Spotlight: Veteran banker reflects on path from bank founder and chairman to director

Following mergers, former CEOs and board chairs may have to adapt to smaller roles, but their experience remains valuable.

Daniel Morrison sees the writing on the wall. He’s a director at Cambridge Bancorp, a $5.5 billion-asset commercial banking company, which is expected to close its sale to Eastern Bancorp in the first quarter of 2024. When that happens, he anticipates leaving a board that he has served on in one form or another since 2006.

This article originally appeared in the January-February 2024 issue of ABA Banking Journal Directors Briefing. Subscribe now.
“Cambridge is now merging with a larger bank, going from $5 billion to $30 billion,” Morrison says. “It will be a good merger. I probably won’t continue on the board after it closes.”

It’s a familiar tale in bank boardrooms: After a series of acquisitions, a former bank chairman and CEO finds himself as a rank-and-file board member, and then a former board member. In Morrison’s case, he already had a two-decade banking career under his belt when he and his wife co-founded Optima Bank & Trust in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 2006. He was Optima’s chairman and CEO, and when Cambridge Bancorp acquired Optima in 2019, he moved to the buyer’s board. At the time, Optima had $600 million in assets compared to the Cambridge, Massachusetts bank’s $2 billion.

How does a bank director remain effective when he finds himself at the board table but no longer at its head?

“It’s always by keeping in mind what is in the best interest of shareholders,” Morrison says. “Do that and you won’t go wrong.”

That philosophy helped him lead Optima to success during trying times. The bank opened its doors in January 2008 on the cusp of the global financial crisis.

Daniel Morrison

“We were one of the last de novos for a long time, and we were the only locally owned commercial bank. There used to be a lot of them and they’d all been merged into larger banks from faraway,” Morrison recalls. “We sold stock and raised capital from local people. We were truly locally owned by our shareholders.”

Operating a bank as the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression unfolded “took a fair amount of courage and fortitude,” Morrison says. “As chairman, I needed to lead the board through that and share my courage with them. We had a good business plan that we stuck with: Lend to good borrowers, accept their deposits and keep them safe.”

As the economy emerged from the crisis, Optima grew more successful. “We grew faster than most and really did pretty well. The local press loved the story of local people doing well,” Morrison says.

Then, in another theme that’s familiar in bank boardrooms, the wooing began. “We’d been courted by a number of banks that wanted to get into our market. As the conversations went on, we decided that Cambridge Trust was the best fit. We were compatible in our approach to banking. They were already dabbling in our geographic market but didn’t have any bank branches in New Hampshire.” Cambridge Trust, which now has 22 branches in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, was strong in wealth management, which was a particularly attractive element of the merger, Morrison says.

In addition to taking on a board seat when the merger closed, Morrison served as CEO of Cambridge Trust New Hampshire. He retired from bank management in 2021.

In conversation, Morrison is thoughtful and measured. He believes the ability to hold his fire and listen carefully has been a key to being an effective board member. “I can be a strong voice, but I also can let others talk, and that’s important.”

As he prepares to depart the board of a bank he helped to grow, Morrison won’t be idle. At 60, he’s an active volunteer in his community. He just wrapped up a two-year term as chairman of York Hospital, preceded by two years as vice chairman. “The skills of a bank chairman really carry over, very much so. We went through a change of CEO during my time there, and having experience as a CEO and a chairman was very helpful to me.”

Asked what advice he would give for being an effective board member to someone who is perhaps accustomed to being a CEO and chairman, he stressed how important it was for him to build a relationship with the board chair. Beyond that, he says, just remember why you’re there. “The job is to act in the interest of the bank and its shareholders. Back up to that if you ever have questions about what to do. If you do that, everything else falls into place.”