Sending education to the top of the class

BayCoast Bank

$1.5 billion

Swansea, Mass.

BayCoast Bank is on a mission of culture change. The $1.5 billion-asset community bank wants to prioritize education attainment in Massachusetts’ South Coast region. And in 2017, it started with a school bus.

“We were looking for something that would get people talking and hopefully spark discussions around education in the community,” says Nicole Almeida, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for BayCoast Bank. “So we bought a bus! We wrapped it, tricked it out, and now we encourage everyone to ‘Get on the Bus’ with us.”

The eye-catching blue bus serves as a mobile, interactive “billboard” for the community bank’s aptly named Get on the Bus campaign. Inside, iPads display branded educational apps, a TV shows local residents’ educational success stories, and couches and school desks invite visitors to sit down and stay a while. The bus is now a staple feature at community events.

“Education is the primary economic driver to improve overall quality of life, and so it should be a top-of-mind subject for everyone within the community. We are trying to tell that story,” says Nicholas M. Christ, president and CEO.

Among BayCoast Bank’s recent initiatives was generating support for local referendums that would help rebuild two high schools that were literally crumbling. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), the region’s educational accreditation association, had marked BMC Durfee High School and Westport High School so obsolete that both schools were at risk of losing their accreditations. This would sharply diminish the value of students’ diplomas.

“Even given that type of comment from a state regulator, it’s significant to get a vote to approve a tax override,” Christ says. To make it happen, BayCoast Bank orchestrated an awareness campaign focusing on the importance of education and what it would mean if the schools were not renovated.

In the end, voters approved both measures. Westport High School will be significantly renovated, and BMC Durfee High School will be leveled and built from the ground up, save for its auditorium and gym.

Some of BayCoast Bank’s customers expressed their displeasure with the tax increases. But Christ says, “You have to take a stand. We were preaching the importance of education, and we stood behind it.”

The power of stories

To inspire students and parents, BayCoast next produced a series of YouTube videos highlighting local residents and the role education has played in their lives.

“We have some pretty amazing educational success stories that have come from the cities we serve,” Almeida says. “If told, they could potentially impact the success of others who may not think it’s possible.”

One such story is that of Carmen Aguilar and her 12-year-old daughter, Sofia. Growing up in Mexico, Aguilar had an hour’s walk to and from school. But her parents understood the value of education and encouraged her to continue. She moved to the U.S. 20 years ago and is now the dean of Bristol Community College in Fall River, Mass. Her young daughter is continuing her education with a goal of becoming a marine biologist.

To motivate more local students, BayCoast Bank recently took seventh-graders from the Fall River public school system—all 800 of them—on a tour of University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. For many, it was an eye-opening first experience on a university campus.

Julie Ramos Gagliardi, BayCoast Bank’s vice president of corporate giving and community relations, says the bank’s next effort will be to engage students’ parents in the college conversation.

“We don’t want these kids who have never thought of college before to get excited about the prospect of attending college based on these tours but then go home to families who might not share that enthusiasm,” she says. “So, we’re trying to figure out a way to bring parents on campus … to engage parents in discussions on how it is affordable, what resources they can access, and how they can encourage their kids to excel.” 


Number of seventh-graders the bank took on a college tour

For older students, the bank partnered with edtech solutions firm EVERFI to develop a nine-module online financial education class for use in high schools. The class teaches the ins and outs of checking and saving accounts, compound interest and more. Fourteen area schools are currently using it as part of their curriculum.

BayCoast Bank has also funded Responsive Classroom training for local teachers. The social-emotional teaching style is something local superintendents had wanted to introduce, but they didn’t have the funding. In August 2017, BayCoast Bank funded training for 90 educators and has funded training for another 60 this year. For many teachers, it was the first time they had interacted with colleagues from neighboring districts.

The success of the training’s regional approach motivated BayCoast Bank to partner with the Massachusetts Teachers Association to help develop the SouthCoast Education Summit: Social-Emotional Learning. Nearly 300 educators from across the state attended the nationally recognized four-day professional development program last October. Each of the keynote speakers and 40 workshops offered a practical takeaway.

“The response was overwhelmingly positive,” Gagliardi says. “Educators are asking when the next one is. We are planning it again for October 27.”

In Christ’s view, BayCoast Bank’s biggest Get on the Bus campaign challenge is “recognizing that you can’t change a culture overnight. You have to be committed to it long-term, for years and years. You have to have the patience and the drive to see it through. It’s too important not to.

“We’re trying to change a culture,” he says, “and we just have to have the perseverance to see it through.”

BayCoast Bank’s next focus will be on early childhood education. It’s certainly showing no signs of slowing down.

Midwest BankCentre team
From left: Midwest BankCentre employees Kathleen Spies, Jim Watson, Alex Fennoy and LaTonya Jackson at the community bank’s newest branch inside Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church. It is the first bank branch to open in North St. Louis since 2009.

Reaching the unbanked — for everyone’s benefit

Midwest BankCentre

$1.9 billion

St. Louis

A first-time homebuyer in St. Louis recently broke down crying at closing. The single mother of two had come to Midwest BankCentre with a dream of owning her own home. She took the bank’s financial empowerment and education classes, and attended homebuyer classes from a local housing partner. And as she signed the papers, she became the first person in her family to ever own a house.

“That’s why we do the work that we do,” says Alex Fennoy, executive vice president, community and economic development, of the $1.9 billion-asset community bank. “It’s all about giving those families that have been historically locked out an opportunity to make their lives better.”

Midwest BankCentre has built its reputation from scratch. The catalyst for its efforts to bank the unbanked was a 2009 FDIC survey. The survey found that of all the most populated American cities, St. Louis had the greatest disparity between unbanked African-American households (31 percent) and unbanked white households (1.1 percent). For many African-Americans, experiences with predatory payday lending had only added to a general mistrust of mainstream banking.

So Midwest BankCentre’s legal board had a choice to make. “There’s a lot of banks out there that go through the motions,” says Jim Watson, the community bank’s chairman and CEO. “They do what they have to do, and they check the boxes, but you know, that’s not who we are.”

Community effort

In 2012, with Fennoy serving as co-chair, Midwest BankCentre partnered with 17 other financial institutions and more than 40 community partners to launch Bank-On Save-Up St. Louis. The goal was to increase access to banking services among minorities and people on low to moderate incomes. Participating financial institutions offer low- or no-cost checking and saving accounts with friendly terms like a $0-$100 minimum monthly balance, reduced overdraft fees, free online banking and free ATM/debit cards. Participating community partners helped financial institutions meet unbanked people where they are: schools, churches, community fairs and nonprofits.

“This is a segment of the population that’s not coming into any financial institutions, so we’ve got to find them,” Fennoy says.

“It’s all about giving those families that have been historically locked out an opportunity to make their lives better.”
—Alex Fennoy, Midwest BankCentre

Also in 2012, Midwest BankCentre opened a new branch in St. Louis’ Pagedale neighborhood, an African-American-majority community that had never had a bank branch in its history. The community bank hired an African-American contractor and mostly African-American-owned and women-owned subcontractors for the branch’s construction. And many of its employees are African-American and neighborhood residents.


of African-American households in St. Louis that are unbanked today

The bank’s redoubled commitment to the communities it serves has also bolstered its success. The Pagedale branch passed its break-even point within three years, encouraging Midwest BankCentre to open another new branch in Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood of North St. Louis in April 2017. It was a rare and possibly unprecedented partnership between a financial institution and a religious institution. It was also the first bank branch to open in North St. Louis since 2009. More than 150 people opened new bank accounts in the first six weeks.

Far-reaching effect

Midwest BankCentre’s efforts are also working on a larger scale. By 2013, the percentage of unbanked African-American households in St. Louis fell to 13.3 percent, down from 31 percent in 2009. Six years into the Bank-On Save-Up St. Louis initiative, participating banks have opened a collective 20,000 new bank accounts. Fennoy estimates about 4,000 of them are with Midwest BankCentre. The bank has also greatly increased diversity on its staff and legal board to be more representative of the communities it serves. It’s a move that Watson and Fennoy agree has spurred continued momentum in the bank’s mission.

“It’s really helped us, from making connections in the community, to sorting out the best strategic partners for us to try to further develop our franchise, and even down to product development and tracking our progress in the community,” Watson says.

The community bank’s next goal is to help connect African-American-owned businesses with the bank and one another to promote further economic growth by increasing the Black Chamber of Commerce from its current 300 businesses to 5,000 businesses by 2023.

When asked if Midwest BankCentre plans to open another branch, Watson smiles and says, “Stay tuned.”

Breathing new life into historic New England downtowns

Kennebec Savings Bank

$1 billion

Augusta, Maine

Kennebec Savings Bank opened for business on Water Street, downtown Augusta, Maine’s main drag, in 1870. Almost 150 years later, the $1 billion-asset bank has expanded to four branches. But today, the community bank is taking a lead role in restoring Water Street’s economic and cultural vibrancy, along with the main streets of four other communities it serves.

For years, these New England downtowns were the economic engines of their communities, in part because they were near rivers, the 19th century’s main “highways” for commerce and manufacturing. (This is why many of the main streets are named Water Street.) But when suburban malls started springing up in the 1960s and 1970s, downtown retail suffered. Foot traffic decreased, and with it the market for arts, culture and entertainment.

Kennebic Savings bank Silsby
Andrew Silsby

Augusta’s historic Colonial Theatre was one such casualty, closing its doors in 1969. Kennebec Savings Bank is now helping restore the 1913 theater to its original splendor by donating $100,000 to fix the floor—no easy task, thanks to a leak in the roof that went unrepaired for decades.

“From 1969 until a few months ago, the leak was making two major holes in the floor. I’m talking 30-by-40-foot holes,” explains Kennebec Savings Bank president and CEO Andrew Silsby. “A lot of potential donors who went into the theater couldn’t get beyond those craters in the floor. They just couldn’t see it [working]. So, our dollars are going into fixing the foundation.”

The community bank has also donated $100,000 to the renovation of Johnson Hall, Maine’s oldest opera house, which was established in 1864 on another Water Street, this one in nearby Gardiner, Maine.

“There’s a sense of community that is hard to replicate outside of downtowns. For me, it’s that intangible vibrancy.”
—Andrew Silsby, Kennebec Savings Bank

Kennebec Savings Bank’s funds aren’t just going toward philanthropic projects. The bank is also helping downtown Augusta building owners help themselves by dedicating $250,000 to a loan fund reserved for improving the infrastructure of historic properties. The loans are interest-free for borrowers, because the city of Augusta has partnered with the bank to cover interest costs. Several restaurants and shops have taken advantage of the loans so far, and some have used them to create residential units on the upper floors of their buildings, adding to downtown Augusta’s residential population. In two-and-a-half years, Silsby says, 55 market-rate apartments have been added to the downtown area, and all of them are full.

The community bank’s dedication to its service area is longstanding. Employees give generously of their time, donating around 9,000 hours of community service in 2017. And with no stockholders, the bank instead pays “community dividends” by donating roughly 10 percent of its annual net income back to the areas it serves. In 2017, it gave $705,000 to 350 different organizations in 35 communities. Silsby expects that number to rise to $810,000 this year. He says it’s a “full-time job” managing the requests and donations, and “a lot of fun.”

Downtown’s abuzz

He also enjoys seeing the beginnings of a reenergized Water Street in downtown Augusta. “For most of my adult life, Water Street has been a ghost town at 5 o’clock,” he says.

“I recently went down on a Tuesday night, and as I turned the corner, I saw every parking space was taken. That’s a new phenomenon. There’s a sense of community that is hard to replicate outside of downtowns,” he adds. “For me, it’s that intangible vibrancy. Maine was manufacturing, from shoes to fabric mills and the paper industry … and we have had to transform ourselves and change. The downtowns suffered in that change and there has been a collective community low self-esteem. When people begin to see that progress is being made, there’s a renewed sense of optimism.”

2018 Honorable Mentions

Six community banks received recognition for outstanding service to their communities.

In Beaver Dam, Wis., $125 million-asset American Bank employees joined St. Vincent De Paul Thrift Store to donate time and money when tragedy struck their community. More than a dozen families were displaced when their apartment building suffered an explosion and needed repair. Shortly after, another local apartment complex was completely destroyed in a fire. American Bank raised more than $30,000 by asking community members to donate cash and gift cards to the families. Bank employees also asked local media to raise awareness, resulting in more donations from the public, including the full replacement of an expectant mother’s lost items for her baby.

In Union Grove, Wis., $374 million-asset Community State Bank partnered with Shepherds College to launch Shepherds Community Café, which gives training and jobs to students with intellectual disabilities. The coffee shop is located in Community State Bank’s Union Grove branch, and serves bank employees and customers.

In Emporia, Kan., $223 million-asset ESB Financial teamed up with financial services provider Kasasa to teach students financial literacy and money-management basics through a free online game called MoneyIsland.

National Bank Commerce Beach Day

In Superior, Wis., $600 million-asset National Bank of Commerce joined St. Louis River Alliance and the City of Superior to clean up the shoreline at Wisconsin Point Beach. The bank pledged to plant a tree for every plastic water bottle volunteers collected—a goal that was reached on the first day of cleanup in the three-day event. After planting 3,000 trees along the Western Waterfront Trail, volunteers removed invasive plant species from the Miller Creek area.

In Elroy, Wis., employees of $425 million-asset Royal Bank pitched in to launch the #MilkBreakChallenge to shed light on the struggling local dairy industry. Each of the bank’s 19 office locations hosted a dairy-themed day on social media, with posts featuring local dairy farms. Facebook posts reached more than 40,000 people, generating more than 2,000 likes, comments and shares.

And in Talmage, Neb., when four buildings collapsed on one block, $45.9 million-asset Tri Valley Bank purchased the lots and buildings. Employees dedicated months to negotiating the purchases and clearing out the lots. The bank then donated them to Talmage Fire and Rescue Squad to build a much-needed new facility.

—Rebecca Lubecki

Andrea Lahouze is deputy editor of Independent Banker.