Mt. Washington Ascending
By Larry Collins
Right off the bat, you have to wonder: How does a financial institution in South Boston come up with a moniker like Mt. Washington?
As it turns out, there’s a fascinating bit of Revolutionary War history behind the bank’s name. When General Washington’s troops planted the cannons on Dorchester Heights that drove the British occupying force out of Boston, the locals honored the general by christening the heights: Mount Washington.
“The name has tremendous historical significance,” says Merritt, but, he adds with a laugh, “At times it becomes a challenge as we break into new markets, like when we first started getting into Dorchester we had people saying, ‘Well, you say you’re a community bank but your headquarters is in New Hampshire.’”
Mt. Washington Bank is a community bank all right, doing business in South Boston since 1893 when it was launched with no paid employees and a single office opened only every second and third Wednesday a month from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Talk about your bankers’ hours!
Today, Mt. Washington Bank has three branch offices in Southie, a fourth in Dorchester and a fifth is slated to open in Dorchester’s Codman Square neighborhood sometime next year.
Merritt joined Mt. Washington Bank as president and CEO in 1999, after a 14-year stint with Abington Savings Bank, where he capped off his tenure there as executive vice president and chief financial officer. Under Merritt’s leadership, in just seven years Mt. Washington Bank’s assets have ballooned from $150 million to $470 million and the number of bank employees has grown from 38 to 120.
Early on, Merritt quickly set about creating a corporate culture that emphasized a trio of fundamental banking tenets: customer satisfaction, employee loyalty, and service to the community.
“I’ve always had a fundamental belief that to be a great place to bank, you have to be a great place to work,” says Merritt. “Especially as a community bank, we take a lot of pride in the experience our customers have when they come in to do their banking. One of the best compliments that I often get is when a customer will say to me, ‘Boy, I go into one of your branches and everybody is smiling, everybody is happy, it just seems like a great place to work.’”
Last spring, Mt. Washington Bank received added plaudits for its positive work environment from the Boston Business Journal, in the publication’s fourth annual survey of “Best Places to Work in Massachusetts.” Mt. Washington Bank was ranked fifth in the survey’s top 20 mid-size firms (100-500 employees).
As intended, the feel-good atmosphere among employees spills over to customers, whose favorable opinion Merritt regards as the institution’s prime form of advertising.
“We look upon our customers as ambassadors for the bank. Our goal is to have our customers say something positive about our bank to a friend, a neighbor, or an associate.”
Not content to merely presume that the bank’s 120 employees – many of whom live in the communities the bank serves – are providing a positive banking experience to Mt. Washington customers, the bank developed a Customer Experience Program that emphasizes creating the ultimate customer experience for the bank’s customers. Employees at all levels are recognized for extraordinary customer service and are awarded a variety of incentives.
Based on periodic surveys of customers, the program continually evaluates the quality of bank service. And it’s not just an in-house feedback exercise: An outside consulting firm, Satisfaction Services Inc., performs the evaluations and offers suggestions on how services can be reinforced or new ones added.
Just three years ago, Mt. Washington’s customer base was almost entirely individual consumer accounts, about 95 percent to 5 percent in small- business accounts. Today that ratio is 75 to 25 percent. As Mt. Washington Bank has evolved into a full financial service institution, increasing emphasis is being placed on servicing small businesses.
“We think our No. 1 growth opportunity is in the small business market, and I think that given the competitive market that we’re in, there’s a void in the small business sector,” says Merritt.
Raising a relatively small bank’s profile can pose a formidable challenge. One way Mt. Washington Bank responds to the challenge is through a charitable foundation launched by the bank just five years ago.
“One of the fundamental points of the foundation is that we take a minimum of 10 percent of our annual net income as a means of determining our annual charitable giving budget for the upcoming fiscal year,” Merritt explains. “This is a way to come out in a very high-profile way when we say, ‘Look, we’re going to take 10 percent of our earnings and give it back to the communities we serve.’”
Among the many recipients of the foundation’s largesse are the South Boston Boys and Girls Club, the Codman Square Health Center, the Laboure Center in South Boston, Julie’s Family Learning Program in South Boston, and Carney Hospital.
Having accomplished a great deal in a relatively short time at Mt. Washington Bank, Merritt was asked where he sees the bank heading in, say, five years.
“For a community bank to survive and be viable, we need to continue to grow. I would say probably five years from now I would see Mt Washington Bank being at $700 million in assets and having six or seven branches.”
In the neighborhoods of Boston, he emphasizes.