The Center for Financial Training Atlantic States, headquartered in the heart of downtown Norwich, Conn., has quietly become a major provider of training and development for financial institutions up and down the Atlantic Coast.
Yet with enrollments expected to reach nearly 10,000 this year, the center hasn’t veered far from what has gotten them to this point – a commitment to the student and the simple philosophy of “bankers teaching bankers for the sake of the industry.” The success stories surrounding the center appear to be endless, and the parties involved, whether they be students, instructors, board members or bank presidents, seem to love the CFT experience and consider it to be one of the high points of their banking career.
Several years ago, Cathy Koczur of Ware Co-operative Bank in Ware, Mass., decided to further her career, but didn’t want to do it at the expense of her family life. Traditional classes may have taken her away from her daughter and were an inconvenience, so she turned to the Norwich-based Center for Financial Training Atlantic States, and one of the products the educational institution’s president considers its most innovative – online classes.
In addition to offering traditional and independent study classes, CFT Atlantic States about three years ago began offering instructor-led online classes. And even though students take the classes from their homes up and down the East Coast, they’re not alone. CFT’s online classes incorporate many of the aspects that make classroom learning effective – and it shows. They have a completion rate of nearly 90 percent, compared with many other online courses’ completion rates of about 50 percent.
“I took courses in the dead of winter where I was in my fuzzy slippers reading and interacting with other students without scraping my windshield and wondering how I would get home to my daughter,” Koczur, who has taken five CFT courses, wrote in an e-mail. “I have made new online friends throughout the country and am amazed at the vast wealth of knowledge that we all are able to share through a site like this.”
Because CFT courses are accepted at affiliated community colleges and can be used for course credit toward degrees at other institutions, Koczur hopes to use her credits toward an M.B.A.
A similar transfer credit story is developing in New Jersey. Deana Casale, education coordinator at the Provident Bank and a CFT student for 10-plus years, has been nominated for the American Council on Education’s Adult Learner of the Year Award. In her application essay she states, “On May 22, 2004, I graduated with my baccalaureate degree from Centenary College. The American Council on Education credits (credit recommendations) granted me the opportunity to be accepted into Centenary’s adult accelerated program. I was able to transfer all of my CFT credits and complete Centenary’s (degree) program in 18 months.” The winner will be announced at a national meeting of the American Council on Education sometime in September.
CFT originated from a Connecticut grass-roots chapter of the American Institute of Banking. In 1902, several bankers from the state volunteered their time to form the chapter in order to provide an educational forum for bankers. In January of this year, the company completed it’s latest transformation by aligning the Southern New England, New Jersey, and Mid-Atlantic centers to form CFT Atlantic States, a state-of-the-art training and education center that serves eight states and over 1600 financial institutions on the Atlantic Coast.
CFT is an affiliate of the Connecticut Bankers Association and has nine employees. It offers a variety of educational programs, including banking-related college-level courses and seminars in the classroom, online college-level courses and seminars, as well as, computer and customized training.
Melissa Daciek, who works in financial services for Yardville National Bank in Yardville, N.J., also found the online courses helpful.
“With a full-time work schedule and a two-year-old it is just about the only way I could continue my education at this point in my life without running myself ragged going to classes as well as working,” Daciek wrote in an e-mail. “Plus, I do not feel guilty about taking time away from my family since I can log on long after everyone is asleep if I choose, or early before they are all awake. I do not feel anything is lost in translation over the Web versus in an actual classroom. I have made cyber connections all over and have benefited from others’ experiences just as much online as I would in a classroom. It’s convenient, thorough, detailed and fun – I have only great things to say about the program.”
Daciek intends to continue taking CFT classes, she wrote.
“[They have] introduced me to new people as well as new avenues of research, which I think are also important, as banking and finance are ever-evolving,” Daciek wrote.
The instructor-led online courses have become one of the new mainstays of the program, said President Michael Meakem. And the online courses have attracted many new students.
“The growth has been tremendous and the response has been wonderful,” Meakem said. “This reaches a brand-new audience for us.”
In response to the growing popularity of online classes, CFT hired full-time Distance Learning Manager Marta Liimatainen. She manages CFT’s Massachusetts office and coordinates the center’s online and self-study programs. “I’ve only been on the job for 3 months, but I’ve been running full steam ahead since day one,” commented Liimatainen. “The volume of students is incredible, yet I am able to connect with each and every one thanks to today’s technology.”
CFT had always relied on live instructors in traditional classrooms, but that has put up barriers between the program and some potential students, Meakem said. Because of family or other work obligations, not every banker has time to get away and take classes. But the model of online learning coupled with easily accessible instructors has taken down many of those barriers.
“We can almost replicate live classes on the Internet,” Meakem said.
CFT also has safeguards in place to support students who are thinking of dropping out – a common problem with online courses – by keeping instructors and students in close contact. This allows the instructor to reach out if it appears the student is losing interest or having problems. The program also makes sure the classes are challenging enough to keep both instructors and students interested.
“We challenge everybody involved in online learning,” he stated.
This summer, CFT offered four-, five- or 15-week instructor-led online classes in subjects such as, economics for bankers, bank financial analysis, consumer lending and fraud identification. It also offered self-study courses in subjects such as, customer service excellence, residential mortgage lending and retail banking; and evening classes from Massachusetts to Northern Virginia on subjects like consumer credit products and selling skills.
David Conrad, president of Citizens National Bank in Putnam, who has 20 years of experience in banking, has been an instructor for CFT and its predecessor for about 12 years. “I love it,” he said. “I enjoy being a live classroom instructor.”
Part of that love comes from his flair for the dramatic – his wife calls him a frustrated Shakespearean actor and he is a Civil War reenactor. But the other part he likes is seeing young people who have just started working at a bank decide whether it is the right choice for them and, hopefully, helping them decide it is. He also likes seeing more experienced bankers go through classes and figure out why banks act the way they do.
Attending CFT classes also helps bankers become better employees, he said. “It’s a very strong program,” Conrad said. “It’s a way for [our bank’s employees] to supplement their in-house training from my bank.”
Class credits also look good on prospective employees’ resumes.
“They get a lot of hands-on experience,” Conrad said. “I think [employers] look at it as a positive. … Coming into the field with CFT classes under their belt, they would be a better fit.”
Anthony Zajkowski, senior vice president of learning and professional development for Hudson United Bank in New Jersey, agreed. “Having a high quality, cost-effective, training provider to service our entire branch network in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania is critically important to the Hudson United Bank,” Zajkowski wrote in an e-mail. “CFT Atlantic States is able to meet our training needs with a high level of consistency, and their staff provides outstanding customer service to our internal training staff and our employees. We consider CFT an extension of our training department … a perfect partnership.”
The qualifications of the instructors also contribute to the students’ contentment with the program, said CFT Senior Vice President Scott Briggs. “Eighty to 90 percent of our instructors are bankers themselves,” he said.
There are other factors to CFT’s success, Briggs noted. “We think it’s our customer service.” The company’s employees pay a lot of attention to detail, return calls promptly and make good use of technology like their Web site and e-mail, he commented.
“We make it easy for our customers to do business with us,” according to literature from the company. “A majority of the financial institutions in our market cover the cost of CFT tuition and books for their employees, making the enrollment process for the student as easy as completing a registration form and sending it to the CFT office.”
Because CFT is a non-profit company, it is able to keep costs low, Meakem said. The school, which enrolls about 10,000 students a year, charges between $95 for a half-day seminar and $375 for some 15-week classes, he said. Some classes can cost about $475, but those are rare, he stated.
The company is run by a board of 14, comprised of bank chief executives and senior officers. The board prefers CFT break even every year rather than make money on its classes, Meakem said.
CFT is geared toward entry level workers and middle management, but some banks’ senior managers have also taken classes. CFT Atlantic States is affiliated with other centers for financial training across the country. Because of this relationship, the diplomas and certificates that are awarded to hundreds of CFT students each year are recognized throughout the United States.
In addition to CFT’s traditional classrooms and distance learning, the company is made up of several different branches. The Branch Management School, which was introduced in 2001, is designed to provide formal training for employees who have recently become branch managers or for branch managers who need a formal refresher program. The Commercial Lending School is a one-week long, residential program that provides a comprehensive curriculum that focuses on small business lending.
These programs fall under the direction of Peter Marks, regional director and manager of the Silver Spring, Maryland, office. “These specialized schools set us apart from other training providers and we are hoping to draw students from the New Jersey and Southern New England regions to the Commercial Lending School this fall,” Marks stated.
A few hours drive north along Interstate 95 will bring you to the Clifton, N.J., office of CFT, managed by Regional Director Karen McMullen. McMullen’s selling and customer service skills compliment CFT’s marketing efforts and she brings to the company an impressive track record of developing successful customized training programs for banks of all sizes during her 25-year tenure with both AIB and CFT.
“When we brought the existing three centers together to form CFT Atlantic States, it was with the mindset that we would combine the strengths of each region. Pete’s Branch Management and Commercial Lending schools, and Karen McMullen’s expertise in contract training are examples of this, and before long we expect that banks from throughout our entire market place will begin to benefit form our expansion,” Meakem added.
More information is available on the company’s Web site at: www.cftatlantic.org.