Cynthia Merkle’s Take On Banking A Win-Win For Union Savings Bank
March 4, 2020
Cynthia Merkle’s success at Union Savings Bank is based on implementing newfangled approaches to engage the community by using old-fashioned tactics to maintain it.
Now in her sixth year as president and CEO of the Danbury, CT-based
mutual holding company, her work at USB has earned her the Sandra J. Pattie Distinguished Leadership Award from Banking in New England. She’ll be honored at the New England Women in Banking conference this month.
“When I first got here,” Merkle said, “I looked at improving engagement with our team members.” There are currently 380 employees in 25 branches throughout Western Connecticut. In 2018, USB went from being a mutual savings bank to mutual holding company.
“The results were very strong,” she said. “We identified what areas we needed to work on and introduced a series of town hall-style forums. I did 13 of them myself, talked about how we were doing, shared new products and services, did a business plan update, talked about medical benefits. They could ask me anything.”
The forums continued, as did open communication between Merkle, management and team members.
“We started to do social events after work, and any team member could come,” Merkle said. “We played miniature golf, we went bowling—100 people came— and a wine and painting night was so popular we had to add another night. People who had only talked to each other on the phone got to see and talk to each other.”
“She is a great inspiration to the staff,” said Jeff Levine, chairman of the Board of Trustees for Union Savings Bank. “She’s able to juggle many balls in the air at once and makes it look simple. She has the respect of the staff and the board which is unusual for a CEO.”
“I’m a firm believer that if you treat people well, go above and beyond with them and establish a relationship, they will do their best,” Merkle said. New employees, according to Jeff McDonough, the human resources director of Union Savings Bank, meet at a table with Merkle and everyone “gets to tell their story, including Cindy.”
Merkle credits her early experience in banking with getting her career off to a good start. She graduated from Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I., with a bachelor's degree in management, and holds an Associate of Science degree from Endicott College in Beverly, MA.
Despite a desire to make a living making and selling pottery, she knew she wouldn’t in ceramics, so she went into banking.
“I started in branches and I had customer facing experience which is invaluable to anyone in the industry of service,” Merkle said. “When I moved to lending, I still had relationships with people.
“Part of my job was working with the service call center,” and she realized early on that customers needed more than just generalists on the phone to answer customer questions.
“We migrated call service employees from generalist to specialty service employees, which provided a higher level of service. It also created new career paths for the call center people.”
At USB, Merkle has hired someone to oversee customer satisfaction and the bank now uses a metric for measuring customer satisfaction called the Net Promoter Score (NPS). It’s a management tool that can be used to gauge the loyalty of a firm's customer relationships.
“Our score is 67.7, which, if you know the NPS, is very high,” she said.
“The customer satisfaction program here is very robust, she said. “We focus on the areas we need to improve on and we do it. It could be anything from a dead bush in the parking lot area that needs to be removed to looking at a product or service that someone doesn’t want.”
The proof of the bank’s current success is also in the numbers. The 2018 growth numbers include a record net income of $21.8 million, an increase of 91 percent from 2017; origination of $175 million in commercial loans; and increasing community development lending 80 percent from 2017.
“While we would love to take credit for the entire $21.8 million net income,” Merkle said, “it was the federal tax rate law that went into effect that assisted us and other banks with increased growth; however, even without the new tax rate, Union Savings Bank still had a record year.”
Merkle, who was executive vice president at Eastern Bank - the largest independent and mutually owned bank in New England - before she joined USB, is the new chair of the Connecticut Bankers Association. She is the first female to lead the professional group.
She is also the chair of the Board of Directors for the United Way of Western Connecticut; chair of the Board of Trustees of Endicott College; and, a board member of the Danbury Chamber of Commerce.
With USB, she and her team members continue to build on the success of the USB Teachers’ Closet program which was introduced in 2016, providing school supplies to teachers and children in the community; collecting books for their “Share the Love of Reading” book drive; and helping people in Danbury through the United Way.
Merkle enjoys the work she does outside of the bank, because “I get to meet new people,” she said.
“In six years, she knows more people in Danbury than some people who have lived here their whole life,” Levine, USB’s board chair, said. “People gravitate to her.”
While banking is not perceived as glamorous, Merkle said, retaining employees and attracting new ones is a whole new world.
“What we need to do now,” she said, “is to start talking about the career paths embedded in banking: data management, cyber security, community outreach. That’s more attractive and what we’re trying to challenge. We have to market it that way and reach the younger population. That’s what the industry can be for them, careerwise.
And as for the new crop of young people entering the workforce, she has this advice: “Patience is important. Master a skill and then don’t be afraid to take a risk to learn a new skill. It affords opportunities, and at the end of the day you will be a well-rounded worker and will be tapped to do more.”