"My God!" said Susan Naruk, president of Ridgewood (N.J.) Savings Bank. "For years I constantly criticized stupid management, and all of a sudden I AM stupid management."

Well, Susan may have come in fresh as CEO at this $250 million-asset thrift, but in my book she sure isn't stupid.

In seven years she has turned Ridgewood Savings around from being the 11th or 12th in deposits in its community of 25,000 people to being No. 1, with profit enhancement to boot.

Susan had been brought in after stints at Citibank and Chase Manhattan and a term as budget director for Orange County, N.Y., and as senior lender at Warwick, N.Y., savings bank.

She said that despite a 4.0 average at college, the toughest work she ever had was the Citibank training program. "You would take an exam, and the next day several people would disappear."

I asked her what she did to turn Ridgewood Savings around. She said she set up focus groups with depositors and nondepositors to see what they wanted.

No. 1, believe it or not, was a return to school savings accounts. Customers wanted a place where their kids could learn to save without having to keep $1,000 in the bank.

So Ridgewood Savings dug up some old passbooks and started what has become its best product. School savings attracted 2,000 kid accounts and helped the thrift capture deposits from parents, uncles, aunts, and other adults.

What else wowed them in Ridgewood Savings?

No answering machines here. People answer the phone.

Call Susan and she returns you call personally.

Tellers are given decision-making power. They are taught that if there is a problem with a fee for a good customer, the fee can be waived.

Ridgewood Savings has a stack of greeting cards. An employee who hears that it's a customer's birthday or anniversary signs a card and sends it out that day.

Everyone in the bank is involved in charity and community-service work of some kind-with no pressure from management. For example, staff members in the new Mahwah branch developed a charity project without even telling the main office in Ridgewood.

The bank is open when people want to come. Saturday morning and Monday and Friday evening hours are standard. Susan's explanation to the staff when she implemented the schedule: "Without these new hours, you couldn't work for a living and still bank with us unless you worked for the bank itself."

Even though Ridgewood is an affluent community, with heavy ownership of PCs, the bank has seen little or no interest in Internet banking.

What then is Ridgewood Savings' secret. Service, service, and service. That's bank service and community service. It includes everything from prequalifying potential homeowners to employees' donating time as homework helpers.

Susan Naruk knows that changes in banking caused by the consolidation trend have alienated many people who formerly used far bigger competitors.

Despite changes she's made at the 113-year-old Ridgewood Savings, she still keeps in mind that the public looks at banking today with the attitude that change is bad.

So the likelihood is that Ridgewood residents will see as many of the same people at the same teller stations as possible in years to come. And Ridgewood Savings won't be like the bank in a cartoon I saw, with an electronic sign in front showing time, temperature, and today's name of the bank.

Some may say community banking is dead, but I sure didn't feel that when I left Ridgewood Savings.

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