Three years ago, William Burke was happily heading Bank of Ireland's small retail operation in New York City.
The 54-year-old native of Ireland had been recruited by the international bank in 1977, and had been steadily gaining prominence in the local Irish community. He had even been chosen by Irish community group representatives as grand marshal of the St. Patrick's Day Parade in 1988, and was twice named one of the 100 most influential Irish-Americans by Irish America magazine.
But his luck ran out in 1993, when Bank of Ireland decided to get out of New York's hotly competitive retail market , putting Ms. Burke in limbo.
The setback, however, turned into a pot of gold when his friend Joseph Murphy asked him to come work for Country Bank as a senior executive. At the time, Country was just a one-branch operation in mostly rural Putnam County, and Mr. Murphy, the small bank's chairman, wanted his friend to help it grow.
Now, three years after coming to Carmel, Mr. Burke has helped $78 million-asset Country take over the role once played by his former employer in the Bronx and New York City's northern suburbs. And in his new post as president, he's preparing to go one step further, to propel the eight-year old community bank straight into the heart of Manhattan.
"If you serve the Irish community for 20 years, you'd really like to continue with that," he said. "There're not too many people who would serve that community. We understand the culture better and the customer feels more comfortable with us."
For Mr. Burke, loyalty to - and unity within - the Irish community has been a primary focus of his day-to-day business since he left Ireland after college and came to the United States. About 100,000 Irish-born people live in the New York City area.
"He has helped a lot of Irish-American people to start businesses that were turned down by bigger banks," said Tom Canty, co-owner of Gilly's & Jenny's Restaurant in Woodlawn. Mr. Canty, who had been Mr. Burke's customer at Bank of Ireland, now banks at Country.
From the beginning of his banking career, in Franklin National Bank's executive training program in 1965, Mr. Burke has sought an active role in Irish-American affairs in New York. He began by playing Gaelic football for a Bronx team representing his home county of Sligo and eventually became league president. He also joined Irish benevolent societies, including the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Those connections proved invaluable to him. As people in the community discovered his line of business, he found himself acting as a financial adviser for both individuals and small businesses. And when he joined Barclay's Bank in 1973 as regional vice president for Westchester County retail operations, he realized that he could use those ties to draw in customers - a practice he later followed at Bank of Ireland.
"After a while, if there was any Irish person looking to open a business in New York City, they'd come to me for advice," he said. " And they've got a certain allegiance to you that never dies."
Likewise, he feels an allegiance to them and to his home country, where he was born in 1942. In fact, he and his wife still own a home in County Cork, where they travel twice a year.
"I find it easier to go to someone who knows where we're coming from as immigrants starting up a new business," said Kate McLoughlin, co-owner of Irish Vision and Sounds, a Woodlawn book and music store. "It's important for all the Irish businesses to support each other."
Indeed, from the moment his old friend offered him the Country job, Mr. Burke saw the small bank as the ideal vehicle through which to fulfill his vision of a bank for the Irish-American community in New York. The bank, which had become profitable in 1990 after just two years in operation, was ripe to be molded as he saw fit, without preconceived growth plans getting in the way.
"When you come on board at a bank as a senior officer, you're expected to bring something to the bank," Mr. Burke said. "I can bring business to the bank."
Given the loyalty of his old customers, Mr. Burke was convinced that if Country branched into Irish neighborhoods, the community's consumer and commercial business would follow.
And he persuaded Mr. Murphy that stressing the Irish connection in the city wouldn't change the bank's traditional community focus in Putnam County.
Realizing that sharp cutbacks and job losses to the north of Carmel had left the area to the south - Westchester and New York City - as the bank's only route to growth, Mr. Burke prodded bank officials to test the waters by opening a loan production office in White Plains to draw in Irish business.
It worked. Although Country officials haven't tracked exact numbers, Mr. Burke said the bank received a "substantial" amount of loan and deposit business from Irish customers, who make up about half of its Westchester base. And in the year after the office opened, the bank's loan portfolio grew by about $12 million, or TK%.
With those results in hand, Mr. Burke easily persuaded senior officials to move even farther south - into Woodlawn, a traditionally Irish neighborhood at the northern edge of the city.
After purchasing and renovating a closed branch of Yorkville Savings Bank that had lain vacant in Woodlawn for years, the bank opened its first New York City branch in June 1994. Situated in the heart of Woodlawn's business community, it immediately drew support from surrounding Irish merchants.
Following up on that success, Mr. Burke persuaded the bank a year later to build on the Bronx Irish connection by picking off a recently closed Chase Manhattan Corp. office in Riverdale. This third branch, opened in March, and the one in Woodlawn have $14.5 million in loans between them.
Now, officials are currently looking at two former Chase sites in Westchester, and they have approval to open a loan office in midtown Manhattan to serve Irish communities in nearby Brooklyn and Queens. Mr. Burke said he hopes eventually to convert the Manhattan office to a full- service branch, possibly by next year.