Janice Morse: Staying Relevant

By Karen M. Kroll

To the naïve eye, Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank—with its fanciful name, 160-year history, and picturesque hometown—might appear old fashioned…even quaint. Don’t be fooled. Led by president and CEO Janice Morse, this eight-branch, $760 million bank is facing today’s challenges in the savviest way possible: with an unflinching focus on serving the community’s needs.

Even after forty-some years in community banking, Morse remains passionate about her field. Why? “You really can make a difference in other people’s lives,” she said.

Case in point: Heroin addiction has become a heartbreaking reality in the Newburyport, Massachusetts area. When bank employees noticed a client going through large sums of cash, he explained to them that his grandson had cancer and he was helping to cover the treatment.

The employees suspected the grandson was struggling with addiction. Without compromising the family’s privacy, they mentioned their concerns to the client. He acknowledged their validity and involved local authorities. The grandson received help and his grandfather salvaged his savings. “To have a success story like that just makes you feel wonderful,” Morse said.

Getting started as an accidental banker.

Banking wasn’t part of Morse’s original career plan. After graduating with a degree in recreational therapy from the University of Massachusetts, she took an eight-week trip across North America with her sister.

When Morse returned home, she was broke and unable to find a job in her field. That’s when Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank took her on as a teller. And she’s remained with the bank ever since, except for a few years when she worked with her husband’s construction firm. Was it a smooth ride from teller to top-brass? Hardly.

Early on, concerns about nepotism hindered Morse’s ability to advance—her husband’s father was the bank’s president at the time. Frustrated, she left, and returned only when the bank asked her to take on a managerial role.

From there, Morse was able to prove her flexibility and voracious appetite for learning every aspect of the business. Over the years, she has held positions in customer service, branch management, marketing, collections, treasury, and information technology. She helped the bank shift from proprietary banking applications to a personal computer environment. While the change made sense, understanding the set-up, networking, contingency controls, and other elements was daunting, given that Morse had no technology background. “I was really kind of learning on the job, and I found it to be very rewarding,” she said.

Sawing wood.

Of course, Newburyport Five Cents Savings isn’t immune from the issues facing most financial institutions. It’s safe to assume, however, that Morse’ approach to taking issues home with her differs from the tactics employed by many other bank executives.

Consider September 2008, when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—both government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs)—were placed into conservatorship. Dividend payments on their trust preferred stocks were suspended. Bankers and regulators alike had believed these GSEs had the full backing of the U.S. government.

The securities’ share values dropped to near zero. Many banks wrote off their investments. At Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank, the write-off totaled about $2 million.

That evening, Morse headed to the woods on her property, chainsaw and wood-chipper in tow. Sawing wood “gets rid of frustrations,” she said. Indeed, her husband reminded her to leave a few trees standing

Responding to change.

In her role as chief executive officer, Morse has focused on strengthening the bank’s corporate governance structure. Under her administration, the board of directors meets more frequently and reviews more detailed financial statements, as well as a range of information on strategic planning, information security and other important concerns.

Newburyport, like many financial institutions, is also working to attract younger clients. One way is by expanding to a new community in which the average age is 34. Another is by intensifying the bank’s marketing efforts. “It’s hard being a really old organization, especially a bank, and to try to make yourself more relevant and appealing,” Morse said.

Committing to the community.

Morse has taken on leadership roles with numerous civic organizations, including the board of trustees of the local hospital. She and other board members and hospital executives were able to turn around the hospital’s finances. They accomplished this, in part, by helping it meet or exceed the quality control measures used by the top 10% of hospitals in the country, for QC issues such as surgical site infections and acquired pressure ulcers. “I’m extremely proud to think I’m part of that organization,” she said.

Morse helped establish the bank’s charitable foundation in 2004. Since then, it’s given well over a million dollars to numerous charities in the greater Newburyport and Portsmouth area, such as Anna Jaques Hospital and Veterans Count of New Hampshire.

“What really defines Jan is her understanding and passion for the community,” said Mark Goldstein, president and CEO of Anna Jaques Hospital. “She’s been a strategic, thoughtful partner with the hospital.”

Morse also has helped foster a bank culture founded on knowledgeable customer service. For instance, to help combat elder financial abuse, the bank hired a retired police officer. If the bank has reason to think an elderly client is being taken advantage of, an employee will provide the individual with the officer’s contact information. The bank covers the costs of the services the officer provides. “We’ve had several people that have talked with him, and he’s helped them through some difficult situations,” Morse said.

“This really is a job that you can make a difference in other people’s lives,” Morse said. “It’s so rewarding.”

Karen M. Kroll is a business and financial services writer and content marketer based in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Email: [email protected].