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May 6, 2019

Ciulla 'supercharged' to reach high personal bar at Webster

Photo | HBJ File

Category: CEO of the year, 100 or more employees

John Ciulla

Webster Bank

Size of organization: 3,400 employees

Education: Fordham Law School, J.D.; Columbia Business School, MBA

Previous job: Bank of New York, Managing Director; McDermott Will & Emery and Hughes Hubbard & Reed, Associate. 

John Ciulla, president and CEO of Webster Financial Corp. and Webster Bank, helped lay the groundwork for record financial performance last year — his first as CEO at the Waterbury-based regional bank he joined in 2004.

In 2016, while president under former CEO James C. Smith, Ciulla was asked to lead what he called the most comprehensive bankwide, outside-in strategic review in his time at Webster. The examination included the outside banking landscape, where customer preferences were headed, the competitive landscape, technology’s impact on the bank, the effect of its geographic expansion, and growth and profit opportunities.

Strategic priorities that emerged: aggressively growing Webster’s HSA Bank, continuing to expand commercial banking and continuing to transform and optimize community banking, Ciulla said. The project galvanized Webster’s 3,400 bankers around specific strategic priorities and helped everyone know their responsibilities, what Webster aimed to accomplish for customers in each business line and how to get there, and set the table for what followed, he said.

“I feel very much a principal, if you will, and an owner of that strategic project and the results of that project, and I think it’s really one of the reasons why we had such a terrific financial record performance in 2018,” said Ciulla, 53.

Leading that project at Webster, with $27.6 billion in assets as of Jan. 24, also tested Ciulla’s chops to become CEO. Ciulla, the first non-Smith to lead Webster since its 1935 founding by Smith’s father, Harold Webster Smith, praised the Smiths and the high bar they set.

“I think I even have higher expectations of myself to be able to exceed that bar,” Ciulla said. “I feel like I am sort of supercharged to be able to reach that higher bar because of the guidance Jim provided and because of the cultural foundation of the bank and because of everything that the bank stands for.”

One of Ciulla’s first tactical moves as CEO was in Jan. 2018. Following federal tax reform that he knew would enhance profitability, he increased the bank’s minimum wage to $15; paid a $1,000 bonus to all full-time employees below the vice-president level; increased Webster’s annual philanthropic budget by $1 million, to $5 million-plus; and invested in Webster’s workforce by increasing the size of its training program by 50 percent and doubling summer interns.

“I can’t tell you how many internal and external emails and communications I received from just individuals in the community, business leaders, customers, employees saying, boy, they felt really proud to be with the organization because we made those moves,” Ciulla said.

This January, Gov. Ned Lamont asked Webster to play a leadership role among regional banks by offering interest-free loans, backed by the state, to federal workers denied pay during the government shutdown.

Chris Motl, executive vice president-head of commercial banking at Webster, called Ciulla smart and likeable.

“People want to produce for him, they want to work hard for him, they want to succeed for him, but he also has tons of compassion for the employees, which I think are unique qualities,” Motl said, adding that Ciulla fuels Webster’s focus on doing right.

Seeking opportunity

Ciulla — married to Erin Fuller, with whom he has a daughter, a high school senior, and son, sophomore — did not envision becoming CEO when he joined Webster in 2004 as senior vice president for middle-market banking.

He entered banking in 1987 in Hartford, then got his law degree and practiced law in New York, then returned to banking there in 1997. His approach: Feel good about his contributions, perform at a high level and seek or weigh opportunities as they arise, which they did.

“I can’t be successful unless the entire team is successful and I’m just fortunate to be on a great team with a great set of executives and 3,400 great bankers and I feel like that’s the strength of the organization,” Ciulla said.

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