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In this era of rampant mobile banking, opening a physical branch is a different proposition than it used to be, Matt Sosik said. But it’s still an important one.

“At this point in the cycle of our industry, branching has fallen by the wayside a little bit,” said Sosik, president and CEO of bankESB, which recently opened its 11th branch on Sargeant Street in Holyoke — a move that, despite the declining emphasis on bricks and mortar, made a lot of sense.

“We feel we’ve been banking with the people of Holyoke for years and years, so Holyoke is a natural extension of our footprint,” he said, noting that today’s branches are smaller and more efficient than those built in the past, but still must emphasize customer service — something that Tiffany Raines, Holyoke’s branch manager, has said she will emphasize there.

Indeed, online channels do change the dynamics of a branch as a delivery channel, Sosik told BusinessWest, if only because branches simply serve fewer people in person than they used to.

“Customers, as they should, love that technology can improve their banking experience, and we really encourage our customers to use those online and mobile banking products; they’re so robust and provide so much to customers,” he noted. “That said, we’ll never lose our ability to interact with them face to face. We covet that, and when we get our customers in front of us, we certainly take advantage of that and provide guidance to them.”

With that in mind, he said, the new Holyoke branch, like any new branch at most banks, is designed to provide value, not volume — a more personalized experience, in other words, for fewer customers each day.

“Actual in-person branch transaction volume is well off over the past 20 years, so it’s really about building the initial relationships with the customer; that’s what a branch does best in 2019,” he went on. “It’s more a source for originating the customer relationship than it is a delivery channel — more for acute problem resolution and consultative conversations.”

Yet, new branches also reflect growth, and bankESB is certainly growing, with $1.3 billion in assets across its 11-branch network in Hampden and Hampshire counties. Meanwhile, its holding company, Hometown Financial Group, also based in Easthampton, boasts $2.1 billion in assets and 24 branches across Western and Central Mass. and Connecticut, with further expansion to come (more on that later).

Banking today, Sosik said, is less about products and “more about how we deliver those products we’ve all become very familiar with.”

Take residential lending, for example. “The mortgage world has lent itself well to the online world, where we can efficiently process a transaction for somebody to buy what is arguably the biggest asset of their life, and we can do that almost entirely online for them — and very efficiently. That’s what technology has done — improved on products we’ve all come to know and love. That’s the difference between 2019 and, say, the 1990s.”

Dena Hall, the bank’s executive vice president and chief Marketing officer, noted that bankESB has the second-highest market share in Hampshire County at almost 22%, and the expansion into Holyoke follows growing name recognition in Hampden County, where it also maintains branches in Agawam and Westfield.

“We’ve seen an increasing level of awareness across the Pioneer Valley, up and down the 91 corridor, which is important to serve customer needs in this region,” she added. “Really, we’re all about meeting customers where they want to meet us. We want them to know we’re a viable option for them.”

Lending Thoughts

To understand the importance of face-to-face relationships in banking, Hall said, look no further than commercial lending, an increasingly important part of bankESB’s business and strategic direction. The institution added three new lenders to its commercial team in 2018, all from larger local banks, in an effort to add more resources to the division and demonstrate the capability to meet the commercial financing needs of businesses in the region. The team now has seven lenders under the direction of Executive Vice President Ryan Leap.

“When you think about how the customer has gotten physically away from us, that’s less so with the commercial business,” Sosik said. “Commercial lending has a lot to do with what we do best — customer service, face-to-face interactions, and building long-term, value-added relationships. For us, it’s a very natural customer-service direction in which to grow.”

That growth comes at a time when businesses continue to invest in capital projects, he added.

“We see a lot of things going on in the economy. The economy has such a long and slow build that it’s hard to see it in motion, but take a look back at the past year and years prior, and we’ve definitely seen continuous, slow, steady growth. Thankfully for Western and Central Massachusetts, we see that growth in small and medium-sized businesses coming in and taking advantage of the economy and improvements in commercial real estate.”

At the same time, Hall said, bankESB is building its consumer divisions. “Last year, we hired a new leader for the residential mortgage and consumer loan division with several years of experience in mortgage operations and origination, most recently with Peoples United Bank,” she noted.

In addition, after a year of developing its back-office processing and underwriting area, the bank recently added two new mortgage loan originators and upgraded its online mortgage application so that customers can apply how and when they want, either in person with a loan originator or online.

“With some banks in our market pulling back on their mortgage efforts, we’re excited to make more products and sales people available to the region,” she said.

Sosik agreed. “We continue to build the depth and breadth of the team to handle our growth. That’s generally been our strategic direction when it comes to community lending.”

That’s why developing both sides of the customer-service equation — a more robust online presence and also branches focused on customer service — are equally important, Hall said.

“A lot of customers are doing research online but close the deal in the branch, and we have people ready to serve them,” she told BusinessWest. “Clients want that face-to-face interaction, and we’ve hit a nice balance of being technologically savvy with mobile offerings and very customer-service-oriented, very customer-facing. That’s a perfect fit in this market.”

Mutual Successes

Hall noted that bankESB has received some key accolades of late. In June, it was named one of America’s best-in-state banks by Forbes in a nationwide survey; of the five banks selected in Massachusetts, bankESB ranked second, and was the only bank on that list headquartered in Western Mass.

Understanding the importance of building a bank’s name, its holding company, Hometown Financial Group, continues to grow its franchise and build a separate brand presence in each region. That means three separate banks will operate under the holding-company profile: bankESB, bankHometown, and Pilgrim Bank. The latter acquisition, based in Cohasset, closes this month and adds three branches and $263 million in assets to the Hometown family.

“We have a commitment to mutuality and building those local brands, building market share in each region, then we consolidate and make efficient the back-office and operation side. We think that’s a compelling business structure going forward,” Sosik said.

“We’re big believers in our mutual structure,” he continued. “First and foremost, as a mutual company, we’re not owned by stockholders. We choose to be very entrepreneurial, and we run very much like a stock company would from the business side of it. But that mutuality gives us the ability to service customers and the community in ways that stock banks cannot.”

With so many community banks operating in Western Mass., he explained, that mutual structure helps set bankESB apart. “I think that’s a real difference maker for us, showing how much we are committed to mutuality and community banking.”

At the same time, Hall said, the company’s commitment to mutuality and its holding-company structure makes it an attractive partner for other like-minded mutual banks in its current market and beyond.

“We have some exciting transactions in the works, and we hope to be able to announce those transactions within the next 30 to 45 days,” Sosik added. “I think they’re compelling; there will be market interest there. We’re really moving our company forward in a number of ways. We’re excited about that. There’s a lot going on.”

BusinessWest.com - Author Joseph Bednar can be reached at bednar at businesswest dot com.


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