In an era of big, “too big to fail” banks, Danbury’s Union Savings Bank (USB) stands as proof that a steadfastly independent mutual bank can in its way be just as successful. For proof, look no farther than the fact that on June 20 it celebrated its 150th anniversary.
“Our commitment to mutuality certainly plays into it,” said USB President and CEO Cynthia C. Merkle. “Throughout our history, we have remained independent by focusing on three stakeholder groups: our customers, our community and our employees.”
To celebrate its sesquicentennial, USB has unleashed several events, including a birthday card contest for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, a summer concert series on the Danbury Green, and the unveiling on June 20 of a monument dedicated to the region’s hat-making industry, which dates back to the late 18th century.
That 6 1/2-foot tall bronze and steel monument, named the “Hat Maker,” was created by David Boyajian, a sculptor based in New Fairfield and an adjunct professor of art at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury.
About 100 people, including Mayor Mark Boughton, attended the ceremonial unveiling of the statue, the costs of which USB helped to underwrite.
“The Danbury Museum & Historical Society had put together a committee about a year ago to commission some kind of commemoration for the hat industry, which employed hundreds of people over the years and helped build Danbury,” Merkle said. “They then approached the city, which could not underwrite the cost by itself. The timing was perfect for us.”
According to the museum, Danbury — still known today by some as “Hat City” — at one time produced 25 percent of the hats sold in the U.S.
Named – possibly – for the fact that the Civil War had just ended in 1865 (“There’s still some debate over how the name came about,” Merkle allows), the bank was founded on June 20, 1866 and officially incorporated by the state legislature as The Union Savings Bank of Danbury on July 23 that same year. According to its records, the bank’s first branch opened within an existing store on Danbury’s Main Street and saw 355 accounts opened during its first year.
Though the “Danbury” was dropped over the years, the bank’s commitment to the area has remained consistent, she said. Following a 2010 merger with The First National Bank of Litchfield, the oldest nationally chartered bank in the state, USB currently employs 385 people in 26 branches around the state.
As part of its celebration, USB is encouraging branch managers to reach out to their customers via open-house “birthday parties” and to deploy “surprise initiatives,” which have included donating backpacks to children and donating money to a variety of non-profits as they see fit.
“We wanted them to be an organic part of the anniversary, instead of it being corporate-directed,” Merkle said, noting that the donations are not being publicized.
She added that USB has begun providing training programs for its younger employees in the lending, investing and management fields.
“That will keep us vibrant and relevant,” she declared. “We’ve been fortunate over the past few years to attract a lot of employees from larger banks who wanted to be in an environment where they feel they can make a difference.”
Merkle estimated that around 30 percent of USB’s current workforce is comprised of millennials, and that she will be hosting a “Millennial Luncheon” in her office soon for input. “They have different thought processes about their careers and how we can stay relevant,” she said.
Noting that the bank recently joined Twitter, she added that a fully digital campaign aimed at prospective customers was “unbelievably successful. From the end of April to now, we had 1.2 million views of our digital ads. We would not have had that kind of reach with a billboard.”
USB is also doubling down on growing its small commercial business, she added. “It’s not just about a small business customer coming in tomorrow for a loan,” she said, “but about building relationships with people we can work with for the months and years ahead.”