Century founder Marshall Sloane remembered for banking savvy, lending discipline

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One of Barry Sloane’s favorite stories about his late father dates back to the founding of Century Bancorp in Somerville, Mass.

It was the spring of 1969, and Marshall Sloane was running the fledgling bank from a mobile construction trailer. Sloane had urged a friend to bring his mother by to open an account, but she balked when she spotted the trailer.

“That bank has wheels on it,” the younger Sloane recalled the woman saying. “It’ll be gone in the morning.”

While the elder Sloane eventually got rid of the trailer, Century was anything but a fly-by-night operation. Founded with $500,000 in startup capital, the bank now has 27 Boston-area branches and $5.2 billion in assets.

Marshall Sloane died Saturday, a week shy of his 93rd birthday. He was still Century's chairman at the time of his passing.

“He always took the long view,” said Barry Sloane, who succeeded his father as CEO in 2009. “He thought this was a generational opportunity. He was obsessed with capital. He looked at every transaction as to how it would affect capital levels.”

Century now has $350 million in capital.

Marshall Sloane played an active role in company affairs until just a few weeks ago.

“He never missed a loan committee meeting,” said Linda Sloane Kay, his daughter and an executive vice president at the bank. “He’d get into the weeds on every loan. He wanted to know who the borrowers were, why they were applying.”

His questioning could get particularly intense when it came to commercial real estate loans. His children said he invariably insisted on assurances from Century’s lenders that a property’s roof, heating systems and elevators were all in working order.

“He’d gotten burned years ago by a bad roof on a commercial business,” Barry Sloane recalled. “After that, every time a loan on a flat-roof building came up, he’d ask how old the roof was.”

“If our lenders didn’t know all about the roof or the boiler or the elevators, he’d tell them to come back when they did,” Kay added.

Former Comptroller Thomas Curry, Massachusetts' banking commissioner from 1990 to 1991 and from 1994 to 2003, remembers the elder Sloane as “a great example of what a community banker should be.”

While more than 100 banks in the Northeast failed between 1990 and 1992, Century "was a survivor because of" Sloane’s careful philosophy, Curry said.

“He was a titan,” Curry said.

Marshall Sloane's fiscal conservatism was tested again in the years leading up to the financial crisis, when an activist investor launched a campaign criticizing Century for refusing to invest more heavily in commercial real estate.

Century was vindicated when the crisis hit in 2008, leading to a new wave of bank failures. Century went on to record nine straight years of record earnings, including $36.2 million in 2018.

“They said we weren’t taking enough risk in real estate speculation,” Barry Sloane deadpanned. “Their timing was perfect.”

While the elder Sloane’s roots lay in the furniture business, starting a bank seemed to be a natural move.

When Somerville lost its local banks during the Great Depression, Marshall Sloane's father tried to lure one back to town. Jacob Sloane even bought a vacant bank building across the street from his furniture store in Somerville’s Magoun Square in the hope he could persuade an institution to occupy it, but he was unable to bring a bank back to the town before his death in 1952.

Marshall Sloane would more than make good on the goal, founding a small co-operative bank in his father’s building in 1956. He followed up with Century a decade later after concluding that a state-charted commercial bank offered more opportunities for growth.

“It took him a while, but he was able to realize that dream,” Curry said.

Curry remembered Sloane as “just a nice guy,” an assessment seconded by many others who worked with him.

“He was an incredible gentleman and he ran a very, very well-run community bank,” said Neal J. Curtin, a veteran Boston banking attorney who worked with Sloane for more than two decades. “If you’re going to be a lawyer, you have to have clients. Sometimes you get lucky with a great client. ... He was one of the really great ones.”

“I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about him,” said Stanley Ragalevsky, a lawyer at K&L Gates in Boston. “He was in a tough business where enemies are easy to make. Mr. Sloane had no enemies.”

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