I have used Summit Bank, a local institution, since I moved into this New Jersey town in 1969.
My being both a contributing editor of this newspaper these 27 years and a customer of that bank hasn't been easy for Summit Bank's staff. As a person who needs new ideas all the time, I am constantly looking for unusual bank actions and policies to comment on.
For example, my ATM card was stolen by a machine, and when others would have said "Damn," I said "Wow - there's a column for next week."
And when I called with a loan request and overheard the loan officer tell the person who answered, "Tell him I'm not here," that, too, gave me a column.
My most recent barrage was against the bank's $12 fee just to have an ATM card.
I called this being part of the "Tom Sawyer school of banking," for I felt they were charging me for something that cut their teller costs and thus aided the bank more than me.
I have also tried to be helpful.
I nagged them in print to have their ATM machines say "Hello, Paul Nadler," instead of just "Paul Nadler" or, earlier, "Push buttons as directed on screen."
I indicated it was always nice to deal with an ATM that knew me personally.
Eventually they bought my suggestion. But they did not buy my follow-up that the statement on the screen "Transaction being processed" should be replaced with "I'm thinking this over."
I have known three presidents of Summit Bank.
The first had the problem of many fast-track officers of large banks who have been passed over for the top spot: They come to lead community banks and try to make them into small money-center banks to show what they can do and what their former employer missed. In this case, he took the entire state franchise for BankAmericard (the forerunner of Visa) and lost a substantial share of the bank's capital on it.
The second I knew personally, and he befriended a substantial portion of the bank's depositors. The third impressed me by sending an article I had written - criticizing several bank policies but without mentioned the bank's name - to the entire officer staff with the attached comment: "This is us. Let's do something about it."
But no more.
Why do I write this now? Because my community bank is no more. It has merged with United Jersey Bank to form the state's largest independent - too large to be still considered a community organization.
So this seems the right time to look back on the way old Summit Bank - the community institution - treated me as a regular customer, in the way they treated everyone else.
Certain policies and actions come to mind:
*My statement had only one error (a matter of 4 cents) in 27 years, on six individual accounts.
*When I forgot to sign a check, they called me to see if I wanted them to pay the phone company anyway instead of just bouncing the check.
*I had a no-fee, no-minimum-balance account that remained open even when it reached 1 cent (I had earned a fraction of a cent in daily interest in the three days between interest crediting day and when I closed the account taking out my stated balance of three days earlier, and the computer had a policy of moving fractions of a cent to the next full cent up.) But most important, like so many other customers, I was known by the tellers and could do my banking without a hassle or FBI check as to whether I was good for the withdrawal.
Well, as I say, my community bank is gone.
Our new larger bank has started off on one good foot and one bad. They have replaced my Cirrus-connected ATM card with one connected to Plus. I already have a Plus card and want the option of carrying one on each network when I travel. This switching of my card's network after all these years was similar to the worst thing old Summit did - opening a discount broker and then closing it without warning, automatically switching my IRA account to a strange broker without even asking me!
Moral: Be very careful in what you offer and promote, for if you have to switch later, it looks far worse than not offering it in the first place.
But on the good side, they already canceled the $12 annual fee for the ATM card and even gave each customer a $3 rebate for the remainder of the year already paid for.
So goodbye, community bank. My new bank will have a tough row to hoe keeping me as happy as I was most of the time in the 27 years I banked with the organization headquartered a mile and a 10th from my home.
Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of the American Banker and professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.