A Whitman Sampler: Mutual Federal Is a Sweet Success
By Larry Collins
First things first: you know those chocolate chip cookies you like so much with a cold glass of milk? Well, they first saw the light of day at the Toll House Restaurant which operated in Whitman for many years. The story goes that the restaurant proprietors were cooking up a batch of regular cookies when they mistakenly spilled some chocolate chips into the batter, a culinary goof that gave birth to the Toll House cookie.
Whitman is one of those South Shore towns that once was a piece of a neighboring municipality until it decided to go its own way, not once, not twice, but three times. Throughout the 1600s it was part of Bridgewater, then in 1712 it was absorbed by the town of Abington, then in 1875 it became a township but hung on to its former parent’s moniker, as it morphed into South Abington. Finally, in 1886, the town’s citizens adopted the name Whitman. (No relation to that other chocolate-related product.)
So, today the signs that greet visitors to Whitman, unlike surrounding municipalities with incorporation dates reaching back to Pilgrim days, proclaim “incorporated in 1875.” Which means that Mutual Federal Savings Bank of Plymouth County, founded 1889 with a few name changes along the way, has been serving downtown Whitman for nearly as long as it has existed as an independent polity.
Once a fairly prosperous manufacturing center, producing everything from nails and tacks to cannonballs, Whitman lays claim to providing timbers used in the construction of the U.S.S. Constitution, hardy planking, apparently, since the vessel, still berthed in Charlestown, bears the familiar sobriquet “Old Ironsides.” Throughout the 19th Century and early 20th Century, Whitman citizens labored in factories that were part of the region’s thriving shoemaking industry. Today, Whitman, like many other neighboring towns, is chiefly a bedroom community for Boston-bound commuters, particularly after the restoration of rail service.
The manufacturing locus did much to shape the community’s growth pattern, as Mutual Federal Savings President and CEO Glen S. White explains: “Whitman has a definitive downtown area, which not a lot of South Shore towns have. It was built as a walking downtown; people all worked in the factories, and they lived within walking distance of the factories. And the downtown was like that too. There’s not a lot of parking in the downtown because at the turn of the century there were no automobiles. We have pictures of the bank back then with a hitching post in front of it.”
Today, the bank’s main office occupies the same building it has been doing business in for more than a century. White points out, “We’re right in the center of downtown Whitman. There’s a four-way stop and we’re on one of those corners.”
With the halcyon days of manufacturing behind it, downtown Whitman’s most frenetic business activity in recent years has been in the banking field.
White joined Mutual Federal Savings Bank as assistant treasurer in 1982, and became CEO only one-and-a-half years ago. He says about his new responsibilities: “As CEO, I now have to conduct the orchestra, rather than playing just one key instrument. Obviously, I serve as the liaison of the bank in keeping the board informed on the financial success and progress of our strategic direction. I guess my days chasing fraudulent check cashers through the streets of Whitman are better left to others now.”
Since joining the bank in ’82, White has looked out his office window at 570 Washington St. at the constantly changing signage on the competition’s brick and mortar. The fact that Mutual Federal Savings is a mutual institution has insulated it from the merger mania that has swept through a great part of the banking landscape.
“Our commitment is to the communities we serve, and we feel that by remaining mutual we can do a better job at that,” says White. “We control our own destiny better. Our structure allows us to make decisions for the long term, rather than concentrating on immediate profits. This benefits customers because we can keep fees lower and make timely investments in services and facilities. In the last six years the bank has built two new banking centers, and expanded the drive-up and ATM access to meet changing banking habits.”
Competition is tough in another area – that of credit unions, a competitive arena that White brands simply as “awful,” especially for a bank the size of Mutual Federal.
“With their tax-exempt status, they have a financial advantage. It’s not a level playing field. They are a tough competitor but they keep us on our toes. We forge ahead and we believe that we deliver that much better because of it.”
Mutual Federal’s core business is to provide for the financial needs of individuals, either through its four banking centers and their ATMs or through its thriving Internet banking platform. Befitting a community institution, the bank’s loan portfolio consists of residential mortgage loans and a range of consumer loans. There are some 5,000 individual account holders at Mutual Federal, with an impressive 25 percent of them engaged in Internet banking.
White acknowledges it’s a balancing act. “As everything gets more global, people crave a local connection. We have found overwhelmingly that people prefer to do business with a local bank. But they still want the convenience and services that today’s technology offers. That is our challenge.
“We’ve been quick to offer the latest in bank products, be it Internet banking, ATMs, debit cards, all of that,” adds White. “For a bank our size, we’ve led the way.”
One area where the bank has taken its time is commercial banking. It recently introduced a line of commercial deposit products. “Our focus is small business, it’s a natural fit,” says White, who intends to grow this business line gradually.
Summing up, White sees Mutual Federal as helping to create a new tradition for a community bank. “This is a great time to be in community banking. Customers demand personal service and want to deal with local institutions that provide it. We’re happy to fill that role.”