When Christopher Gruseke was asked to become president and CEO of New Canaan-based Bankwell Financial Group in 2015, he feared that his investment banking background did not guarantee a seamless transition into retail banking.
“It wasn’t the most intuitively obvious job for me to take at the time,” he recalled. “I ran a much bigger balance sheet when I was running a big sales and trading operation nationally — it was either $100 billion or $150 billion — but when I took over here it was $1 billion.”
At the time, Bankwell was facing a significant crisis in leadership. Peyton Patterson, the previous CEO, resigned in August 2014 following media reports that she was being sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid debts to credit card companies, country clubs and contractors. Gruseke, a former managing director of CRT Capital Group and co-COO at Greenwich Capital Markets, was no stranger to Bankwell. He was an initial investor and director of Bankwell Financial Group’s predecessors, BNC Financial Group Inc. and The Bank of New Canaan. While he admitted surprise at being chosen for the top spot at the community bank, his colleagues on the board of directors had faith in his ability to take the reins. “I knew all of the people (on the board) and they knew me, and they knew what they were getting, and I knew what they were like,” he said. “When you have a board and CEO that can work together like that, it is good.”
After taking the leadership role at Bankwell, Gruseke launched into meetings with investors and research analysts to assure them that the publicly traded company was moving beyond the scandal that rocked its C-suite. But the meetings that Gruseke savored were the conversations with Bankwell customers.
“The business I used to do in institutional sales and trading was highly impersonal,” he said. “What appealed to me was meeting the customers. A little old lady called me on my first week on the job — she wanted to talk to the CEO. I talked to her. I had a blast — and I went over to her house for tea a year later. You don’t get to do that in investment banking.”
Today, Bankwell under Gruseke’s leadership has $1.6 billion in assets and reported a record net income of approximately $12.4 million in 2016. Its net loans at the close of 2016 stood at approximately $1.3 billion, total deposits at approximately $1.3 billion and shareholders’ equity at approximately $145.9 million, according to the bank’s annual report. It has nine branches in Fairfield and New Haven counties and about 125 employees.
In April, Bankwell was named among 2016’s top 100 best-performing community banks by S&P Global Market Intelligence — the only Connecticut financial institution cited in that ranking.
For Gruseke, the wonder in being an active participant in his community’s business environment has never abated, and he has no nostalgia for his former financial career.
“Instead of seeing a pool of mortgages — thousands and thousands of them going into a hypothetical box and cutting them up — you see the actual application and the project and the people who are spending the money,” he said. “It’s more hands-on.”
Gruseke sees Bankwell operating in a challenging economic environment.
“When you talk about Connecticut, you really have two states: you have Fairfield County and you have the rest of the state,” he said. “It is not necessarily a good thing — people who are not in Fairfield County know that the people in Fairfield County feel that way. The business environment in Fairfield County is healthier than in the rest of the state.”
However, Gruseke noted, many Fairfield County residents who were working on Wall Street at the time of the 2008 crash found their careers propelled into trajectories that resulted in financial problems that were never satisfactorily resolved. Complicating matters, he added, was a local housing market that has yet to recover pre-recession pricing highs and a state tax code that seems to be encouraging emigration among its more prosperous residents.
“Anybody over my age is trying to figure out where to move in order to avoid the death tax here,” he said glumly.
Regarding Bankwell’s near future, Gruseke cited a pair of concerns that keep him busy. The first involves regulatory oversight, both on the state level — he is awaiting approval from the Connecticut Department of Banking to proceed with the opening of a new branch in Darien — and at the federal level with dramatically increased paperwork related to the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act.
“I am told they are doubling the number of entries,” he said of federal banking regulators. “Which means we will have to hire somebody for that. No one is going to start spending less money on compliance.”
There is also the challenge of both attracting new customers and maintaining existing customers in an environment with a surplus of banking options.
“There are two types of institutions that always have their customers mad at them — the cable TV providers and the banks,” Gruseke said. “No one wants to call the cable guy and no wants to call the bank. So, when people call (Bankwell), they are talking to a voice they know and are not on an 800 line in another state. That is the competitive edge.”
“Great customer service results in the customer saying, ‘Thank you, I am going to send you my friends,’” said Gruseke. “You have to lead with good old-fashioned customer service to make sure you are the best.”