Turn up at the offices of North Jersey Community Bank early on the first Thursday of the month, and you'll find more than just bankers getting a jumpstart on the day. You'll likely run into a local accountant, a handful of attorneys, the owner of a jewelry store, an elder care consultant, and about a dozen other entrepreneurs from near the bank's headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

These folks, part of the bank's "Breakfast Club," have a few things in common: They are all business owners, they are all women, and they are all part of the reason why North Jersey Community Bank has been posting impressive growth numbers for the past year.

It was about 18 months ago when NJCB vice president and relationship banking officer Jehan Sanders decided that her female clients needed a forum to network with other women familiar with the challenges of running a small business.

It wouldn't be the first time a bank pulled together business owners, or even specifically women business owners, to connect clients to one another and deepen their banking relationships in the process. Cleveland-based KeyCorp, for example, holds "lunch and learn" sessions for women business owners at KeyBank branches and sponsors larger events featuring executive coaches and the like through Key4Women, an initiative started in 2005.

But for Iris Shamus, whose New Jersey company, AllerMates, markets allergy awareness bracelets for children, the breakfast club at NJCB was a revelation.

"I have never had an experience like this with a bank, where they actually take the time to see who you are and what your needs are," Shamus says. The bank "set me up with meetings with people in public relations, marketing, really anyone they knew who could help me."

The bank has been sure to get its top executives in front of and involved with the group. NJCB's chief operating officer and chief lending officer, both women, are members, and Chairman and CEO Frank Sorrentino III has been among the speakers at the monthly breakfast meetings. The group, which now has its own Facebook page and recently hosted its first major networking event outside the bank, has paid real dividends for NJCB.

Not all of the breakfast club attendees were customers of the bank when the group started up last January, but several, including Shamus, already have brought their corporate accounts over to NJCB. Much more importantly, though, says Sanders, breakfast club participants have become a significant generator of new leads for the bank by talking up its services to their own clients and business associates.

Sanders says that in her experience, women, much more than men, are likely to advocate for a person or business that has been helpful to them. With the breakfast club, NJCB has in effect created a core group of respected businesswomen willing to personally endorse the bank to other prospective customers.

It's no coincidence that NJCB, though a small institution, has been showing strong loan growth in the past year. It reported $570 million in loans outstanding at the end of the second quarter, up from $435 million in the same quarter last year.

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