Interview conducted by: Lynn Fosse, Senior Editor CEOCFO Magazine
CEOCFO: Mr. Tolomer, what was the vision in 2008 when The Westchester Bank started and what is your vision today
Mr. Tolomer: Our vision in 2008 is the same as it is today. That consistency of vision - and its effective execution – has been key to our success. When we started, there was marketplace void created by many of the bank mergers. This led to a dearth of community banks in Westchester County that could handle small to medium sized business banking requirements whether they be loans, cash management and the like. The founders really seized on this notion to provide a solution to disenfranchised small and mid-sized business owners. We opened in June of 2008 and that September came the meltdown causing a financial crisis that crushed our economy along with consumer confidence. This confluence of events only reinforced our vision that a local community bank built to provide personalized customer care combined with quality banking products was the answer. The meltdown also caused many of the bigger banks to become less customer-centric and more internally focused on backlash and credit quality issues due to legacy loans and other problem loans. We were new and did not have any credit issues. We had all of the products and services the largest financial institutions in the world had so our clients felt they were in good hands. They could now get the service and products needed and get it from people they could actually talk to on the phone. We didn’t believe 800 numbers and voice-messages are what customers wanted; they wanted a human voice with the human touch. Our slogan then was “Business Banking Made Personal” because the main focus was on small and medium sized businesses. Since that time, we have expanded the slogan to “Banking Made Personal” in recognition of not-for-profits and consumers so they too could embrace our full suite of products with the exception of residential mortgages.
CEOCFO: Who is turning to you for services?
Mr. Tolomer: It really is broad based. Many of our seasoned bankers had worked in this market previously and had a strong following of high caliber companies. As we concluded a secondary capital raise in 2011 and had been very profitable since our second full year, our lending limit and capacity had increased dramatically. From that standpoint, we were able to continue to move aggressively forward and provide more solutions to small and medium sized businesses. We’ve made loans to companies where we led a 12 to 14 million-dollar deal and laid-off some of the exposure. C&I (Commercial & Industrial) lending, commercial real estate, multi-family and construction are just a few areas that comprise a very broad-based pool of risk.
CEOCFO: You opened a new branch this year. Why now?
Mr. Tolomer: The power of opening a new branch still remains important to prospective new customers and the community. The notion that you are prosperous and you have opened yet another new branch has helped us. We think it is still important for any Westchester resident, not-for-profit or business to have no more than a 10-minute drive to one of our branches. There is a comfort level for the residents of Westchester to know that if there is a problem, they still have a local bank, and more importantly the people inside that bank, who are there to serve and help them. This is the essence of community banking. Our prototypical branch is closer to 2,000 square feet and the pricing can be more reasonable for us in terms of location, and we recognize that while people still use our branches they also want the options of conducting business using their electronic devices, going online or making deposits from the comfort of their own offices with our remote deposit service.
CEOCFO: Are your customers typically people that work in the area as well as live in the area or do you have many people that go into the city?
Mr. Tolomer: We have a little bit of both. We have done business with people who live in Westchester and work in New York City or own their business in New York City. We have had it the other way around as well. We have been able to really focus on helping businesses locally and follow our customers locally. If they have business in the Bronx, Connecticut, Rockland County or surrounding communities we will certainly help them.
CEOCFO: Do you find that your customers are a bit more demanding because you are near that big city environment where people often take a different approach?
Mr. Tolomer: We are clearly in the shadow of New York City and I think that brings some of the city perspective into their banking relationship. But we have been very fortunate to respond in such a way that, as the expression goes, ‘we treat you like you are in your mother’s arms’. We take excellent care of people and are always respectful and responsive. That’s what resonates more with people, along with open channels of communicate so customers always know exactly what’s going on. We are very fortunate to have a strong client base that is enviable to say the very least. We work with some of the best known, most desirable small to medium sized businesses in the NY Metropolitan area. We are very blessed in being able to bring real customer care, and trust, with every banking transaction.
CEOCFO: Westchester Bank was recognized as one of the top 100 banks. Did you realize as you were moving forward that you are in that select group? Is it a deliberate goal or just you are a “good bank” and these are the results?
Mr. Tolomer: It’s an honor to be selected a Top 100 Bank and we think of ourselves as a great community bank. What makes any bank great is its ability to execute their business model, not the model itself. I think a lot of banks predominately think about the same model of being a customer-centered organization. What really separates bank to bank is the level of execution. We meet frequently to make sure we are offering the best to our customers and prospective customers, communicating with them so that ’Banking Made Personal’ truly resonates with them. It may not sound like much but it ends up helping tremendously. Our goal is to be great bank, every day. We spend time with our employees to make sure they recognize that exceeding customer expectations is what makes you great. When you’re a local bank with local people, our branches can feel a bit like the TV show ‘Cheers’… where everybody knows you’re name and when you walk in someone always says “Hey!” That happens a lot in our branches.
CEOCFO: How do you go above and beyond?
Mr. Tolomer: We go above and beyond with action, not words. We have had our people change tires and drive clients home during snow storms. When a person was incapacitated and needed a cashier check immediately, we went right to “The Board has recently approved a capital raise of up to 20-million dollars. That is designed to continue to build on our momentum and to take further advantage of what we think is a wonderful, organic growth opportunity for the Westchester and NY Metro area. We have grown in assets from 39-million dollars in 2008 to $750-million dollars today and remain one of the fastest growing community banks in America. We’ll continue to expand our footprint and are looking at locations for branch number seven. We are looking to hire more people as we continue to build our bank portfolio and increase profitability.”- John M. Tolomer 3 his home. We see this as doing what we should be doing… putting the customer first and making sure we deliver beyond customer expectations.
CEOCFO: How do you help with security issues and help your customers understand the need for an extra level of security that is annoying but necessary?
Mr. Tolomer: I think customers are now receptive to understanding how they can best protect themselves whereas that was not always the case. Every customer we bring into the bank who uses cash management or online banking speaks directly to one of our professionals and walks them through how they might take advantage of the security precautions on our system. I think people are responding to that.
CEOCFO: Are there services you would like to add that you do not offer today?
Mr. Tolomer: There is nothing in particular at this juncture, but we always keep our eyes and ears open. We offer wealth management and introductions to help meet business insurance needs. We have a full array of products and continue to execute on those offerings. We’ll see what else may make sense from there.
CEOCFO: Do you find that many of your customers take advantage of the full range of services you offer?
Mr. Tolomer: Many do, some do not. It is our job to make sure customers are made aware of the various products offered and that we proactively provide solutions to their anticipated banking needs.
CEOCFO: What is your take on the macro situation and what is affecting the banks regulation?
Mr. Tolomer: While there were tumultuous times since our inception in 2008, we were very fortunate to have weathered the storm. We have an excellent relationship with all of our regulatory bodies and have been able to successfully build our business in Westchester and the NY Metro area by executing, offering quality products and services, communicating clearly and delivering on our word. I think if we can continue to develop one high quality relationship at a time, we’ll let the chips fall where they may. We always want to be in a position to hear our clients… in order to help our clients. We think that’s a good way to do business.
CEOCFO: Would you tell us about community involvement for The Westchester Bank? How do you decide where to focus your efforts?
Mr. Tolomer: There are so many good causes; it is just a matter of having the resources you’d like to support everybody. We look to our customers first and their cause-related interests; it’s important to support those who support you. We ask our employees if there are any particular organizations or local charities they would like to support or and we try to help with their charity of choice. We get involved in different ways to help local community entities. One way is writing a check but we are also strong advocates of volunteerism among our employees. It’s good for the charity, good for employee morale and frankly, it’s good for business overall.
CEOCFO: What is ahead for the Westchester Bank?
Mr. Tolomer: The Board has recently approved a capital raise of up to 20-million dollars. That is designed to continue to build on our momentum and to take further advantage of what we think is a wonderful, organic growth opportunity for the Westchester and NY Metro area. We have grown in assets from 39-million dollars in 2008 to $750-million dollars today and remain one of the fastest growing community banks in America. We’ll continue to expand our footprint and are looking at locations for branch number seven. We are looking to hire more people as we continue to build our bank portfolio and increase profitability.