On the heels of debuting a new location in Ocean County to close out 2022, Unity Bank said Feb. 6 it opened its latest branch in Bergen County.
The 1,890-square-foot facility at 899 Palisades Ave. in Fort Lee is the Clinton-based organization’s 20th branch location.
According to Unity Bank, the new store enhances its retail presence in the county, which already boasts one branch in Emerson.
“We are committed to Bergen County and Fort Lee is a natural fit to our footprint,” Unity Bank President and CEO James Hughes said in a statement. “Banking services at the branch level are increasingly important to our customers, particularly small business owners who still, even in the age of electronic banking, rely on branches.
The facility, which was previously occupied by ConnectOne Bank, offers dedicated parking in addition to drive-up banking and ATM services.
Unity Bank Senior Vice President/Chief Depository Officer Ryan Peene leads the development of the new Fort Lee branch and all of the company’s retail banking operations. He is well known in the area, according to Unity, thanks to leadership roles on the City of Hoboken Planning Board and Greater Bergen Community Action. The team also includes: Franca Fabrizio, area manager; Sunita Pereira, operations manager; Vince Forma, commercial lender; Kathleen Hay, SBA lender; and Nicholas Aversa and Pasquale Grande, mortgage lenders.
In December, Unity made its retail entrance to the Ocean County market. There, the Lakewood branch location is based within a commercial and residential lending office that opened earlier in 2022. The primary and wholly owned subsidiary of Unity Bancorp. Inc. now operates in Bergen, Hunterdon, Middlesex, Ocean, Somerset, Union and Warren counties in New Jersey and in Northampton County, Pa.
As of Sept. 30, 2022, the most-recent information available, Unity held approximately $2.4 billion in assets and $1.8 billion in deposits.
“Unity is committed to supporting small businesses and families,” said Hughes. “The new branches are bringing our full suite of products and services to the local marketplace. We are helping launch small businesses, grow existing companies and enable families to purchase a house, or put an addition on their existing home.”
Community banks are at a crossroads. Particularly coming out of the pandemic, with its boost in the adoption of digital processes and conveniences in all facets of life, the time to innovate or suffer the consequences – namely, consolidation or closure – is nigh. According to the CSBS 2022 National Survey of Community Banks, the percentage of bankers who said that adopting new tech was “extremely important” doubled over the past three years. In New Jersey, a number of such institutions are finding success by adding new technologies, expanding their physical presence and broadening their services to retain customers and appeal to new ones.
Approaching its 100th birthday, Glen Rock-based Ascendia Bank faced a clear choice when it came to committing to change. “We basically … had to realize that at this stage of the game, if we were going to continue to be relevant, we needed to do all of the things that the big banks do,” Ascendia President and CEO Ferdinand Viaud told NJBIZ.
So, over the course of the past 15 months or so, the former Glen Rock Savings Bank – which debuted its new moniker in September 2021 – has embarked on a transformation. “[W]hat we did was not only change our look and our name, but also the way we do things,” Viaud said.
A lot of those changes are rooted in technology; among them, the chief executive cited a new user-friendly website with more information, a bill-pay system and mobile banking that were “only the beginning.” This month, he said Ascendia plans to roll out a number of additional capabilities, including the ability to file a mortgage application or apply for a home equity loan online, without having to make a trip to the bank. For larger institutions, these practices are typically already baked in. “For a bank of our size, to be able to offer these services to the public is something we’re very proud of,” Viaud said.
And Ascendia isn’t the only institution coming to that realization. According to the 2022 community banking research report from consulting and accounting firm Wipfli LLP, nearly half (48%) of survey respondents agreed with the statement: “Our bank has very clear objectives and a path forward to digital transformation.”
For most, according to the report, that looks like payment transactions, followed closely by faster loan approvals or account openings, and virtual branches; a little more than a third defined that transformation as offering digital financial advisory services. While adopting and incorporating tech into operations is at the forefront of transformation in the community banking space, and seemingly integral to its survival, on the surface it appears to be at odds with these institutions’ role as pillars of, well, the community.
These new conveniences, however, coupled with the physical presence inherent in the community banking model, can be a boon to operators, appealing to customers who may be without a local location to frequent, should the occasion arise. According to S&P Global Market Intelligence data, in 2021, the number of U.S. branch net closings was nearly 3,000 – more than two times what it was in 2014 (1,398) and up by 801 from 2020. Among the highest-ranking net closures of bank branches in 2021, S&P found, were familiar national brands like Wells Fargo & Co. (at No. 1), Bank of America Corp., PNC Financial Services Group Inc. and M&T Bank Corp., among others.
In contrast, according to Wipfli, only 17% of community banks reported closing branches in 2021. And most had forecast growth for 2022.
Last month, Unity Bank of Clinton announced the opening of a new full-service branch in Lakewood, marking its expansion into Ocean County. In a statement issued at the time, bank President and CEO James Hughes spoke to the way community banks can fill the vacuum left when other financial institutions shut their doors. “Ocean County has lost almost 25% of its bank branches in the past decade and county officials are concerned that senior citizens in the county are underserved by the current population of banks,” he said.
This month, the bank plans to open another new branch in North Jersey, in Fort Lee.
Over the next 12 months, Viaud said that Ascendia is looking to open up one – or possibly two – new branches. In November, as a birthday present to itself and to accommodate current and future growth, it moved into a new headquarters space in Glen Rock, allowing the bank to consolidate teams in one central location.
In addition to that office, Ascendia Bank has four branches: one each in Glen Rock and Hawthorne and two in West Orange. As of Sept. 30, 2022, the most recent information available, Ascendia had $329 million in total assets and $260 million in total domestic deposits. When the bank first got to work on its growth initiatives it had “a little over $270 million in assets,” Viaud said. “So, it’s been very well received.”
He credited the bank’s board of directors for its support.
“[They] understand that if the bank is going to continue to grow – and again, I keep using the term – be relevant, we have to provide these services,” he said. “This is just the way of the world. And if you don’t, you’re going to eventually go away, you know, and we don’t want to do that.”
In addition to making the banking experience better for existing customers, transformative efforts on the part of community banks also aim to entice new patrons. Beyond new spaces and technology, that also includes new services.
One of the areas that Viaud said has been a real boost to business is commercial and real estate lending—a customer-facing service that is based in Ascendia’s new headquarters. According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., community banks account for just 15% of the banking industry’s total loans; however, in contrast to their relative size, they hold 30% of all CRE loans, 36% of small business loans and 70% of agricultural loans.
“In the last 12 months, our commercial lending department has put on more than $60 million worth of commercial real estate loans — and this was something four years ago that we had never done,” Viaud explained. The change was prompted by leadership’s recognition “that we needed to branch out into other things in order to make the bank more profitable.” Now, the commercial lending department is comprised of a five-person team, with another member set to come on board shortly. “And we are continuing to grow in that area,” Viaud added.
For Unity Bank, the establishment of its Lakewood branch followed the opening of a commercial and residential lending office at the Ocean County outpost earlier in 2022.
“Our commercial and residential lending team has made significant inroads serving the unmet needs of the local community so the new branch is a logical extension of these efforts,” Hughes explained at the time. “Lakewood has been the fastest growing municipality in the state so this new branch makes good sense for the community and Unity.”
Staying keen to the needs of the community is one way that community banks distinguish themselves among potential customers, but big-name banks aren’t the only competitors they have to worry about.
“The competition is coming from all different types of business,” Viaud said. That includes the “big money center banks,” along with credit unions, insurance companies and larger regional players — like Columbia Bank, Spencer Savings Bank or Kearny Bank, for example.
“These are all four, five, six, $10 billion banks and every day we have to compete with them,” Viaud added, “so in order to continue to be successful … not only for the current periods and in the present – I’m looking 10 to 15 years down the road when I pass this along to someone else – that we want the bank to be in good shape and continue to be prosperous going forward.”
That foresight is integral to staying power.
Ascendia updates its strategic plan every three years, according to Viaud, and in 2018 there was a number that stuck out: 66. That was the average age of the bank’s customer at the time, which the executive pointed out, does not leave much room for future success. “And if you want to attract younger customers, you need to offer the convenience that younger people are looking for,” he said.
“They never have to step foot in the bank if they don’t want to, and that’s the world we live in,” Viaud added. “And if you don’t embrace that business demographic, it’s just going to pass you by and eventually your deposit base and your customer base goes away ….”
But if you’re going to talk the talk, you have to be able to walk the walk. Beyond just updating branding or providing digital capabilities, when it comes to achieving real change, “It’s a mindset,” Viaud said.
“[I]t would’ve been very easy for us to just sit back for the next 20 years and continue to do what we were doing, but eventually the customer base would’ve shrunk. The bank would’ve gotten itself into a situation where it couldn’t remain relevant in the marketplace anymore. And it would’ve eventually been merged into another bank somewhere.”
“The competition and merger activity in the state of New Jersey in the banking industry is very intense,” Viaud said. “The number of banks continues to drop as mergers continue to happen. … And every time that happens, the number of banks that we could possibly do something with goes away, so the number of opportunities continues to go away.”
And while that growth path works for some, the volume of activity in the space also helps to encourage the more organic options players like Ascendia have employed, which also offer additional security. As economic headwinds persist moving into 2023, Viaud said that, so far, Ascendia has been able to carve out a niche for itself that helps to abate anxiety around those issues.
“We were concerned when rates started to rise that we would see that business start to dry up a little bit and slow down,” he said, but “that hasn’t been the case.”
“I think where it comes from is that as long as you are competitively priced – and we kind of found a niche in that the big banks – the city banks, Wells Fargo’s, Bank of America’s – aren’t interested in making that loan to a builder that’s looking to build four or five homes — that loan isn’t big enough for them,” he said. “We found a niche in picking up those type of businesses where they want to cash out on their existing properties to build new homes.
“Those are the types of loans that we’ve been doing and we have found no shortage of business to make those loans,” he added.
In addition to the other developments and new services, committing to operating in that sort of capacity is directly tied to not just Ascendia’s role and roots as a community institution, but to the overarching nature of the sector, and its future success.
“And that’s exactly the way we thought about it,” Viaud said. “Those big guys can take those big loans, that’s not what we’re around to do. We are here to lend in our communities and to make sure that our communities are well served with their financial needs,” he said. “And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.”
In a Dec. 5 press release, Unity said the location now provides the full scope of local banking services in an area that has lost about a quarter of its bank branches over the past decade.
After noting concerns that senior citizens in Ocean County are underserved by the current population of banks, Unity Bank President and Chief Executive Officer James Hughes said, “Our commercial and residential lending team has made significant inroads serving the unmet needs of the local community so the new branch is a logical extension of these efforts. Lakewood has been the fastest growing municipality in the state so this new branch makes good sense for the community and Unity.”
Unity also announced plans to open a branch at 899 Palisades Ave. in Fort Lee next month, growing the bank’s presence in Bergen County.
Details of grand opening events for both locations will be revealed next month, Unity said.
A wholly owned subsidiary of Clinton-based Unity Bancorp Inc., Unity Bank provides financial services to retail, corporate and small business customers at 19 branches in Bergen, Hunterdon, Middlesex, Somerset, Union and Warren counties in New Jersey, as well as Northampton County, Pa.
According to Unity, the bank holds about $2.3 billion in assets and $1.8 billion in deposits.
Hughes said, “Community banks are an engine for economic growth in the areas where they operate. During a time when large banks are closing branches, and other community banks are consolidating, we are expanding our commitment to the local marketplace to bring our full suite of products and services to small businesses and consumers in Ocean and Bergen Counties. We are providing capital for small businesses looking to open their first store, grow their business and hire more employees as well as families looking to purchase a house, or put an addition on their existing home. The heart of our business is seamless, easy to use deposit accounts with simple payment platforms and a commitment to excellent customer service.”
Garden State banking industry veteran Ryan Peene joined Unity Bank as senior vice president and chief depository officer.
In the new role, Peene is tasked with leading development and executing the Clinton-based financial services organization’s retail banking operations, according to an Oct. 20 announcement, in addition to being responsible for growth and retention of municipal deposit relations.
“We are excited to welcome Ryan to the Unity Bank family,” Unity Bank President and CEO James Hughes said in a statement. “He is an accomplished finance executive with expertise in community, commercial and government banking. Ryan has been successful developing and cultivating strong relationships throughout the state and we look forward to his continued success with Unity.”
Peene also has experience serving as a consultant with MBI Public Affairs.
Outside of the office, Unity Bank highlighted his work as a commissioner of the City of Hoboken’s Planning Board, where he served as vice chairman from 2017-2019. He is a current member and treasurer of the board of directors of Greater Bergen Community Action and a board member of the Waterfront Project in Jersey City, which offers free legal services to people in need.
The 2019 NJBIZ Forty Under 40 honoree is a member of the NJBankers Government Relations committee; an honorary member of the Hudson County Chiefs of Police Association; former member of the New Jersey Council on Local Mandates; and served as a trustee on the board of Bergen Catholic High School from 2012-2015, Unity Bank said.
Earlier this year, Unity Bank, whose parent company was added as a member of the U.S. small-cap Russell 2000 Index over the summer, brought on a new chief lending officer, Jim Donovan.
Unity Bank has 19 branches across New Jersey and the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. And on July 12, the Clinton-based institution announced its parent company was added as a member of the U.S. small-cap Russell 2000 Index.
Unity Bancorp Inc.’s one-year membership was effective June 27 as part of the 2022 Russell indexes reconstitution.
“We are extremely pleased to have been added as a member of the Russell 2000 Index as it illustrates Unity’s continued financial strength and performance,” said Unity Bank President and CEO James Hughes in a statement.
“We measure the bank’s performance on both financial metrics and Unity’s ability to come together with our customers to fulfill their needs and deliver extraordinary service,” he continued. “The bank’s mission is to grow with the communities we serve and the dedication of Unity’s employees and the loyalty and trust of our customers help the bank achieve those goals everyday.”
According to Unity Bank, the company’s stock – trading at $27.26 as of 3:20 p.m. EDT on July 12 – was also automatically added to the appropriate growth and value indexes. The institution holds approximately $2.1 billion in assets and $1.8 billion in deposits.
The Russell Indexes are designed to reflect an ever-changing market. With a focus on U.S. small businesses, the Russell 2000 is regarded as a bellwether of the nation’s economy. Accordingly, the reconstitution helps to ensure accurate representation through a redefinition of breakpoints between large-, mid- and small-cap and a revaluation of companies.
Membership in the Russell 2000 Index is based upon inclusion in the broad-market Russell 3000 Index.
Russell indexes are widely used by investment managers and institutional investors for index funds and as benchmarks for active investment strategies. Approximately $12 trillion in assets are benchmarked against Russell’s U.S. indexes. Russell indexes are part of FTSE Russell, a leading global index provider.
Read more about Unity Bank’s growing team and operations:
Unity Bank is bringing a new executive with 35 years of experience in financial services leadership to the community bank.
Jim Donovan was announced as chief lending officer for Clinton-based Unity on May 9.
“I am thrilled and honored to join Unity Bank’s team,” Donovan said. “I look forward to leading the bank’s lending team in partnership with management to provide outstanding commercial banking services to small businesses and companies of all sizes. We will build on Unity’s strong history of success in business banking and continue to drive growth and sustainability for our investors, employees, customers and communities.”
Donovan’s previous experience includes serving as a senior vice president with Bryn Mawr Trust and a group vice president with M&T Bank.
“Jim Donovan is an accomplished leader with a commitment to banking excellence and we are pleased to have him join our management team,” said Unity President and CEO James Hughes in a statement. “He has an impressive background guiding and developing teams and achieving measurable goals, which will be valuable as our small business lending program continues to grow.
“We look forward to Jim’s future success with Unity,” he added.
According to Unity Bank, Donovan started his banking career as a credit analyst with Corestates Bank and also served as vice president and commercial relationship manager with Meridian Bank. He is active in his local community of Newton Square, Pa., serving as a Schuylkill Chamber of Commerce board past president; Eagle Foundation board member; Big Brothers Big Sisters of Harrisburg board member; Junior Achievement of South Central PA treasurer; and United Way of Schuylkill County board member.
Phillipsburg resident Alvita Ayers has been promoted at Unity Bank.
The Clinton-based financial institution recently announced Ayers’ elevation to vice president and SBA manager. In the new role, she will work to expand Unity Bank‘s Small Business Administration loan portfolio and to meet new and existing customer needs.
“Alvita has been a valuable member of the Unity family for eight years so we are thrilled to announce her promotion,” said Unity Bank President and CEO James Hughes in a statement. “She is a business lending veteran who brings significant experience to her new role.
“Unity has long been one of the most active SBA lenders among community banks and we are confident the program will continue to enjoy success in the future,” he added.
Ayers has more than three decades of experience in the industry; she joined the bank’s SBA and commercial lending teams in 2014, having previously held a variety of roles at different regional and national banks.
Unity Bank is a preferred lender in the SBA’s primary offerings for startups and small businesses, the 7(a) Loan Program, which can help obtain financing when that option isn’t available through normal lending channels. The bank said it also takes part in the SBA 504 Loan Program, which offers long-term, fixed-rate loans to small businesses so that they can acquire fixed assets to aid their expansion or modernization.
“I am looking forward to this opportunity to lead and grow the Unity SBA lending program,” Ayers said. “We can match businesses with the right program to assist businesses and, as a preferred lender, can approve loans without prior SBA review and help business owners get the money they need quickly.”
Unity Bank opened a new commercial and residential lending office in Ocean County, marking its southernmost location in the state.
Announced Feb. 28, the office at 1255 Route 70 in Lakewood expands the Hunterdon County-based bank’s presence in the state’s fastest-growing municipality.
According to the 2020 U.S. Census, Lakewood experienced more growth than any other municipality in the state over the past 10 years — its population grew 46% in that time — and is now the New Jersey’s fifth-largest city.
“We have seen tremendous growth in our loan portfolio in Lakewood over the last couple years, particularly in commercial lending,” said Unity Bank President and CEO James Hughes in a statement. “Population growth and other marketplace factors have contributed to the growing demand for financial services in the community.”
Over the past two years, Hughes estimates Unity Bank has closed approximately $150 million in commercial loans for customers in Lakewood.
“We are expanding our commercial and residential lending team in Lakewood because we are committed to meeting the community’s demand for banking services,” he added.
Located within a strip mall, Unity’s newest office is a free-standing building with approximately 1,800 square feet that previously operated as a branch for another financial institution.
According to Unity, the building offers room to expand.
“The first loan I managed in Lakewood was back in 2017 for a laundromat,” Commercial Loan Officer and First Vice President Jay Strauss, who manages a team that services the Ocean County area, said in a statement. “Mostly by word of mouth, the volume has increased dramatically from that point, everything from office buildings to campgrounds, and the business opportunity continues to grow.”
Clinton-based Unity Bank has 19 retail service locations across Bergen, Hunterdon, Middlesex, Somerset, Union and Warren counties.
As of Sept. 30, 2021, the most-recent information available, the bank has approximately $2 billion in assets and $1.7 billion in deposits.
On Dec. 27, Unity Bank announced the results of this year’s annual holiday community service project, a tradition that’s been in place for more than a decade.
This year, Unity Bank and its employees donated $34,200 to 19 food pantries in New Jersey and Lehigh Valley, Pa.
Funds were contributed by the Clinton-based financial institution’s employees and then matched by the bank.
“I am extremely proud of the generosity our employees continue to show in this important community service project,” said Unity Bank President and Chief Executive Officer James Hughes. “More than ever before, food pantries are vitally important to many families struggling to make ends meet. As a community bank, it is a privilege to be able to support those in need through these great organizations.”
Unity said $1,800 donations will be made to a local food bank in each of its 19 branch communities.
Beneficiaries of this year’s food pantry support service project are:
Unity Bank relocated to a larger space in Union, housed within a new mixed-use development downtown.
The Union Township Chamber of Commerce, Unity Bank and business and community leaders celebrated the financial institution’s 1,800-square-foot branch at Centurion Union Center, across the street from the store’s previous location, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, Unity bank announced Oct. 20.
“The bank is fortunate because the Union leadership and community have been very supportive of the bank since we first opened a location in the township in 1996,” said Unity President and Chief Executive Officer James Hughes. “We look forward to welcoming our customers and future customers into our new Union home.”
Union Mayor Michele Delisfort said the city was “delighted” that the bank decided to expand downtown, describing Unity as “a great community partner.”
The branch is located at 945 Stuyvesant Ave. at the intersection of Stuyvesant and Rosemont Avenues.
American Landmark Development founder Manny Fernandez, whose company developed Centurion Union, said the mixed-use community aims to offer street-level retail options that provide “important community services” as a means to enhance the experience of residents.
“Unity Bank certainly fits that mold,” he said in a statement.
Leasing is currently underway for the second phase of residences at Centurion Union center, offering 75 apartments with a full suite of amenities in a four-story building. According to Unity, upon completion, Centurion Union will add 236 new residences and 27,000 square feet of retail space to Union Center.
Based in Clinton, Unity Bank has 19 branches throughout New Jersey and the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania.
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