NorthEast Community Bancorp Inc. is ready to make a gutsy move — an aggressive push into Boston that also involves originating its first single-family mortgages in roughly two decades.
NorthEast, of White Plains, N.Y., hired nine loan officers earlier this month to pursue mortgages in the Boston suburbs. The $437 million-asset thrift company will also originate loans in eastern Massachusetts for single-family homes, duplexes and multiplexes that house up to four families.
The push comes because Kenneth Martinek, NorthEast's chairman, president and CEO, says he believes the Boston area is growing. He also senses an opportunity after People's United Financial Inc.'s July 1 purchase of Danvers Bancorp Inc., which was among the 15 biggest banks in Boston.
"With all of the consolidation, there is a lot of confusion in the marketplace," Martinek says.
"There is a good deal of resentment in the community" about Danvers' sale, he adds. "In some ways, the community feels betrayed that a local bank sold out to an out-of-state bank. That may sound hypocritical since we're an out-of-state bank, but a lot of people have lost jobs in that town because of that acquisition."
Brent DiGiorgio, a spokesman at Bridgeport, Conn.-based People's United, declined to comment.
NorthEast has had an interest in Massachusetts for some time. It entered the the state in mid-2009 with branches in Danvers and Plymouth. The move had an immediate impact; those branches accounted for roughly a third of the company's total deposit base in less than a year, Martinek says.
Lawrence Kaplan, a banking lawyer at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, says there is reason to believe a community bank like NorthEast can succeed in suburban Boston. "I think the business case is easy to make," he says.
"It's very realistic for a bank like this to dip their toe in the water" in Boston, Kaplan adds. "You typically think a sophisticated city like Boston has these big banks, but that doesn't mean a community bank can't fill a niche."
David Darst of Guggenheim Partners LLC says he doubts the upstart effort by NorthEast will significantly dent People's United's operations in Boston. "For a small community bank to pick up [business], it will be at the small business and retail level," he says.
With three acquisitions in the past year, People's United has become one of the 10 largest banks in the Boston area with about $3.6 billion of deposits, according to June 2010 data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. In addition to Danvers Bancorp, People's United also bought Butler Bank and LSB Corp. in Massachusetts.
Big banks have a significant presence in Boston. Bank of America Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., which bought FleetBoston Financial Corp. in 2004, is the city's largest bank with 24.4% market share, according to FDIC data. Boston also serves as the headquarters for State Street Corp.
That competitive landscape is not stopping Martinek, who says he and his board "like Boston" and see it potentially becoming larger than its operations in New York.
Jack Barnes, the president and CEO of People's United, is also upbeat about the city. He said in a July 1 press release announcing completion of the Danvers deal that "the growth potential in the Boston markets, with their abundant commercial lending opportunities, is significant."
In comparison, NorthEast's historic base in New York City and its northern suburbs has "experienced relatively slow demographic growth, a characteristic typical of mature urban markets located throughout the Northeast region," the company said in an annual report filed in March with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Martinek has invested a significant amount of time scouting Boston. After studying potential markets on paper, he and some directors will typically walk and drive throughout a town for a day before making a decision.
It's necessary for Martinek and NorthEast to spend so much time scouting locations; a small community bank cannot afford to make mistakes. "Because we're not a monster organization, we can't throw up branches anywhere and close the ones that don't work," he says.
"If Citigroup wants to throw up 100 branches and they find only 70 of them work and they close 30, it's no big deal," Martinek adds. "If an institution of our size opens a dog, it's a drag on earnings and on our time."