CEO Spotlight: Robert Fraser, MountainOne Bank's president and CEO

CEO Spotlight: Robert Fraser, MountainOne Bank's president and CEO

PITTSFIELD — The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted traditional work habits in most every job sector.

Take banking, for example. At MountainOne Bank, half of the North Adams-based mutual holding company's 165 total employees are currently working remotely.

But Robert Fraser, MountainOne Bank's president and CEO, said the firm, which includes banking, insurance and investment divisions, has handled the transition.

"We're in an industry of change, so we're used to a lot of it," he said. Although, he acknowledged that "the velocity of this change was unprecedented."

Fraser joined MountainOne Bank in 2007, and became president and CEO of the holding company in 2014. He had previously served as president and CEO of South Coastal Bank in Rockland, which is now a MountainOne subsidiary.

We talked with Fraser recently about the changes the banking industry has gone through since the pandemic began, the role that community banks play in an area like the Berkshires, and why he has supported the New England Patriots since before they began winning Super Bowls.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the banking industry and how has MountainOne adapted to that?

A: It's been a constant change. When I look back at mid-March, we were all somewhat under the impression that this was short-term in nature and we were incredibly proactive both internally and externally. Internally, setting up our employees to work from home. ... Early on, communicating with customers about loan deferrals and programs that we set up before some of the government programs were announced like the Paycheck Protection Program. So it was a tsunami of stimulus and triage.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: All these programs all at once, all geared towards helping out our customers and our consumers and the economy. We were like everybody else going gangbusters to adapt to the changing environment.

Q: How hard has it been to adapt?

A: I think we've done very well at it. I miss the interpersonal side. I miss seeing people in our buildings. I miss the fact that there's a potential to lose collegiality with so many people working remotely as well as the lobbies not being open right now. I'm hoping that changes. But we're an industry of change, so we're used to a lot of it. However, the velocity of this change was unprecedented.

Q: What changes do you think will stay in effect after the pandemic ends?

A: I believe that as customers continue to get more comfortable with technology that they'll continue to use it. They're finding out how convenient it is for them. ... I think we're going to have a balance within our own organization in terms of who comes back and when they come back. Some functions have to be done on site. However, a lot of functions can be done at home. So that provides some opportunities for employees to manage their work/life balance a little more effectively.

Q: Will the effects of the pandemic change the way a community bank operates in the community?

A: I'd change that question around a little bit, rephrase it and say, "Do you think the way a community bank operates has given it an opportunity to really demonstrate its value at a time like this?" The answer is, I think, a resounding yes. It is very evident to me that the community banking industry really came through for its customers in a much stronger fashion than the big banks did at the onset of this pandemic.

Q: In what way?

A: When times are good, a big bank is great. When times are tough, you really should be with a community bank because we know you. We know who the decision-makers are. We care. We can't just move over to a different product line or a different geography. We're going to stick to our communities and help the people in our communities and work with everybody to get through this time.

Q: Why did you go into banking?

A: I graduated from UMass-Amherst in 1981. It was a tough economic period, interest rates were in the mid-20s, I couldn't get a job. I started out as a teller for Bay Bank Norfolk in Dedham. ... Once I got into it, I really liked it. Then I ended up in a commercial loan development program and became a commercial lender for most of my career.

Q: Had you ever been to the Berkshires before working for MountainOne?

A: Sure, a couple of times. When I was a kid they used to ship me out to Bellefontaine (now part of Canyon Ranch in Lenox) for camp. ... I've learned to have a greater affinity for the area over the past 13 years.

Q: Why has MountainOne financed so many outside-of-the-box Berkshire projects, like Hotel on North in Pittsfield and Tourists hotel in North Adams?

A: Quite simply, I think we have a responsibility to work with the business community to really effectuate positive change. We want to be a difference-maker.

Q: Why did MountainOne build its financial center at the William Stanley Business Park in 2012 when no one else would go there?

A: The organization was looking to establish a presence in Pittsfield and our insurance agency had just acquired another insurance agency in Pittsfield. ... It was an opportunity again to invest in the area, and our actions speak louder than words. To have a presence in the William Stanley Business Park, that was a statement. MountainOne was investing in Pittsfield and we were going to be part of the stimulus in developing that business park and making a significant commitment to the community as a business owner and real estate owner in Pittsfield.

Q: But no one followed you there until recently.

A: I'll be honest, we were disappointed there really hasn't been any development there over the years, but now we're incredibly excited the Berkshire Innovation Center is up. That type of entry, along with Lever (a business accelerator in North Adams) are the types of organizations that we believe are working to bring a real positive change to the Berkshire community and we're very supportive of them.

Q: What are MountanOne's current plans for growth?

A: Our focus right now is on organic growth. ... There's a lot of work to be done organically before we think about any other type of growth.

Q: You were a Patriots season ticket-holder before Bob Kraft owned the team.

A: Yeah, I was at the games when they weren't on TV. ... Although the stadium (the former Schaefer Stadium) was a dump, I did have good seats. ... And you were surrounded by true fans versus the bandwagon of success.

Q: Will it be strange watching the Pats play without Tom Brady?

A: Absolutely. It will be very different. ... For a generation that doesn't know what it's like to be unpredictable or not as consistent, it will be a learning curve for all those fans, which is basically like my kids. All they've known is winning. ... We'll see who the true fans are.