PITTSFIELD — Chuck Leach didn't take the typical route to his current position.
Leach, the president and CEO of Lee Bank since July 2015, prepped for his role by working for many years in wealth management, a financial sector he says isn't the traditional road taken by those planning to head financial institutions.
But, taking a different path is part of Leach's nature.
The native of Farmington, Conn., majored in government at Colby College, and he attended the Institute for European Studies, an academic think tank in Belgium, as an undergrad, before deciding to make banking his career.
He has competed as a cyclist several times in the annual Josh Billings RunAground triathlon, finishing the bike leg for his team, Minkler Insurance, in 2018, despite losing a pedal during the race. How many bank presidents can say that?
We spoke with Leach recently about the route he took to become a bank president, how the current economic downturn has affected community banks, compared with the Great Recession, the reason Lee Bank invested in the activation of Pittsfield's ShotSpotter technology, and his team's hopes of winning the Josh this year.
Q How does a government major end up being a banker? Did you consider politics after college?
A At the time when I went to college, I was interested in a variety of different fields, which is, obviously, why I went to a liberal arts college. I was thinking about law school at the time, also business, just keeping all my options open. That's really what I hope liberal arts is for, I think.
Q So, why did you choose banking?
A I think I've always been intrigued by what makes businesses tick, what makes businesses successful or not successful. That led me to pursue my MBA [at the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University in California].
The crux of an MBA is really studying companies. My MBA program had a heavy emphasis on case studies, really looking at examples of successful and examples of unsuccessful businesses. I think you apply that not only in terms of whom we lend to, but also how we devise our own strategy for Lee Bank as we try to be as successful as we can possibly be.
Q Why did you enter the field through wealth management?
A I moved back to the area [Berkshire County, in 1999] to work for an investment firm. Again, that's all part of being analytical about what makes companies successful or not successful. So, that kind of naturally leads you into the investment management space, and from there I ended working in the investment arena within banks.
That starts to spread more in wealth management, and financial planning and relationship management. So, it was what ended up for me being a very, very good progression and segue for me, kind of expanding beyond investments but just overall to looking after someone else's well-being. That's really what wealth management is.
Taking it a step further, the interesting thing about leading a community bank is that we're actually investors in our community. No one really thinks of it that way, but we're deploying capital into our community. So, that requires sort of the same degree of analytical rigor as it does being an investment adviser.
Q What are the similarities between wealth management and running a community bank?
A To me, I think one of the most significant similarities is just treating people's financial position and their financial situation with a high degree of care. That's always the approach that I brought in wealth management.
This is very much sacred ground. People aren't just a black box, and when you get into community banking, especially at a mutual savings bank, it's very similar. People shouldn't be treated like a number. Every case should be treated with a great degree of care. There should be a relationship built with that person.
Q That's an interesting approach to running a bank.
A On the surface, I know I was a very unorthodox candidate to lead Lee Bank. The DNA of your typical bank president is that they kind of came up through commercial lending, or they came up through finance. But, I came in from a completely different field.
Q Was your goal to be a bank president?
A Honestly, it was not. I hadn't really considered it until the opportunity presented itself to me. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized what a great opportunity it was to continue to progress, to challenge myself, to make myself a little bit uncomfortable as I pursued something that was out of the range of what I had done for the past 20 years.
I think most importantly, it was the opportunity to kind of make a difference.
I was working for a much larger bank [Berkshire Bank] that was pursuing an expansion strategy, and I'm more aligned with customers and employees than I am with shareholders, so, it really was very much in my wheelhouse to work for a mutual savings bank.
Q Did you need to make a lot of adjustments?
A There was a huge learning curve. People who have been brought up in banking in commercial banking, or on the branch side or in compliance or finance, there's a vernacular there that goes on. ...
I always knew that out of the corner of my eye while working in wealth management, but I really had never been right in the thick of it. So, I had to learn all that from running a board meeting, to really understanding the plumbing of a bank. ...
I'm going to be honest, there were points of uncertainty for me. But, that was kind of the point, and I kind of made my way through it. And that's the benefit of a liberal arts education. You do know how to learn new things, and it came at the right point in my life. I was ready to take on this challenge.
Q What are the challenges that community banks face coming out of the pandemic? Are there any comparisons to what happened during the Great Recession, when lots of community banks merged to survive or were bought up by bigger banks?
A I can tell you that, a year ago, the veterans of banking that I work with said this feels a lot like '08-'09. We're very concerned.
The difference, I think, was the federal government and banks in general were more agile, they responded much more quickly. Although we were very aggressive with our reserve, we really haven't had any asset quality issues [bad loans or credit complications].
Very importantly, as you probably remember, there was a hangover coming out of '08-'09 that lasted for four or five years in terms of investment and risk taking. It really rattled people.
I think people are still shaken by this, but I feel a great sense of optimism right now, particularly for Berkshire County. I think the influx of people coming here, the appeal of an area like this right now, there's a lot of positive things happening. I think that's an enormous difference.
Q Lee Bank recently established a $5 million foundation to donate funds to the community. Why did your bank give the city of Pittsfield $5,000 so the Police Department could activate its ShotSpotter system four years ago?
A I went up and listened to the pitch from ShotSpotter, and I just thought that, as a community bank, it was something that we should do to try and assist Chief [Michael] Wynn and Pittsfield Police and to make things safer.
I feel that as a stakeholder in downtown Pittsfield [where Lee Bank has a branch], that it was something that we should do. ...
I had some selling to do with the board on that one. But, it made sense. ... I hope it's helping.
Q Minkler Insurance finished fourth overall in the Josh in 2019. Are you going to win it all this year?
A The team is going to be back. I'm getting older, so, the likelihood that I can help that team is very low, unfortunately. Tim [team leader Tim Minkler] does recruit a really fast, young runner every year, so, maybe that gives us a fighting chance.