Forest Park Bank reopens with four new faces

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By Tom Holmes

Like the Cubs and Sox, Forest Park Bank (FPB) had its regular season interrupted by COVID-19, but manager of the FPB team (aka President) Dan Watts told the Review last Friday that the bank's "season" will reopen to the public on June 22, with acknowledgement that the virus still prevents them from using the word "regular" to describe the reopening.

The lobby of the bank at 7348 Madison St. will be open next Monday with the following modifications:

"We're going to limit the number of people in the lobby at any given time," Watts explained. "We'll require masks and have hand sanitizers available. We are also setting up a system where customers will have to take off their masks for a minute and look at a camera, so we can identify them."

In addition to looking forward to this community bank moving back toward normal, Watts was excited about his team becoming more competitive with the addition of four new staff members, all of whom were employed by Community Bank in Oak Park-River Forest who decided to leave that institution when it was bought out by the larger Byline Bank, headquarters on North LaSalle St. in Chicago.

Claude L'Heureux joins the bank as vice president of Residential Mortgage Lending. According to FPB's latest Bank Buzz publication, L'Heureux has 40 years of experience in this area, starting with the former River Forest State Bank when it was a community bank and then bought out by Corus Bank. He then moved over to Community Bank where he was a mortgage lender from 1996 to 2019.

Mary Ellen Hanrahan was the senior loan processor at Community Bank and will continue doing that work as a loan processing officer at FPB.

Both will continue working with the single-family mortgage business and will be joining Judy Graves and Sandy Wasiliauskis in that department. Watts said they will enhance his team because they bring with them not only experience but, in addition to living in this area, they bring many contacts within the neighborhoods.

"We're very pleased with the amount of work they've already done in a very short term," Watts said.

"It was a good time for these guys to come on board," he explained, "because the single-family mortgage busines is a good area to be in right now. With interest rates at historic lows, many homeowners are thinking about refinancing or home equity loans."

An unintended consequence of the shutdown, he speculated, is that people sitting at home have time to think about their finances and realize they have an opportunity in the midst of a difficult situation. There is a multiplier effect at his bank, he added, that often accompanies that sort of loan. Especially with new customers, once they establish a relationship with people at the bank, they will often return down the line for products such as car loans.

Watts also explained why veterans like L'Heureux and Hanrahan would choose to move over to another community bank.

It's a matter of "fit." When banks scale up and get bigger, he said, that environment becomes less attractive to some people.

"Personally," he said, "I like the ability to do multiple tasks like dealing with the media, with consumer issues, regulators, safety and now reopening. I do have my fingers in many things."

He added that small community banks can have a certain character and fill a niche that bigger banks have a harder time with. When large banks buy up smaller ones, a lot of overhead can be eliminated with an economy of scale, which affects profits, but bigger banks often lose "touch points" with their customers, leading to what Watts referred to as "missteps." When a customer makes bad financial decisions and needs a loan, approval of that loan may be made by an officer in another city like New York where all that officer has is a sheet of numbers.

In a community bank, he continued, staff has a chance to know people and not just their numbers. When the numbers are not what they should be, the relationship with the customer and knowing their character allows a better judgment on whether they're worth taking a risk on.

In addition, community banks can be the focal point of the business community in a smaller town like Forest Park. When a big bank buys out a smaller one, the impact of the latter on the community often diminishes. In Forest Park, two of FPB's vice presidents are on the board of directors of the Chamber of Commerce here, the bank provides office space for the chamber's director, and it provides financial support for community events and nonprofits.

It's also much like what has motivated many small business owners in town to leave high-powered positions in the corporate world and choose to run their own store or restaurant.

Two other "free agents" who have joined the FPB team are Janel Morales who is now a vice president in retail banking and Maria Munguia an operations officer.

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