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A leader worth every penny, and then some

Published: 2/7/2020 6:00:26 PM

Modified: 2/7/2020 6:00:14 PM

When he took the helm at Florence Bank a quarter century ago, John F. Heaps Jr. said this: “I hope to take the bank to the next level.”

In a Gazette news story at the time, the bank’s new president and CEO admitted to not knowing what the “next level” might bring, but he knew that it would focus on customer service, the bank’s employees and the community — the mix of ingredients that has made the independent mutual savings bank successful throughout its 147-year history.

So what happened over the next 25 years under Heap’s watch? Florence Bank has grown to a major employer in the region, nearly doubling its full-time staff to 221. The bank’s capital has grown from $24 million to $161 million, and assets have shot up from $283 million to $1.4 billion. And later this year, Florence Bank will open its 12th branch in the Valley, up from four in 1995.

It’s an understatement to say that Heaps, the longest-serving CEO in Florence Bank’s history, will be a tough act to follow. A bank CEO’s job is part visionary, part strategic planner, part motivator and communicator, part risk-taker and lots of other characteristics less obvious to outsiders. It’s not a combination that often comes together in one person.

Judging from the accolades by community leaders after Heaps announced his pending retirement on May 1 — 25 years to the day he took his current position — he has been hugely successful at all these roles.

Jonathan Wright, owner of Wright Builders Inc., and a commercial customer of the bank, said Heaps is loyal to customers and celebrates their success. “Simple maybe, but unusual,” he said. “For me, it has been loyalty and respect through thick and thin.”

Bob Borawski, president of Borawski Insurance in Northampton and chairman of Florence Bank’s board of directors, said the bank didn’t appreciate who it was hiring at the time.

“We didn’t realize how well known locally he was and the deep roots he had in the community. We really got more than we bargained for — we were really lucky.”

Luck may not be the right word. Florence Bank was the right fit at the right time for a young banker eager to lead an institution so intertwined with the community.

Several leaders, from the former executive director of the Greater Northampton Area Chamber of Commerce to the president of Bay Path University, lauded Heaps for having the community he served at the center of every decision he made. In doing so, he dedicated the bank’s resources and created a culture of community service at the bank.

While he guided the bank through two recessions, including the Great Recession of 2008, and oversaw advances in technology such as mobile banking, those didn’t top his list of accomplishments. Instead, it’s not surprising that Heaps told Gazette reporter Michael Connors last week that he’s most proud of starting the bank’s “Customers’ Choice” program in 2002, which allows customers to vote on which nonprofits will receive grants. The program has provided over $1.1 million to organizations across the region.

As some bank CEOs around the country only recently have warmed to the idea of building workplaces that are forward-thinking, inclusive and values-based — as chronicled in a 2019 article, “Rise of the next-gen bank CEO,” in American Banker — Heaps did these things instinctually during a career that began in 1971.

After growing up in Springfield, Heaps began his banking career in marketing at Valley Bank, later Bay Bank, in Springfield. In 1987, he was first named a bank president for Bank of Boston, also in Springfield. He was 37 at the time, and the Springfield Union-News reported he was the youngest bank CEO in western Massachusetts.

Today, at 71, Heaps said the time is right to turn the reins of the bank over to his successor, Kevin Day, whom he says shares Florence Bank’s company culture and has confidence that the transition will be smooth.

“The marketplace is wide open for us,” he says.

That’s due in large part of the legacy that Heaps is leaving for future leaders to build on.

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