JP and South Boston banks are seeking to merge

January 11, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH

JP CENTER—Roxbury Highland Bank of Jamaica Plain—an independent bank that has served JP for nearly 120 years—would become a branch of South Boston’s Mt. Washington Bank under a merger proposed Jan. 3.

Roxbury Highland depositors voted down another merger proposal in 2003. But this time may be different, with improved outreach to depositors and most previous concerns answered.

Two big differences are that Mt. Washington has pledged to keep Roxbury Highland’s 515 Centre St. branch open and to keep its entire staff in place. The Roxbury Highland Charitable Foundation, which gives local grants, will also remain—only with more funding.

“Everything would be the same—only better,” said Roxbury Highland board member Juan Lopez, a critic of the 2003 proposal who was won over by Mt. Washington.

“Better” includes offering online banking, a larger ATM network, a call center, expanded business hours and various other services Roxbury Highland now lacks.

And while Mt. Washington is much bigger—five branches and $510 million in assets—it appears to have a very similar reputation and community role in South Boston and Dorchester as Roxbury Highland does here.

“They know you. They know your family. I’m sure they will be welcome to the residents of Jamaica Plain,” said at-large City Councilor Michael Flaherty, a longtime Mt. Washington depositor, praising the bank to the hilt.

“Let’s talk about what won’t change,” said Edward Merritt, president and chief executive officer of Mt. Washington. “What won’t change is you’ve got a merger of two organizations that have a very deep belief that to be a great community bank you have to be a great corporate citizen.”

“Our niche is being that touchy-feely community bank that people want to come in and bank with,” he said.

Both banks are cooperative or mutual, meaning they are owned by their depositors, who must approve the merger. The Roxbury Highland board of directors has unanimously approved the merger—another difference from 2003, when some dissented.

Roxbury Highland is arranging an informational meeting for depositors and hopes to complete the merger by late April. The depositors’ vote meeting is scheduled for Feb. 7 at the Curley School. [See JP Agenda.]

Federal and state banking regulators must also approval the deal.

Whether this deal goes through or not, some type of merger appears to be Roxbury Highland’s destiny. Various sources said the one-branch bank doesn’t have the resources to compete in today’s banking and regulatory environment.

“We knew something was going to happen eventually,” said state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez, who once worked in the banking industry. “Given the challenges that they were having, I didn’t see how they could stay [independent].”

“We’re a small bank, one location,” said Roxbury Highland board chair Thomas Carrigg. “It’s a very, very difficult environment to be in. As a small bank, we’re limited.”

With about $24 million in assets, Roxbury Highland is reportedly the second-smallest bank in the state. The industry publication “Banker & Tradesman” in 2006 noted that it is Boston’s smallest retail bank and described the many challeges to that role, including low deposits.

As confidential merger talks have occurred, Roxbury Highland has advertised itself as “the only independent bank in Jamaica Plain” and the “best kept secret in Boston.”

Even Rob Werner, a depositor who led the anti-merger campaign in 2003 and later became a board member, expressed resignation about the current proposal in a Gazette interview.

“I feel really bad about it because I think it’s more than a bank. It’s a community,” Werner said. “It had a nice run while it lasted. It’s a shame, like everything else—the world is becoming homogenized.

“All across the country, you drive around into malls, all the stores look the same. Little stores are gone. They can’t compete.

“I understand it. That’s the way it is,” he said.

All the same, the merger proposal promises that Werner’s two biggest fears—branch closure and staff firings—reportedly won’t come true.

“They’ve agreed to retain all employees from Roxbury Highland. There won’t be any layoffs,” said Wayne Gove, Roxbury Highland’s president and treasurer.

Retaining staff is especially important because of Roxbury Highland’s role in the Latino community, with bilingual staff and a history of providing loans and services to working-class immigrant families all the way back to JP’s brewery industry days.

“The Latinos are brand-loyal,” said Lopez, a Cuban native who has been a JP community activist for 30 years. “People love their El Banquito. That’s what they call it, El Banquito.”

“There are a lot of people who have been here for a long time who have been very loyal [to Roxbury Highland],” Sánchez said. “There are people in Hyde Square saying, ‘It was my first bank when I first came here from Cuba.’ It’s an emotional topic for people.”

Mt. Washington, which turns 115 this year, has a similar history of service. Still, Lopez said, he examined the bank carefully—including visits to its Southie and Dorchester branches to see how diverse the staff is.

“I had many questions about that,” Lopez said. “They’re not saying it—they’re doing it.”

Merger outreach

The 2003 proposal to merge with Peoples Federal Savings Bank—also a cooperative bank—was a disaster. On the evening of the depositor vote, the tiny Roxbury Highland building was packed with a crowd that spilled out onto the street. Many people chanted protest-style for the right to vote. Depositors voted the merger down 238-10.

After the vote, Werner acknowledged to the Gazette that the opposition he organized may have had more to do with the way the merger was presented than with its content. Many depositors found out about the merger only when a small legal notice clipped from a newspaper was taped to a wall in the bank lobby.

Bank directors are pledging a better process this time. While the early negotiations had to remain confidential, bilingual notification letters have gone out to depositors, and a bilingual informational meeting will be scheduled, likely for later this month, Carrigg said.

“We feel it is different this time around,” he said. “Communication, I think, is the key to everything.”

Asked about the previous merger controversy, Merritt said with a laugh, “I was very aware of that.” He said this situation is being handled differently, including early outreach to employees. Merritt also personally called various local elected officials shortly before a press release about the merger proposal went out.

“We’re going to be very open,” Merritt said.

Commitments

While communication was an issue in 2003, content was, too. Critics were skeptical that Peoples Federal, which already has a Centre Street branch, would keep Roxbury Highland’s location.

Board members said Roxbury Highland has frequently discussed various possible mergers in the following years, but took its time and chose Mt. Washington carefully.

“We wanted to go with someone who had the same vision as we do,” Carrigg said.

Merritt said Roxbury Highland approached Mt. Washington with the merger idea around last August.

“The board of that bank came to the conclusion…that to support the Jamaica Plain community, they needed to associate themselves with a larger, more sophisticated bank,” Merritt said, adding the important note that, “They wanted to merge with a bank that shared their values.”

Mt. Washington stood out by pledging to leave Roxbury Highland essentially the way it is, just with what Merritt calls a “more expansive product menu.”

On a larger scale, the bank has pledged to remain a Boston-only institution. Expansion is on its agenda, but only in Boston neighborhoods. Its most recent branch opening was in Codman Square.

“Our ultimate goal as a financial institution is to be Boston’s community bank,” Merritt said. “We’re not going to Brookline. We’re not going to Quincy. I think that our presence in Jamaica Plain [would be] a major step toward fulfilling that.”

Mt. Washington also agreed to add one of the former Roxbury Highland board members—yet to be determined—to its own board. Other board members would serve as advisors during the transition.

One of Roxbury Highland’s community ties is its Charitable Foundation and its local grants. It also stages the annual Kite Day event at Jamaica Pond.

Mt. Washington has its own charitable foundation. Founded in 2002, it has donated more than $1 million to scores of organizations in the bank’s area—part of a company policy of returning at least 10 percent of its income to the community.

Under the proposed merger, the Roxbury Highland Charitable Foundation would remain intact, just with more funding from Mt. Washington.

“Their commitment is going to be much larger than we could ever do,” said Gove. “They’ve made the commitment.”

Asked about Mt. Washington’s reputation in his home neighborhood of Southie, Flaherty quickly departed from prepared comments to deliver even higher praise. He called the bank’s community work “the best I’ve ever seen.”

“Ed Merritt is probably one of the finest individuals as a human being I’ve ever met,” Flaherty said. “In this day and age, with mergers and the volatile banking industry, to have an institution like Mt. Washington sticking to basics like good customer service—it’s almost like a throwback to the old days.”

“This is a perfect fit for what we want to do and a commitment to preserve what we want to preserve,” Lopez said. “It’s exactly the type of institution [where] you won’t feel like, ‘Oh, we’ve been gobbled up.’”