach out into various mediums of people and get your brand out there, so they get to understand what the brand is and what it stands for.”


Covering His Bases

Overall, the brand stands for many things, Scully said, noting that Country is a community bank that is large enough to provide the services required by its commercial clients and consumers, but small enough to deliver a personalized brand of service, qualities that have served the bank well during what has been a year of challenge for most all financial-services institutions.

Indeed, Country has enjoyed what Scully called a “decent year,” not on par with those that immediately preceded the pandemic, but solid from an earnings perspective and in most areas, including the mortgage side of the ledger and home-equity loans.

“We’re one of the most highly capitalized banks in the Commonwealth — our capital ratio is over 15%, and we’re quite profitable,” he said, adding that such stability bodes well at a time when not all banks can make such claims.

As for the mortgage business, Scully said it was definitely more vibrant than he would have expected over the past year, adding quickly that there are challenges within certain sectors of the market, especially the first-time homebuyers.

“They got the double whammy — the pricing of housing went up, and now interest rates have gone up,” he said. “There’s that segment of the population that’s looking to buy a home, but they can’t find it within their price range because their price range has been altered by the increase in interest rates.

“But we’re seeing people who have sold a home and are buying another one and trading up who don’t seem fazed by interest rates,” he went on. “Part of it is because a large percentage of the mortgages we are doing are adjustable-rate; they’re at a lower rate than a fixed rate, and I think the thought process is, ‘I’ll get an adjustable, and then, when rates come down, whether that’s in 12, 24, or 36 months, I’ll just refinance.’”

Overall, consumers continue to spend, despite the higher interest rates and historically high inflation.

“We see a younger segment seemingly unfazed by interest rates,” he told BusinessWest. “If the debit card works … they have a good time for themselves; that’s what’s happening.”

Things are slower, overall, on the commercial side of the ledger, Scully noted, adding that many business owners are fazed by higher interest rates. Meanwhile, with commercial real estate, many potential investors are waiting and seeing what’s happening with the office market, he said, adding that that the shift to remote work and hybrid schedules, seemingly permanent in the eyes of many, have brought a hesitancy to many investors.

Country Bank is one of those companies that has embraced a hybrid approach — and Scully is one of those who works remotely at least a few days a week on average.

He said these strategies have better enabled the bank to recruit and retain talent and, overall, become what he called “an employer of choice.”

“It’s really understanding evolution — an evolution of the workplace and an evolution of the economy,” he said, “and being able to adapt to it.”


Knowing the Score

Scully was quick to note that his office is not equipped with a crystal ball, but he said there are many signs, especially on the employment side, that the economy is still chugging along. Companies are hiring, he noted, and this trend generally yields sufficient levels of optimism among consumers.

And with interest rates, he projects they will stay pretty much where they are — a level that is considerably higher than what has been seen over the past decade, but, from a historical perspective, acceptable in most respects.

“We need some stabilization to get a sense of what real is these days,” he said. “The rates were so low for so long, but were those rates real? That’s the big question. If we step back 10 or 15 years ago, if you were getting a mortgage at 6%, that was pretty darn good.”

The other lingering question about 2024 concerns what will happen on the business and commercial real-estate sides of the ledger, he said, noting that there is a great deal of uncertainly when it comes to the future of retail — and the office.

“We’re hybrid, and we have a lot of office space,” he said. “We don’t have plans to condense it, but I’m sure there are companies that are looking at that. What will that do to the prices of things? That’s what we’ll start to see in 2024.”

As he talked about possible opportunities for expansion and bringing the Country Bank name (and green sign) to different communities, Scully acknowledged that the bank already has a rather large footprint, one that includes the state’s second- and third-largest cities and the territory between them.

There is the banking center in downtown Springfield and full-service branches in Belchertown, Brimfield, Charlton, Leicester, Ludlow, Palmer, Paxton, Ware, West Brookfield, Wilbraham, and two in Worcester, including a recently opened facility in Tatnuck Square. That footprint covers three counties — Hampden, Hampshire, and Worcester — and communities large and small.

The bank has been steadily growing its presence in Worcester, he went on, adding that it has always had a strong commercial-lending book of business, and has gradually increased its visibility and its overall presence with branch locations.

“We’re looking for opportunities throughout the Central Mass. and Western Mass. area,” he said, acknowledging that this certainly covers a considerable amount of real estate.

With the exception of that business office in Tower Square, the bank does not have a physical location west of Ludlow, he noted, adding that Country is certainly looking at opportunities to change that equation.

But the opportunity has to be right, he added quickly, noting that the bank isn’t interested in expansion for expansion’s sake.

“We continue to look at both markets, Worcester and Springfield, and say, ‘what opportunities are there in towns that are not already overbanked?’” he said. “We don’t want to be the 10th bank in the town.”

Getting back to those businesses he mentioned with ‘sign envy,’ Scully said they’re going to have to live with that condition for the foreseeable future.

“That’s their problem because we’re going to be there for a long time,” he said, using that phrase to refer to the sign, but also the bank’s presence across an ever-wider stretch of the state. This is an institution that is hitting it out of the park — in all kinds of ways.