PITTSFIELD — As part of its new banking strategy, Berkshire Bank’s holding company announced Wednesday that it plans to lend and invest $5 billion over the next three years to help strengthen the communities that are located across its five-state footprint.
The initiative, titled “BEST Community Comeback,” will distribute the $5 billion through strategic, focused investments and programs across four key areas: fueling small businesses, community financing and philanthropy, financial access and empowerment, and funding environmental sustainability.
To break down the money further, $2.5 billion is targeted for mortgage lending and lending in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods; $1.5 billion is for small-business lending; $300 million will go toward environmental initiatives that include lending for low-carbon projects and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions; and $15 million is for community contributions. The remaining money will be spread throughout the program.
Investments in specific geographic areas are yet to be announced, but Berkshire County is expected to be a significant beneficiary of the new program, bank officials said.
“We’re enhancing the level of investment in our communities through this plan by roughly 60 to 70 percent,” said Gary Levante, vice president and corporate social responsibility officer for Berkshire Hills Bancorp. “Sixty to 70 percent is above and beyond what we’ve done in the past. So, it’s going to mean a significant increase in dollars that we’re investing and lending in the Berkshires compared to a similar three-year period from 2018 to 2020.”
With the exception of its branch network and frontline workers, the majority of Berkshire Bank’s workforce still is located in the Berkshires and centered around Pittsfield, where the bank’s administrative headquarters is located, bank officials have said.
“So, while we do not have, at this point, specific targets for every single community, what I can say with confidence is that our levels of lending and reinvestment are going to be commensurate with the size of our operation and the size of our customer base in those communities,” Levante said.
BEST stands for Berkshire’s Exciting Strategic Transformation, a plan that the bank’s new CEO, Nitin J. Mhatre first revealed to investors in May, as a way of turning around the 175-year-old regional bank’s recent financial struggles.
“When we unveiled our plan plan back in May, we talked about improving our financial performance, enhancing our customer satisfaction, digitizing our operations and becoming one of the leading socially responsible banks in the country,” Levante said. “What we announced today is really that plan translated into the community impact that we’re going to have on places like Pittsfield and Berkshire County and places across our market.”
In a statement, Mhatre said the new initiative highlights “our purpose, delivers on our vision and will empower our communities to reach their full potential.
“We believe that building stronger communities requires a better approach to banking,” said Mhatre, who became CEO in January.
The money for small businesses also includes targeted programming, like financial coaching and technical assistance, community financing and philanthropy, including $15 million in community contributions and $50 million for socially responsible investments under management.
Under financial inclusion and access, $200 million has been set aside for minority mortgage borrowers. Under the bank’s previous CEO, Richard Marotta, Berkshire Bank had begun a plan to target traditionally underserved banking populations. In an interview this year, Mhatre told The Eagle that Berkshire Bank intended to pursue that strategy laid out by Marotta and the bank’s former executive vice president/chief experience and culture office Malia Lazu, but in a different way.
The initiative announced Wednesday is expected to impact 300,000 people with financial wellness programming and create 200,000 socially responsible customer bank accounts.
“I don’t think this is necessarily different,” Levante said when asked to compare the two plans. “This plan is an enhancement, one where we’re putting specific dollars and goals and targets around each of these areas.
“So, rather than just say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do financial access and inclusion’, we’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to affect 300,000 people with that programming,’” he said.
“And rather than say we’re going to give our loans to undersourced and minority populations, we’re going to say we’re going to give $200 million in mortgages for minority homebuyers and help them realize the dream of homeownership.”