A Conversation With Richard E. Taber
Richard E. Taber is chairman and chief executive officer of First County Bank, based in Stamford. With assets of nearly $1 billion, First County Bank operates 12 branches in Stamford, Greenwich, Darien, New Canaan, Norwalk and Westport.
Taber has spent his entire career – 38 years if you include part-time teller duties during his college years – at First County Bank. He has risen through the ranks over the years, starting full-time in the accounting department in 1971. After a series of promotions, he was named president of the bank in 1982. In 1989, he became the bank’s chairman and chief executive officer. He received a BBA from Eastern Michigan University in 1971 and graduated from the National School of Finance and Management in 1980.
He has an active civic history as well. He is a past director of the Stamford YMCA; past president of ARI of Connecticut Inc.; past president of the Housing Development Fund; past treasurer of the Ferguson Library; past treasurer of Stamford Development Corp.; and past president of the Rotary Club of Stamford. Currently he serves as chairman and commissioner of the city of Stamford’s Downtown Special Services District, and director of the Housing Development Fund, The Business Council of Fairfield County, and Senior Services of Stamford.
Q: You began your banking career in 1967 as a part-time teller. After numerous promotions you were named president in 1982. In 1989, you were named chairman and CEO. One bank, one dedicated career – now that’s longevity. Care to comment?
A: I guess I’m just in a rut. As a business major in college, I enjoyed working summers and holidays in a bank, but I never thought it would be my life’s work. I graduated college right in the middle of Nixon’s wage and price controls. It was a terrible economy with no jobs. The bank had an opening and I jumped at the chance to take a full-time position. The opportunities for education and advancement kept popping up and I guess I never got around to looking for that other job. I’ve been fortunate to be able to have a position and an employer that encourages participation in the community. I’m the bank’s 13th CEO and I don’t feel the least bit unlucky. The most fun is working with a great staff and terrific board. We always find a reason to have a few laughs.
Q: Banking has obviously changed a great deal since your first days on the teller line. In your opinion, what are the three biggest changes?
A: With all my gray hair, there have been plenty of changes to consider. I guess the biggest change was the elimination of Reg. Q (remember that?). This was the point that savings banks lost their one-quarter percent advantage over commercial bank deposit rates. In the short run it was painful, but eventually it allowed all banks to compete with other financial service providers for deposits. The second biggest change would be the equalization of powers between commercial and savings banks. Without commercial powers, we would not have the healthy savings bank industry we have today. The third change would have to be all things Internet. It allows a community bank to offer the same basic set of services as the mega banks.
Q: I am told that you strongly value furthering one’s education and that this strategy has assisted you personally in your career development. What type of programs does First County Bank provide its employees to assist in their career development?
A: Education is the name of the game. We offer a liberal tuition reimbursement program that has enabled several employees to get a college degree. At first, we were worried that a person would take advantage of our tuition reimbursement program to get a degree and then leave the bank, but that hasn’t been the case. We also encourage attendance at the CBA’s Connecticut School of Finance and Management as well as ACB’s National School of Banking. I am a graduate of both programs and that’s where I learned the most practical information about banking. You need a few breaks along the way in your career, but you have to be prepared to take advantage when they occur.
Q: The bank changed its name in 1989 from the Stamford Savings Bank to First County Bank to reflect its then-growing marketplace. Any plans to grow outside of the existing footprint?
A: We have two branches scheduled to open in Stamford over the next year as well as the relocation of our Darien branch. We plan another Norwalk branch the following year and then we’ll see.
Q: The FCB Foundation Inc. was founded in 2001 in conjunction with the bank’s 150th anniversary. What are the plans for the bank’s and the foundation’s community-giving strategy?
A: As a mutual, we look at our foundation contribution as a way to pay a dividend to the community. We hope to grow the foundation to the point where we can give away $1 million each year. This year we gave away $440,000 and the fund is over $5 million, so we’re about halfway to our goal. I thought giving away money would be an easy job, but I quickly discovered it’s really difficult to decide who wins a grant and who gets turned down. Kathy Harris, Rey Giallongo and Ron Holbert are key members of our staff who spend a lot of time and energy making sure our grant money is put to good use.
Q: Rising interest rates, a flat yield curve, fears of a housing bubble. What’s in store for Fairfield County’s economy during the final quarter of 2005 and beyond?
A: Fairfield County is an interesting market. If you’re unfamiliar with the market, you’ve probably only heard of the average per capita income. That’s impressive, but there are also problems we have to deal with. Affordable housing and traffic are two problems that are related. It makes it difficult to attract staff because they either have to pay the high rents in Stamford or face the rush-hour traffic, and neither one is very appealing. Our housing can’t continue to appreciate at the same rate. I think there will be a leveling off in appreciation, but I don’t think there will be a precipitous drop in values a la condos in 1986. I’m concerned about how some of our moderate-income customers are going to cope with the rise in the cost of home heating oil. That could put a real strain on the family budget.
Q: Will increased competition be the most pressing challenge for First County Bank in the next several years or are there other issues that concern you?
A: I can’t think of a more competitive market than ours. We have every big name in banking trying to steal our customers. I still believe that there will be a significant market looking for the personal touch of a community bank. Staying current with changing regulations is always a challenge, but it’s all part of the job.
Questions posed by Lindsey R. Pinkham, senior vice president and secretary of the Connecticut Bankers Association.