Banking leaders from around eastern Maine used words like “great,” “terrific,” “wonderful” and “very big” to describe how 2015 was for their respective financial institutions.
At Seaboard Federal Credit Union in Bucksport, deposits were up about 6 percent over last year while net assets were up 5.5 percent — this in a town that lost its biggest employer at the end of 2014.
At Machias Savings Bank, the number of home loans increased by 40 percent and the dollar value of those loans was 60 percent higher than the year before.
In June, Bangor Savings Bank announced record earnings (up more than 9 percent over the previous fiscal year) and marked its 14th straight year of earnings growth.
The bank said it saw “solid growth in all commercial and consumer loan categories across all areas of the state.”
Bar Harbor Savings & Loan has seen five strong years in a row, but 2015 was the best of those, as it also saw record earnings.
Like other leaders, The First’s President and CEO Tony McKim said bankers are “starting to see some real life and recovery,” from a growing number of home sales to business owners willing to take a chance and invest a bit more money than they have previously in the wake of the financial crisis.
Most bankers interviewed said falling fuel prices, while bad news for the energy industry, have translated into good news for bank customers.
“I think in Maine, especially, there’s an important impact,” said Greg Dufour, president and CEO of Camden National Bank. “That does give customers more money in their pockets.”
Some Mainers are using that money to add on to a business, fix a fishing boat or buy a rental property. Others, however, are still wary of taking anything that might be construed as a risk and going a different route.
“As much of a savings as the average household is experiencing,” said Kyle Casburn, president and CEO of Seaboard Federal Credit Union, “because there’s the mindset of caution, people are using that [money] to strengthen and shore up their own personal balance sheets.”
That includes paying off credit card debt and putting money in savings accounts. Bill Weir, president and CEO of Bar Harbor Savings & Loan, said he saw more customers — some of whom brought their kids with them — putting money aside in savings in 2015 than in previous years.
“That’s always a good sign,” he said.
Curtis Simard, president and CEO of Bar Harbor Bank & Trust, said he thinks there will be a greater impact from lower fuel prices if they continue to remain at that level. He, too, sees the same thought process other bankers mentioned.
“People are a little hesitant to take on personal debt right now,” he said. “We’ve got customers who are saying, ‘I’m going to be a little more careful with my money.’”
McKim said one area where he is “starting to see some real life and recovery” is in the residential real estate market. He said prices are recovering and stabilizing to a degree.
Larry Barker, president and CEO of Machias Savings Bank, said Machias Savings saw a “significant increase in home sales,” one that was seen across the bank’s coverage area from Caribou to Calais and from Bar Harbor to Bangor.
He said construction of new homes, though, “has not rebounded north of Portland.” He said he hopes that the sales of existing homes, however, could spur more demand for new houses.
“Maybe we’ll see some concrete trucks rolling again,” he said.
While they await a rebound in the market for new homes, several banks had significant in-house news of their own in 2015.
Camden National had a big year as it acquired The Bank of Maine. The merger means Camden National now has 64 banking locations, 85 ATMs, about $3.7 billion in assets and employs about 700 people.
“Those are some pretty big numbers,” Dufour said.
The merger expands Camden National’s presence into what the bank described as the “higher growth southern Maine market.” Dufour said it also allows the bank to invest throughout the state.
The merger of the two banks, Dufour said, “solidifies [Camden National] to remain independent and headquartered in Maine.” He said the larger bank has more resources to draw from, but is still focused on keeping personal connections with its customers.
“We can make local decisions,” he said, noting that branch managers and lenders in the field have a lot of authority. “We know our people.”
Bangor Savings Bank also was active in southern Maine, announcing in October that it was investing almost $10 million in an expansion effort in that part of the state.
That includes renovation of its administrative and business offices on Fore Street in Portland, a newly renovated branch on Middle Street in Portland and two new branches with business offices.
It is also building a $5-million, multi-story building on Marginal Way in Portland that will house a bank branch and offices.
Bangor Savings opened a new branch in Ogunquit in April and also submitted plans to Brunswick town officials for a new branch in that community.
Bob Montgomery-Rice, president and CEO of Bangor Savings, said the bank made a strategic decision to expand into southern Maine more than a decade ago and that its presence in that part of the state “has exceeded our expectations.”
“Because of our growth and commitment to the state’s economy, and because of our work with Maine’s small business community, we anticipate there will be further expansion in this region,” Montgomery-Rice said.
At the beginning of this year, the bank announced it was raising the minimum rate it pays its employees to $13 an hour in an effort to “pay a living wage to all employees.”
Montgomery-Rice said the bank recognizes that “all positions at Bangor Savings Bank, including those often categorized as entry-level, are complex and involve a high-degree of responsibility.”
At Bar Harbor Bank & Trust the big news was on the personnel front, as the bank named 13 people to senior vice president posts. Simard said the posts were added to give him and other executives a better sense of what is going on around the bank and to help “every employee understand what the plans of the institution are.”
Some, like Lisa Parsons — “she runs the island,” said Simard — are longtime employees. Others, like Johanne Lapointe (internal audit) and Steve Gurin (business banking) were hired from outside the company and relocated to Maine to become part of BHB&T.
“It was a mix of both longtime and new employees,” Simard said. “We’re preserving the past and also getting fresh ideas.”
Simard said adding the senior vice president posts has worked out well, and that he is “feeling connectivity throughout the entire company.”
On the broader subject of connectivity, bankers continue to see strong and growing demand for online and mobile banking options.
“We continue to see, if not daily, then weekly, more and more people using technology for banking services,” Dufour said.
Other bankers agreed, noting that they use the services themselves and that they are committing resources to strengthen those offerings.
At Bangor Savings Bank, officials said the “ease of access, simple-to-use interfaces and omnipresence of smartphone and tablet devices provides a higher level of confidence for users to access their account information.”
Bangor Savings customers are on track to log in to the bank’s mobile application more than 3.7 million times annually.
At Bar Harbor Bank & Trust, Simard said the bank is re-engineering several of its banking platforms to improve the customer experience.
For small business loans, he said, the goal is for customers to get a decision the same day and close the next — a dramatic shortening of the current waiting period which can be weeks long.
Casburn said one of the new issues bankers are dealing with is the growth of peer-to-peer lending, which is done outside of traditional financial institutions. He described it as the “Uberization of the financial markets,” referring to the taxi/ride-sharing company that competes with traditional taxi operations.
As they compete with other banks and financial institutions around the country and online, local bankers also talked about programs their institutions have put in place to help those in need in the community.
At Camden National Bank, for example, the bank is donating $100 to a local homeless shelter each time a customer finances a new home through the bank. Dufour said the bank donated $50,000 to shelters in 2015.
One of the programs at Bangor Savings Bank is an annual food drive to collect jars of peanut butter and jelly. In March, 10,162 jars were collected and then distributed to local food pantries around Maine.
The bank said Orland was one of the communities around the state where a delivery was made, as it dealt with the aftermath of the Verso Paper mill closure in Bucksport. Other donations were made in Lincoln, Pittsfield and East Millinocket.
Montgomery-Rice said the bank “recognizes that many Mainers struggle to put food on the table,” and that the food drive is a way to help address the issue.