By Roger Bosma
This year I will celebrate 48 years in banking, a journey that has been rewarding in many ways, one which was not planned nor even imagined. At the end of my “formal” career, I can honestly say that I have been blessed and am honored to be the head of two outstanding organizations – chairman of the New Jersey Bankers Association, and president and chief executive officer of Lakeland Bancorp Inc. and Lakeland Bank.
The changes that took place in our industry during my career are incredible. If you indulge me, I’ll walk you through my journey to illustrate just a few.
Actually, my becoming a banker was much by accident. When I graduated from high school, I had no idea of what to do. College at that point was not an option (completed later, at night with three little boys running around the house).
An uncle who owned a fast food restaurant suggested I apply to his ice cream supplier for a job as a delivery person. I applied, but was told I needed to be 18 years old to drive a truck. That option was gone; another uncle who worked for First National Bank of Passaic County said the bank was looking for messengers. I applied and was hired at $1 an hour. I recall that my first paycheck was $67.40 for two weeks of work!
When I joined First National Bank of Passaic County, banks were restricted to operate within their county. Originally New Jersey banks were only permitted to operate in their own city or town. In 1948 the law changed, allowing banks to branch within their home counties. In 1969 the banking laws changed again, dividing the state into three banking territories – south, central and north. Banks could then expand within their banking districts. In 1973 the laws changed yet again, removing the territorial restrictions and permitting statewide branching.
I worked for the First National Bank of Passaic County (FNBPC) for three years, initially as a messenger and then in the bookkeeping department working a posttronic machine (old-time bankers will know the equipment). After FNBPC, I worked as an audit clerk and note teller for Citizens First National Bank.
My job as an audit clerk brought me in contact with the bank examiners and through discussions with them, I applied to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) to be a bank examiner. I joined the OCC in 1965, a time when bank examiners did not tell the banks they were coming, and the first thing the examiner did when arriving at the bank on the first day of examination was to put a “seal” on every vault the bank had. Before the bank opened, the examiners had to count all the cash the bank had and make sure it proved to the general ledger. Another thing we did was to verify the collateral pledge to the loans, including verifying every stock certificate pledged to every loan.
While this cash counting was not a difficult job, it did take some coordination to make sure all the cash was counted at all the branches of the bank. I recall that sometime during my OCC career, I was in charge of the administration of the examination of Citibank in New York City. It was a nearly impossible task to make sure all the branches were examined within a short period of time.
In contrast to the Citibank experience, I recall examining a single office bank in rural western New Jersey. The examiners arrived at the bank nice and early on Monday morning, awaiting the arrival of the first employee who would open the bank. As we were waiting in the parking lot we noticed lights going on inside the bank. We did not realize that the president of the bank lived above the bank and had a private stairway from his apartment into the bank.
That same single office bank in a rural community had protection for their tellers. It had bulletproof glass with electrical shock wires above. However, the biggest deterrent to bank robbers in that community was that the head teller had a long barrel revolver next to her cash drawer. That examination was about 37 years ago and recently I had an opportunity to visit that bank: First Hope Bank.
There were some changes; the president 37 years ago was Louis Beatty, today Louis’ son Norman is the chairman, president and CEO. Norm is very active with the American Bankers’ Association (ABA) and is the incoming chairman of the New Jersey Bankers Association. The bulletproof glass is still there, as are the electrical wires. As I took a tour of the bank, I relayed my prior experience with First Hope Bank, including the part about the revolver. Norm pointed to a place just above the vault door. There in a glass case was the teller’s revolver.
The nine years I spent at the OCC provided me with an excellent education, both in life and in banking.
I left the examiners and joined National Bank of North America (NBNA) as an assistant vice president. NBNA had entered into an agreement to acquire Empire National Bank and my role was to be the “credit” guy in the Empire division, which was 15 minutes from my home.
After I joined NBNA, the merger fell apart and my office was at 44 Wall St. in New York City (not a 15 minute commute, but 1.75 hours each way). At NBNA I provided credit support to the chief credit officer, supervised the management trainee program and later started a business development team in midtown New York City. Our team (this was in the late 1970s) had calling quotas of 40 calls per month, 36 of which were to be on prospects. Later I was in charge of a lending team in Westchester County, N.Y.
The late 1970s and early 1980s were a most interesting time to be a community lender. In 1978, the prime rate started an unprecedented increase that culminated on Dec. 19, 1980, when the prime lending rate was 21.5 percent. NBNA was acquired by National Westminster Bank – one of the first foreign banks to acquire a U.S. bank. With my strong credit background, I was appointed credit officer for the British bank’s U.S. and Canadian offices.
In 1985, to get closer to home and back into community banking, I joined an affiliate of First Fidelity Bank (FFB) as a community lender. First Fidelity consolidated its affiliated banks and my office moved from Hackensack to Newark, where I supervised FFB’s management training program, and subsequently supervised lending teams and managed the loan review department.
In the late 1980s, real estate related credit problems began to develop. Real estate values plummeted, delinquencies increased and non-performers rose at an alarming rate. Congress established the Resolution Trust Co. as the receiver of the assets of about 750 insolvent savings and loan associations. Problems were not confined to the thrift industry; commercial banks were affected as well.
Out of adversity came opportunity for me. Based upon my regulatory and strong credit background, I was recruited to become president and chief executive officer of Independence Bank of New Jersey, a $250 million community bank that was not exempt from the real estate problems. Over the next six years the bank stabilized and grew. In 1997, the bank was sold to Commerce Bank.
I joined Hudson United Bank (HUB) shortly after the merger. At the time, HUB was rapidly expanding through acquisitions. My initial role was chief credit officer and later, president of the New York franchise. HUB made 14 acquisitions during the two years I was there.
Early in 1999, a phone call from Les Goodman, my mentor at First Fidelity Bank and former chairman of the New Jersey Bankers Association, put me in touch with Art Zande, chief executive officer of Lakeland Bank and also a former chairman of the association. Art was retiring and Lakeland was looking for a new CEO. The rest is history. When I joined Lakeland Bank, total assets were $500 million, with 18 banking locations. Today, Lakeland Bank has over $2.5 billion in assets and our 50th branch office will open this year.
The last nine years have been especially rewarding for me. My team – from senior management and staff to the board of directors – has brought Lakeland Bank into a major banking organization in New Jersey without losing the community focus.
During my career, my association with NJBankers and the ABA has provided me opportunities for growth and development. Educationally, both NJBankers and ABA have excellent programs. The ABA’s Stonier Graduate School of Banking (class of 1976) is first class and I would recommend it to anyone who wants a well-rounded approach to our industry.
Another highlight of my career was the privilege to be part of ABA’s Community Bankers Council. However, the greatest benefit for both the ABA and the New Jersey Bankers Association are the personal relationships that are made with the terrific people within our industry.
Roger Bosma is president and chief executive officer of Lakeland Bancorp.