A Conversation with Tom Senecal, PeoplesBank’s new President

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PeoplesBank of Holyoke has been in the news a lot recently.

Last year, as the bank celebrated its 130th anniversary, the accolades kept pouring in. The Boston Globe declared the bank as a “Top Place to Work.” MassLive and the Republican’s readers voted it “the best mortgage lender,” and the Boston Business Journal singled the local institution out as a “Top Corporate Charitable Contributor.”

Though certainly impressive, for those familiar with the bank’s work, the praise wasn’t a surprise. PeoplesBank and the United Way of Pioneer Valley (UWPV) have long worked together to improve conditions for the region. Most recently they were among several area partners to launch three Thrive centers across Holyoke and Springfield—financial literacy learning centers that provide training and free tax preparation.

During a speech for the opening of one of the Thrive Centers, bank president Tom Senecal had noted how the bank’s commitment to the community—especially those who are most in need—is not a new chapter for them. It was, in fact, among the core reasons that the bank’s first president, Victorian-era industrialist William Skinner, had designated the institution as a mutual bank. He wanted to make certain they provided a pathway to financial stability for ordinary people.

“That being said, though,” Senecal said in a more recent interview with UWPV, “I want to make certain we’re looking to the future and not just to the past. When I think of PeoplesBank today, I think of innovation, technology, and providing customer service without friction. Looking at banking through the eyes of the customer. We’re always looking for ways to improve our online services and embrace new technologies. It’s important we stay ahead of the curve—stay innovative—in order to provide these products and services to our customers.

“Skinner was also very innovative for his time, but I think it’s important we maintain a balance—remembering what others brought to the institution, but also building off of that and keeping focused on the future.”

To that end, projects like Thrive are innovations Senecal embraces completely.

“Financial literacy is tremendously important to PeoplesBank and the community at large,” he said. “I’m passionate about it, and Thrive very much aligns with what we do. Being a community bank, it allows us to participate, understand and support the community” in a way that is meaningful.

Regardless of age or income level, financial literacy is a skill that everyone needs, Senecal said, adding with a laugh that there were people in his own family he thought could benefit from the courses Thrive offers.

Family is important to Senecal, and it’s a chief reason he lives in the Pioneer Valley.

“I was a Chicopee boy,” he said. “My Senecal roots go back quite a few generations in the Willimanset section of Chicopee. When I left high school, I went into the service. When I got out of the service, I went to UMass Amherst, and I graduated from the Isenberg School of Business. I came back to the area because it was my roots, I believe in this area.”

Asked what he thought accounted for his business being declared a top place to work, he was unequivocal: “An unbelievably engaged employee base.”

Elaborating, he said, “Doug [Bowen, Chairman and CEO] has fostered an organizational culture that is extremely employee engagement focused, and that appeals to me. I hope to continue that tradition of making sure our employees feel that way about this organization.”

He was quick to add, though, that what made PeoplesBank special wasn’t merely strong leadership.

“Our employees donate a tremendous amount of time volunteering—giving back to the community,” he said. “Our employees were recognized for being in the top ten in the state of Massachusetts, per capita, for employee donations. That’s not driven from the top down—as president of the bank, I can make large donations, but I can’t tell my employees what to give. That ranking from the Boston Business Journal is all up to them. That’s pretty cool.”

Hiring new employees who are similarly engaged and dedicated to the community has also been important. “It’s important everyone is part of the culture we’ve created here,” he said.

Asked to describe that culture, he responded, “Team-oriented. I read a book a while ago, Give and Take by Adam Grant. It measured the lives of people and organizations who were successful in life and tried to determine whether they were givers or takers. I believe PeoplesBank has a culture of givers. Not just financially, but they are generous with their time, their talent and willingness to collaborate.”

The United Way of Pioneer Valley has helped PeoplesBank channel some of this energy. Partaking in our annual Day of Caring event, over the past few years, the United Way has identified and organized volunteer opportunities for bank employees at Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, the Springfield Boys and Girls Club, YMCA of Greater Springfield, YMCA of Greater Westfield, and the Children’s Museum at Holyoke.

“People think of others before they think of themselves at PeoplesBank,” Senecal concluded. “It’s very different from anything I’ve seen at other organizations.”

— Mark Roessler

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