September 10, 2018
Banking & Finance

West Hartford the apple of People's United's eye

HBJ Photo | Gregory Seay
HBJ Photo | Gregory Seay
Jeff Tengel, president of Bridgeport's People's United Bank and parent People's United Financial.
Gregory Seay

People's United Bank Chairman/CEO John "Jack'' Barnes quickly acknowledged in July the close personnel ties between his $44 billion-asset Bridgeport super-regional bank and much smaller $3.1 billion-asset Farmington Bank, which People's intends to acquire for $544 million.

Barnes noted that some of Farmington Bank's senior staff are ex-People's executives. But Barnes' chief lieutenant and People's United Bank's president, Jeff Tengel, cited a more tantalizing reason for his bank's desire to pursue the acquisition set to close before year-end.

"We like Farmington Bank's presence, especially in West Hartford,'' Tengel said during a recent sitdown in his upper-floor office at People's United's headquarters at 850 Main St. "It's a growing part of the Hartford market. We weren't as strong there as we'd like to be."

"Farmington Bank has a lot of really good customer relationships that we don't have," added Tengel, a former PNC banker in Ohio, his home state.

People's, founded in 1842, has three West Hartford branch offices vs. two for 167-year-old Farmington Bank. Ironically, both banks have branches within a stone's throw of the other in the town's Elmwood section; one of them may have to close.

Barnes said in a June investor call that 71 percent of Farmington Bank branches are within two miles of existing People's branch locations, and all of them are within five miles.

He also said the bank would seek to reduce costs by eliminating redundant functions. Farmington Bank recently told state labor officials that 95 of its employees will be laid off once its People's United Bank buyout it complete.

West Hartford appeals to bankers — it's home to 25 bank branches with $2.9 billion in deposits spread among a dozen lenders — for several reasons. First, it's Hartford's most populous suburb, with more than 60,000 residents, many of whom are college educated and who work — or once did — as entrepreneurs, engineers, physicians, lawyers, educators, among others, and possess houses, commercial property and other assets.

West Hartford, too, is home to a number of private and public businesses, nonprofits and local, state and federal offices and agencies — all potential new customers and opportunities for People's United to cross-sell its commercial lending products and services to Farmington Bank customers, Tengel said.

In particular, People's has in recent years invested considerable time, money and energy building up its wealth-management and private-banking services, targeting its most well-heeled customers.

For a time, People's United and its main in-state rival, Waterbury's Webster Financial Corp., were neck-and-neck in racing to establish a wealth-management desk. At one point, People's recruited nearly all of Webster's top private-banking leaders to set up shop there.

Yet, as it pursues new customer relationships, Tengel says People's continues to promote "bedrock value propositions'' with new and existing patrons via whatever service channel customers choose — in person in branches, or remotely via ATMs and mobile/smartphone apps.

"We don't view our customers as just another transaction,'' he said. "We're going to service the customer in whichever channel they want … ."

People's United, too, is among only a handful of New England banks with Stop & Shop supermarket locations, with 84 in Connecticut and 96 in New York, including 33 acquired on Long Island through a recent acquisition.

"It has worked out well,'' Tengel said. "It has been a different way to connect with our customers.''

In commercial lending, Tengel said People's faces the challenge of "a lot of competitors,'' including debt funds and other nonbank lenders/investors, all chasing a limited pool of qualified borrowers.

Although big by Connecticut banking standards, in terms of assets and customer and branch counts, People's advantage is that it is much smaller than Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and other money-center' banks, Tengel said.

"It's important that our customers feel like they're dealing with a big bank,'' he said, "but still keep that level of personal customer service."

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