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September 4, 2023 Corner Office

New head of Union Savings Bank Reyes focused on growth, community investment

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Chelen Reyes is the new president and CEO of Union Savings Bank.
Chelen Reyes 
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Chelen Reyes, who took over as president and CEO of Union Savings Bank in August, said he’s committed to the Danbury-based lender’s future growth amid a challenging industry environment.

Reyes became the bank’s president in February. When CEO Cynthia C. Merkle retired in August, Reyes also assumed the CEO role.

“I’m excited and grateful about this opportunity,” Reyes said. “I feel very fortunate to have landed here at Union Savings Bank.”

Cynthia C. Merkle

The president and CEO roles will remain combined going forward, with Reyes managing day-to-day operations and executing on the bank’s strategic plan. Merkle previously held both roles before Reyes’ arrival.

“We think it can be done in an effective and efficient manner by one individual,” Reyes said. “Cindy has really created a very strong foundation and a clear direction and vision for the bank. My main goal, first and foremost, is to continue her legacy and that trajectory of the bank.”

Merkle said Reyes has the strategic business experience, in-depth banking knowledge and leadership capabilities for the job.

Continued growth

Reyes’ background includes more than two decades of experience in retail banking, lending, wealth management and marketing.

Before joining Union Savings about seven months ago, he had several leadership roles with Hudson Valley Credit Union, most recently as a senior vice president responsible for retail delivery, marketing and lending.

During his career, he has led initiatives for new product rollouts, and worked to improve customer relations and employee training, he said.

Under Merkle’s leadership, Union Savings has grown to more than $3 billion in assets, including $800 million in growth over the last four years. The bank, first established in 1866, reported $20.4 million in net income for 2022, up from $18.4 million in 2021, and $17.8 million in 2020.

Reyes said he wants to continue to grow the bank’s assets and profit margin, even as the industry faces challenges, including a high interest rate environment.

Deposit costs have been rising, Reyes said, forcing the bank to manage expenses closely, while it continues to maximize revenue opportunities and develop new products and services for business and retail customers.

Borrower credit is “fine at the moment,” according to the bank, which reports seeing few credit issues within its loan portfolios.

At the end of the first quarter of 2023, the bank, like many U.S. lenders, did set aside more money for potential credit losses ($200,000) compared to the fourth quarter of 2022 and the year-ago period, according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data.

“I do expect us to continue to grow in a profitable manner, and at the same time, build capital for our bank,” Reyes said.

Union Savings is focused on both individual consumer and business lending. It serves companies of all sizes, and would like to grow its portfolio of small business customers, which have unique needs in terms of cash management, treasury and credit.

Most of the bank’s recent commercial loan production has been in commercial real estate, Reyes said. The bank’s commercial growth strategy in the coming years includes expanding relationships with nearby municipalities, medical providers and manufacturers, Reyes said.

Digital investment

Reyes also wants the bank to continue to invest in digital technology to improve the consumer experience.

The bank in recent years has launched services such as Spending Insights, which helps customers better understand their spending habits, and early payday, which allows direct deposit customers to access their paychecks two days early.

In 2022, Union Savings made Zelle available in its mobile service to enable digital payments for customers.

“It’s going to require some expenses, but we believe (digital technologies) will be key investments for a future return for us,” Reyes said. “We are always looking for different ways to leverage technology to make things more efficient for the bank and to improve customer service.”

Working to improve customers’ overall experiences will be a key focus in the months ahead, he said.

“That’s not limited to personal interactions with our employees,” Reyes said. “That includes having the right products, services and technology, and pricing for all of our stakeholders.”

Brick-and-mortar strategy

Reyes still considers himself new to the bank. He said he is still getting to know the bank’s staff and employees, and plans to ensure there is a focus on their personal career growth and development.

While many banks have been closing branches, Union Savings recently expanded.

In July, it launched a new full-service branch and advice center in Norwalk, at 454 Main Ave., bringing its total footprint to 25 offices, concentrated in Fairfield and Litchfield counties.

The new branch features one-stop banking, where customers can access services from personal banking and commercial and treasury services, to business banking, wealth management and residential lending.

“We’re fairly new to that (Norwalk) market,” Reyes said. “We’re very excited about that opportunity. Having a physical location there increases convenience and opportunities to strengthen relationships with our customers.”

There are no discussions about closing any of Union Savings’ current locations. There are also no immediate plans to expand further, he said.

Community banking

In his new role, Reyes said he wants to get to know the community better.

He currently lives in Poughkeepsie, New York, with a 45-minute commute, though he said his family loves Connecticut, and they may move closer to his new job.

“I want to make connections and build relationships with our key stakeholders, whether those be business customers, consumer banking customers, nonprofits, schools, and other leaders in the market area,” Reyes said.

Just as Merkle was known for her involvement in the community, Reyes hopes to be also.

Merkle expanded the role of the Union Savings Bank Charitable Foundation, serving as its president and forming a community relations team that increased volunteerism throughout western Connecticut.

During his career, Reyes has served on the boards of nonprofit organizations, including the Women’s Enterprise Development Center, New Horizons Foundation, Girl Scouts of Suffolk County and Skills Unlimited.

Reyes noted that Union Savings has donated about $10 million and thousands of volunteer hours to communities it serves over the past decade.

These efforts will continue under his leadership, he said.

“That is important to me, and that will not change. In fact, we’re always looking for ways to do more for our community,” Reyes said.

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