Pillar of Her Community

By Evan Sparks

Dorothy Savarese tells a story about a humbling discovery she made shortly after moving to Cape Cod and how it reflects the heart of community banking.

She already had 16 years of experience in economic development and at a large regional bank in the Midwest. She had taught credit analysis on a national basis. So when she arrived on the Cape and started work as a commercial lender at the Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank, “I looked at the credits here and the way they had been written up in the past, and they certainly didn’t meet my standards of documentation or credit underwriting,” she says—noting that they were short on financial analysis and long on character analysis.

“One of the things they had used long before I arrived to judge the creditworthiness of a customer was how neat their woodpile was,” she says. “If they did not have a neat woodpile, they would not make a loan to that customer.”

But then she noticed that Cape Cod Five had a remarkable record in terms of loan performance, with very few delinquencies and almost no foreclosures. “It made me reconsider my opinions and look a little bit more closely,” she explains. “Although it was no longer employed, that woodpile theory paid off for them at the time, so who was I to question it? Cape Cod Five, like so many community banks across the country, had a unique genius and passion for understanding their customers and their local economy.”

That early episode in Savarese’s community banking career might be one small moment, but it’s a clue to the kind of banker—and leader—she is today. She combines a relentless focus on getting the small stuff right with a deep, big-picture understanding of the people and places her bank serves and a humble, inclusive style. And as Savarese—who has been chairman, CEO and president of Cape Cod Five since 2005—prepares for her year as ABA’s chairman, she is bringing that detail-oriented, forward-thinking and collaborative style to the challenges facing the entire industry.

‘Scary smart’

Savarese isn’t a Cape Cod native, but it’s always been a place close to her heart. “My family came up to Cape Cod throughout my childhood, and it’s a place of great sentimental attachment for all of us,” she says. “Every year we come back for a family reunion.”

“Mentoring is one of the most important reasons that I am here today, both professionally and personally,” Savarese says. “I take that very seriously with my team.”

“Mentoring is one of the most important reasons that I am here today, both professionally and personally,” Savarese says. “I take that very seriously with my team.”

Although Savarese grew up in a large Irish- and Italian-American family in northern New Jersey, she moved far from the ocean as a young adult when—a year before her high school graduation—her parents moved the family to a small town in northern Kentucky. After graduating from nearby Thomas More College, she got a job in municipal politics in Covington, Ky., just south of Cincinnati, then worked for several years in economic development in Cincinnati and other cities in the Midwest.

Her work as an economic development consultant took her across the country, where she began developing a banker’s sense for good—and bad—economic projects. (One of the funnier bad examples she spotted was an investor group that had bought a former bank branch with a plan to set up a funeral home inside and use the drive-through for visitations.) Savarese then parlayed her work in economic development into a job with Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bank.

By the early 1990s, an opportunity took her family—which then included her infant son, John—to Cape Cod. After a year at home with John, she decided to get back into banking. Cape Cod Five—a mutual savings bank dating to 1855—hired her in 1993 as a part-time commercial lender; she picked the Five because of the flexible schedule and because of what she would later articulate as its “five pillars” of commitment to the community: local banking, responsible business, corporate leadership, financial education and philanthropy.

Savarese gets choked up when she speaks about her mentor at Cape Cod Five, Bruce Hammatt, “who was so good about confronting me in a candid way and drawing the best out of me and challenging me to be a better person all the time.” With his advice, her career shot forward. She picked up an MBA from Suffolk University while working full-time; became head of product planning, where she spearheaded the bank’s move into wealth management, a strategically important area as affluent retirees continued flocking to the Cape; and was named chief operating officer in 2004.

She was also making a strong impression on other leaders. Tom Evans was then the head of school at a local private academy, and he got to know her in 1994 when the school needed a commercial loan. A decade later, he was part of the search committee to replace Cape Cod Five’s longtime CEO.

The search committee brought Savarese in for an interview. Initially, she didn’t even realize she was a candidate; she simply thought she was offering her feedback on the process and the bank’s needs. “She was the internal candidate,” Evans says—and even though she was up against two men who had already been bank CEOs, “Dorothy knocked our socks off. She was a visionary. She was scary smart. She did her homework.”

As CEO, she has sought to keep the bank’s five pillars and ethical commitment front-and-center. “We make decisions based on looking through the lens of our values,” she says. “We walk away from revenue when it doesn’t comport with our values, and we emphasize that in training to all of our people.” And since becoming CEO, Savarese has nearly doubled the bank’s assets to over $3 billion and grown the number of employees from 300 to 475. “Dorothy has taken Cape Cod Five to being one of the best community banks in the country,” says Bill Zammer, a Cape restaurateur who has served on several boards with Savarese. “I’m frankly surprised she’s still running Cape Cod Five and not running Bank of America or one of the larger banks.”

Sweating the small stuff

If you spend just a few moments with Savarese, you’ll see clearly that she sweats the small stuff—emphasis on sweating. Her days start around 5:00 a.m. with running on her elliptical and reading seven daily papers on her tablet. “It’s not at all unusual for us to receive a 5:30 a.m. email from Dorothy when we know she’s on her elliptical,” says Evans.

If she’s not on the road to one of Cape Cod Five’s 21 branches and offices, which span from Wareham, Mass., to Provincetown at the tip of the Cape, plus Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, Savarese works out of one of her two offices—the bank’s operational headquarters in Orleans or at its branch in Hyannis.

The evenings are full of community functions for the variety of nonprofits—from educational to economic to social services—that Savarese and Cape Cod Five are involved in. “She works as hard as just about anyone I know,” says Evans. “Dorothy is a classic example of a servant leader who eats last, and she took that approach long before management literature made it trendy.”

“We consider our executional excellence to be one of the attributes of our organization,” says Savarese, pictured here speaking to a customer at the opening of Cape Cod Five’s newest branch on Martha’s Vineyard. “Our customers are depending on us.”

For Savarese, the details matter. Whether it’s the photos in the Cape Cod Five calendar or the documents for a loan settlement, she explains that attention to detail conveys respect for the people you’re serving and builds trust with customers who place their confidence in their bank for their home, day-to-day finances and retirement savings. “We really have a very high bar for performance in our organization,” she says. “We consider our executional excellence one of the attributes of our organization, because our customers are depending on us.”

This emphasis on executional excellence has proven inspiring to Savarese’s team, even though it means harder work for them. “She’s one of those people that by just being around, you naturally become smarter,” says Cape Cod Five CFO Matt Burke. “Nobody’s more driven and dedicated and committed to the bank and the industry than she is, so naturally I think it carries down through the organization, and through us—and has really made a big difference in my life.”

Strategic vision

Savarese is gifted in combining an eye for detail with a big-picture strategic vision—especially one that encompasses the diverse environment where she operates. Cape Cod and the islands are unique places. While today they have tourism-driven economies, they also have large historical sectors in fishing and farming, as well as growing health and education sectors.

“Many people see the Cape as the land of the rich and famous, but the truth is: Who’s helping all these rich and famous people?” asks Andi Genser, executive director of WE CAN, a social services nonprofit on the Cape that Savarese is involved with. “Who’s making the beds? Who are the bank tellers? Who are the landscapers? Who’s teaching in the schools? These are regular folks who really find it difficult to live in a community that is such a resort economy.”

Banking on the Cape requires a deep understanding of this. Bankers there must master seasonal economies and their cycles, provide for the backbone businesses that serve and employ year-round residents and meet the needs of the affluent retirees and visitors.

“Bankers are in such a unique position,” says Savarese. “Their customers are the businesses in the community, the employees of those businesses, the customers of those businesses, and the people who work and live there. As a result, they have deep insight into the challenges and the opportunities of their communities.”

This insight—and her accompanying commitment to action—is a hallmark of Savarese’s leadership style. “The Cape is a community that looks to leadership to move things along, whether it’s on the charitable front or on the business development front,” says Mark Novota, managing partner of Wequasset, an immaculate and historic resort perched on the edge of a bay just inland from the Atlantic Ocean in Harwich. “Dorothy’s always front and center.”

In the late 2000s—in the midst of the financial crisis—Savarese was key to Cape Cod Five’s partnership with Wequasset as the lead lender in a multimillion-dollar expansion and renovation project. “They understood our vision, they listened to us, they took risk with us,” says Novota. “And it’s been rewarding because we feel like they’re true partners.” Earlier this year, the newly expanded and enhanced Wequasset became the first resort on Cape Cod to receive a five-star rating.

Savarese’s community vision extends beyond the bank’s balance sheet to encompass a wide range of organizations serving Cape Codders, from women’s empowerment organizations to the community college, from the hospital to the chamber of commerce to the local symphony orchestra. (The conductor of the Cape Symphony notes that he and Savarese are both huge Star Trek fans and that he was able to delight her with a pops program featuring music from the series.)

Savarese presents a donation from Cape Cod Five’s foundation to the MSPCA pet adoption center in Falmouth, Mass. “Whether it's through our banking, through our corporate leadership and volunteerism, our financial education, our philanthropy, or even our business practices, we feel that everything we have to do has to contribute to the vitality of our community,” she says.

Savarese presents a donation from Cape Cod Five’s foundation to the MSPCA pet adoption center in Falmouth, Mass. “Whether it’s through our banking, through our corporate leadership and volunteerism, our financial education, our philanthropy, or even our business practices, we feel that everything we have to do has to contribute to the vitality of our community,” she says.

But she’s best known for tackling cross-cutting issues with a banker’s perspective, whether it’s revamping the Cape’s wastewater strategic plan or tackling opioid abuse, which—as in many other New England communities—has claimed far too many lives on the Cape.

Ray Tamasi is president of Gosnold on Cape Cod, an addiction treatment center. “I always knew about Dorothy, but then she called me out of the blue one day and she said, ‘I’d like to talk to you about this,’” he recalls. “I don’t remember everything we said that day, but what I remember most is that I spent an hour and a half with her and recognized that this is a person of depth and interest. She was asking tough questions that even people I work with don’t ask about.”

Her role today as a board member at Gosnold is more than just giving a check from Cape Cod Five. (The bank and its foundation has contributed more than $1 million to dozens of community causes annually for the past two years.) “You get the check, but there’s something more that she wants to know,” says Tamasi. “‘What are you doing? How can we help you make it happen? Why do you think our help is actually going to result in a positive outcome?’ That has real significance for a provider of services. It’s a very different kind of a connection to community here that comes out of this place.”

“Dorothy doesn’t shy away from the grit of life,” adds Wendy Northcross, president and CEO of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. “She’s drawn to those more difficult, challenging, community-changing issues.”

The payoff of an inclusive style

Savarese is known for her humble, collaborative and inclusive style. It starts with listening. “She’s a great listener,” says Massachusetts Bankers Association President and CEO Daniel Forte, who worked with Savarese when she chaired the MBA. “She works very deliberately for input and consensus.”

She brings that to every business discussion, her team members say. “She is always wanting to get everyone’s opinions and everyone’s thoughts at all levels of the organization,” says Andrea Ponte, the bank’s chief strategy and operations officer.

This builds strong trust internally. “There’s not a teller, there’s not a staff member who doesn’t know who Dorothy is,” says Zammer, “and they respect her a great deal.”

The bank’s general counsel, Joel Brickman, adds that “Dorothy is a challenger at times but always wants to be challenged, wants her ideas to be challenged because she understands out of that dialogue comes greater ideas.” (Brickman saw the give and take from the beginning—his job interview with Savarese was scheduled for 45 minutes but ran for three hours as the two got into deep discussions of legal and risk issues.)

That commitment to dialogue and collaboration is reflected in Savarese’s commitment to build more opportunities for women in banking. As a mother of a young child when she started her Cape Cod Five career, she had a then-rare opportunity to work part-time as an officer of the bank. “As I progressed through my career at the bank into a position of authority, I wanted to ensure that we continued that commitment to allow families to go on the journey and support family values and at the same time keep that talent in the bank,” she reflects.

“They have ended up being some of our superstars and the investment in them was absolutely worth it,” she adds. “It’s in the best interest of organizations if the talent of all people is unleashed. We’re staring at 50 percent of the population that we could empower to be more effective and contribute to our success.”

Perhaps ironically, while Savarese often speaks today at women in banking conferences and has been named multiple times to American Banker’s list of the most powerful women in banking, it took some prodding for her to put herself out there as a spokesperson for women in her industry. After she was named CEO in 2005, “I said, ‘I do not want anything made of the fact that I am the first female president of this 150-year-old bank. I’m not a woman banker. I’m a banker,’” she recalls.

“But then I started getting notes and emails from customers and people all over the Cape who said how meaningful it was for their daughters and their wives that I was in this position,” she adds. “So I started developing a sense of obligation about using it effectively.”

‘An inflection point for the industry’

When Savarese takes office as ABA’s chairman—only the second woman to do so—she will bring that hard-working, intelligent, collaborative and empathetic leadership style to the entire industry.

She is eager to take on the big challenges facing the banking industry—from regulation to fintech to how to engage with rising generations. “It’s a really exciting time to be chairman of ABA,” she says. “It’s almost an inflection point for the industry. There is so much excitement out in the country right now because we have an opportunity to make a meaningful change.”

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About Evan Sparks

Evan Sparks
Evan Sparks is editor-in-chief of the ABA Banking Journal and vice president for editorial services at the American Bankers Association.