The Country Conundrum
By Larry Collins
For many people, any mention of the central Massachusetts town of Ware brings to mind the classic Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first?” routine, as in “You’re from where?” which inevitably prompts the response, “That’s right, Ware.”
“It’s a modest claim to fame,” quips John MacNeish, chairman and CEO of Country Bank for Savings, which is headquartered in this former mill-town-turned-bedroom community, a short trek from the Quabbin Reservoir.
Once a thriving textile and shoe manufacturing center, Ware, like many neighboring mill towns, saw its economy decline as mill operators fled south in search of low-cost labor. Still largely a working-class community, with a population of fewer than 10,000, most Ware residents now commute to surrounding urban areas for work.
“When I started, 80 percent of the townspeople worked here in town at the mills,” MacNeish recalled.
“Now it’s the reverse, with 80 percent or so working out of town, in places like Springfield, Worcester and Amherst.”
MacNeish, who retires in June after 42 years with the mutual savings bank he heads, nevertheless has presided over a steadily growing enterprise, even as the region’s once prosperous manufacturing base eroded.
Founded in 1850 as Ware Savings Bank, Country Bank’s early business focused on the ethnically diverse immigrant population that was characteristic of much of Hampshire County. Today, the bank’s market area includes greater Worcester in the east and westward to greater Springfield, two urban areas very nearly equidistant from the bank’s headquarters in Ware. In 1981, Ware Savings Bank merged with Palmer Savings Bank, extending its market emphasis in a westward direction to the Springfield metropolitan area, which at the time fit the bank’s overall marketing strategy. However, as the Springfield area’s economy waned, bank management began looking eastward.
“Twenty years or so ago the Springfield economy was more vibrant than that of Worcester, but there’s an ebb and flow to regional economies, and more recently the Worcester economy has improved,” said MacNeish.
Still another factor in the bank’s about-face, according to MacNeish, was the realization that the banking landscape to the west was less than welcoming.
“Probably every part of the state is overbanked, but over the years the Springfield area became far more so than Worcester,” he said.
In 1997, Country Bank merged with Leicester Savings Bank, located in the town contiguous to Worcester. In addition, the bank’s newest branch offices are located in Paxton and Charlton, both well within the Worcester metropolitan area, so now there are four Country Bank branches in Worcester County.
With a banking strategy that looked closer and closer to the bedroom communities of urban areas, why then the name Country Bank?
“Our branches are in the suburban and rural areas between Springfield and Worcester. We didn’t want a name associated with one specific town,” MacNeish explained. “So, in 1981, when the Ware and Palmer banks merged and we went through the process of adopting the Country Bank name, we wanted the name to reflect the area we served.”
With 13 branches located in hamlets like Belchertown, Brimfield, Charlton, Paxton and other rural and suburban towns (read bedroom communities), the moniker Country Bank fits perfectly. In 1981, the year that Ware Savings Bank merged with Palmer Savings Bank, the combined assets of the two institutions were $210 million. From that point, says MacNeish, “it’s been generally steady growth.” Today with assets topping $1 billion, Country Bank finds itself niched between the likes of Bank of America on one end of the banking spectrum and the smaller community banks scattered throughout the state’s midsection.
“We’re able to provide the services of a big bank, and at the same time provide small town, personal-service banking,” says MacNeish. “Our staff and management live in and around the towns where we have our branches, so they’re part of the local community.”
Country Bank makes a variety of contributions to the many communities it serves, including annual grants to local hospitals ($35,000 each) and, several years ago, $15,000 no-strings-attached grants to 20 local libraries – that’s $15,000 for each library. In addition, the bank gives a $5,000 scholarship to a top high school graduate at each of 16 local high schools.
Come June, Country Bank’s current president, Paul F. Scully, will succeed MacNeish as CEO, and he fully expects the growth pattern already established to continue. But being a $1 billion-plus institution out in the country does pose an unusual conundrum. As Scully puts it, “I sometimes wonder, are we a big little bank or a little big bank?”