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Volunteerism roots direct Howard’s corporate culture

BY David Medina
Special to the Hartford Business Journal

9/16/2016
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
PHOTO | Steve Laschever
Chandler Howard
Volunteerism is serious business to Chandler Howard, the president and CEO of Liberty Bank.

One of seven children who grew up in a housing project on the Stratford/Bridgeport border, Howard literally got to where he is today through volunteer work and has made volunteering a central component of Liberty Bank's culture.

"It was just part of what we did growing up," he says. "All of it was my mother's influence."

At the height of the Vietnam War, Howard, then 17 and barely out of high school, talked his father into letting him enlist in the Army. He served three years as a helicopter "door gunner" helping to insert and extract troops from combat zones.

"I did a lot of growing up in a very short time," he said. "But there was a tremendous amount of structure in the military and it exposed me to all kinds of people that I would not have met otherwise."

Howard returned home from the war to discover that he was among society's least employable people.

"I was 20. I had no college. I was African American, a Vietnam veteran and the economy was bad."

So, following family tradition, he volunteered to work for the American Cancer Society by day and ran a free, one-man counseling center for returning veterans at night. Hurricane Agnes, the most destructive storm in U.S. history struck shortly afterward and the Red Cross sent Howard to assist with rescue efforts in Scranton, Penn., for two months. Upon his return, he was named Red Cross' Volunteer of the Year.

That's when his life changed.

At the awards dinner, he was seated at a table with Elizabeth "B.J." Goodspeed, who chaired Red Cross' volunteer services in Fairfield County, and her husband, Norwick "Nick" Goodspeed, the then-president of People's United Bank.

"I knew nothing about him, but during the course of the night, he kept asking me questions about myself," Howard said. "In two weeks, I got a letter from him, saying that he'd like me to consider part-time work with his bank."

Twenty-two years later, Howard was a senior vice president, running a large portion of People's operations in Greater Hartford. During that time, he also: earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Connecticut and a master's degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; got married; started a family; and expanded his volunteer activities to include some of the state's largest charitable organizations.

It would have been wonderful if the next chapter in the Howard story were an offer to run Liberty Bank, but it wasn't. There were a few disappointments in between.

Howard took a risk and accepted an offer to work in the dog-eat-dog culture of the former Fleet Bank. His wife, Mary, succumbed to cancer, leaving him with three children to finish raising alone and, within two years of his arrival at Fleet, the bank was taken over by Bank of America. Bank of America, in turn, asked him to consider relocating to Charlotte, N.C., and when he explained that his family situation couldn't allow it, his new employers relieved him of his duties.

"So, here I am, at the zenith of my career, with one kid in college, another on the way and a third in middle school, and, suddenly I'm out of work," Howard said.

Struggling to avoid bitterness, Howard accepted a state government position, directing Connecticut Innovations, an agency designed to help new technology companies obtain capital to get off the ground. He was recruited nine months later to start a community bank in New Haven.

Then in 2007, the CEO of Liberty was retiring and the bank's board was looking for a replacement who knew Connecticut intimately and had a deep, long-term commitment to the bank and supporting communities.

"I was chairman of the search committee that selected Chandler at the time," said Mark Gingras, now chairman of the bank board. "I found him to be very genuine and it was a unanimous vote to hire him. The committee just said, 'This is the guy we've got to have.' "

Liberty has since grown significantly under Howard. It has more than doubled its assets from $2 billion to $4.5 billion, expanded its number of branches from 18 to 51 with 700 employees, and has been rated one of the top places to work in Connecticut for several years running.

The bank, moreover, donates nearly $800,000 a year to the markets where it does business through the Liberty Foundation and pays employees for some of the time they devote to volunteering in the communities they serve. Last year, Liberty workers logged 14,000 volunteer hours — all of it spearheaded by Howard.

"I like to believe that we take volunteerism a step further than other companies," Howard said. "I don't care what you do, as long as you go out and volunteer."

The Basics

Title: President and CEO

Name of organization: Liberty Bank

Size of organization: 677 employees

Education: Charter Oak Community College, Honorary Doctorate; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Master's Degree; UConn, Bachelor's Degree; Housatonic Community College, Associates' Degree

Previous job(s): First City Fund Corp.; Connecticut Innovations; Bank of America; Fleet Bank; People's United Bank

On the job

Guiding business principle: Surround yourself with strong, capable people and then let them do what they do best.

Best way to keep your competitive edge: Talk to everyone. You never know where you're going to find a new idea, or who can shed light on an issue that you would never have considered.

Favorite part of the job: Using my position and influence to make local communities better for everyone.

Personal touch in your office: Painting of St. James Church Sanctuary

Judgment calls:

Best business decision: Joining Liberty Bank

Worst business decision: Not joining Liberty sooner!

Best way to spot trends: Listen to your employees

Your pet peeve: I value everyone's opinion. And when I see someone cutting off someone else, that bothers me. I've been known to very often say to very senior leaders in our company, 'Excuse me. Let that person finish.' So, again, I think everyone has something to contribute and sometimes we get into the pace of what we're doing that we forget some of the basic courtesies, one, but also, it never ceases to amaze me, the quietest person in the room very often has the most significant contribution if you give them an opportunity to express it.

Personal side:

City of residence: Farmington

Favorite way to relax: Completing small projects around the house

Hobbies: Golf, gardening, motorcycle riding, singing in church choir

Last vacation: Bonita Springs, Florida

The car you drive: Lexus

Favorite cause: United Way