Room to Grow
By Larry Collins
If you build it, they will come. We’re not talking about a baseball diamond carved out of a cornfield to lure baseball immortals back for one last game. We’re talking highway systems that attract industry, shopping malls, and a plethora of other job-producing enterprises. We’re talking phenomena like Route 128, the nation’s first “Technology Highway,” which now boasts hundreds of firms lining its ribbon around Boston.
James C. Lively, president and CEO of Bridgewater Savings Bank, foresees the same sort of vibrant future for southeastern Massachusetts, already the fastest-growing region in the commonwealth in terms of population and employment. In the middle of a highway cluster that includes Interstate 495, Route 24, and a newly extended Route 44, Bridgewater Savings Bank is keeping pace with the region’s increasingly dynamic economy.
“What we saw happening was that just south of Bridgewater, in the Raynham-Taunton area, was an opportunity where we could be a part of the growth of southeastern Massachusetts,” says Lively.
So, in 1999, Bridgewater Savings bought a parcel of land in Raynham for a bargain price and built an impressive new office building with a branch office that today is Bridgewater Savings’ busiest.
“We bought the land for $700,000 at the corner of Route 44 and Orchard Street, which has now become a very large commercial park. Anchored by the bank are Wal-Mart, Johnson & Johnson, as well as a number of other businesses that have relocated here from other parts of Massachusetts and other states,” says Lively.
The 1999 timing of the Raynham land purchase, about 4.5 acres, could not have been more fortuitous; at $700,000, that breaks down to about $135,000 an acre. But as the region’s prosperity has steadily increased, inevitably so has the cost of land, as Bridgewater Savings can readily demonstrate. Recently it acquired a 55,000-square-foot commercial site in Taunton. The cost: $750,000.
“There’s plenty of available land around here, but in the past five or six years, property values – both commercial and residential – have climbed dramatically. A residential lot these days goes for almost $200,000,” says Lively.
With the recent expansion of Route 44 from Plymouth to Carver, Bridgewater Savings finds itself on an interstate “Main Street” that links up with a road system that places it just about midway between Boston and Providence, as well as smaller bustling cities like Fall River and New Bedford, where marine high-tech firms abound.
“The result has been a tremendous opportunity for the bank to increase its visibility as a vibrant financial institution ready to serve southeastern Massachusetts,” he adds. “People now view us differently. There’s been phenomenal growth here in Raynham, so we’re all pretty happy that we made the move.”
Positioning Bridgewater Savings has also meant a change in the institution’s structure, from a small town savings bank specializing in residential mortgages to a mutual bank holding company that provides a hefty menu of commercial and retail bank services and products. If one were to look for a model spawned by the expansive thrust of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, Bridgewater Savings, or more accurately, Bridgewater Financial MHC, would more than qualify.
Formed in 2003, Bridgewater Financial currently has four subsidiaries: Bridgewater Savings Bank, Stonebridge Mortgage Co., Stonebridge Insurance Co. and Stonebridge Investments. In addition, the savings bank also maintains a trust department.
“We probably offer more services than most banks our size,” says Lively, who joined Bridgewater Savings 23 years ago as treasurer, after brief stints with Casco Bank and Trust in Maine, Commonwealth Bank and Trust in Boston, and Milton Savings Bank. “My philosophy in growing this bank has been to have the ability to say ‘Yes, we can do it’ to our customers and not ‘No, we don’t know how to do that’ or ‘No, we can’t provide that service for you.’ We’re a small bank that acts like a big bank, and that’s what I think makes us unique.”
Like many a community bank, Bridgewater Savings Bank has embraced technology enthusiastically. It maintains a data-packed Web site that aggressively promotes Internet banking for personal and business customers, as well as its myriad other products.
“We have all the bells and whistles: Internet banking, telephone banking, commercial banking, a trust department and a mortgage company, you name it. You can pretty much get anything you want at Bridgewater Savings,” Lively asserts.
But, again, like many other community banks, Lively is on guard against allowing technology to compromise Bridgewater Savings Bank’s person-to-person approach to business.
“We try to balance the technology by providing services the way we always have, with a human touch. For example, we don’t use a lot of automated telephone systems. We have a telephone operator who directs customer calls to real people, who all answer their own phones. We don’t want to separate ourselves from the degree of personal service we’ve always offered. We don’t want to lose sight of the fact that, with all our technology, we are still a community bank, and we’ve been one for 134 years.”
Meanwhile, someone else besides the CEO is singing the bank’s praises: In May, Bridgewater Savings received a five-star superior rating for financial strength from the independent national bank research firm of BauerFinancial Inc. It’s the 16th consecutive quarter that the bank has received the research firm’s top rating.