Recently named as one of the best banks to work for in the US, The Westchester Bank’s CEO John Tolomer shares some secrets to creating a thriving workplace culture.
By Danny McCarthy
Westchester Bank’s CEO, John Tolomer.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY TOSHI TASAKI
In less than a decade, The Westchester Bank has gone from an upstart operating out of double-wide trailers to being considered one of the most desirable community banks to work for in the local financial market. The White Plains-headquartered bank — with branch locations in Mamaroneck, Mount Kisco, Rye Brook, Thornwood, White Plains, and Yonkers — recently landed on 2017’s list of “Best Banks to Work For” and “Best Companies To Work for in New York State.” (The “Best Banks to Work For” program identifies, recognizes, and honors U.S. banks and is open to commercial banks, thrifts, savings banks and other chartered retail financial institutions with at least 50 employees. The Westchester Bank ranked at #21 in the entire nation.)
The secret to the bank’s success, says John Tolomer, President and Chief Executive Officer, lies in its people.
The bank began operating in 2008. “It was the second-worst economic recession in history. Our first office was in two double-wide trailers,” while their headquarters space was under construction, recalls Tolomer. “We had to convince people to bank with us.” And because all banks, he says, offer essentially the same services, The Westchester Bank sets itself apart by offering something different — a “customer-centric organization.”
“Our motto is ‘banking made personal,’” says Tolomer. “We deliver [those services] in a highly personalized way.” That personable care, he adds, comes from strong choices in personnel.
“It’s about putting people in positions that suit their personalities. You wouldn’t take an IT professional and put them in a branch to interact with people. You wouldn’t take someone who likes people and put them in a back room.” Placing people in the correct positions allows them to thrive. When they like their jobs, Tolomer asserts, they want to do well.
Creating a buoyant company culture worthy of their #21 ranking requires conscious effort, however. When Tolomer came on board with The Westchester Bank in 2008, he brought with him the expertise he had gained in positions at Citibank and the Bank of New York. “I took with me what worked in previous jobs. I spoke to previous clients and asked if they would bank at The Westchester Bank. If not, why not?” Tolomer and the rest of the team addressed potential obstacles and went to work on fixing them. “Over the last nearly 10 years, we’ve eliminated things that don’t work,” he reports.
A strong company begins with strong employees, he adds. “We are investing in our people all the time,” providing them with the correct training, support, and check-ins. “We address their jobs, their future plans, and try to work with that.” Part of that support also comes from fielding suggestions all the time; Tolomer even embraces the “hokey suggestion box.”
“At the end of every meeting, I ask, ‘Is there anything you need?’” he says.
Tolomer offers multipart advice for bettering company culture. First, involves avoiding common pitfalls. In larger companies, contributions can often go unnoticed or underappreciated. “We’re a very flat organization. We’re always looking to catch people doing something right. We promote from within,” Tolomer says. Of the management at the bank’s new Rye Brook branch, all but one came from within the company. “This is a meritocracy,” Tolomer notes. “They’ve been promoted because they’ve earned it.”
Second, Tolomer advises leaders to “operate not only with a brain, but with a heart.” Providing environments for success means supporting the individual on multiple levels, not just business.
And last, he says, companies must be “open to change.” Being adaptive allows businesses to confront new challenges and prepare for the future.
In The Westchester Bank’s future is future expansion. “We’re looking for branch number seven,” he says. But alongside that are the challenges associated with expansion, like increasing business, cybersecurity, and keeping up employee standards when hiring new people. The quality of The Westchester Bank employees is a point of pride for Tolomer.
He points to a recent example: Tolomer decided right after Hurricane Harvey hit to cancel the firm’s annual holiday party and instead donate the money that would have been spent to local charities and hurricane relief. No one was upset, Tolomer says; instead, employees suggested various charities that could benefit from the money. “The responses really spoke to the caliber of the people working here,” he says.