WorkinCT: Jim Smith reflects on his time as CEO of Webster Bank

WATERBURY -- When Jim Smith sits at the head of the table in the conference room, it’s not lost on anyone that his father’s gaze is just feet away.  Jim Smith became CEO, taking over the position from his father, Harold Webster Smith, who founded Webster Bank.

“The story of Webster goes back to 1935 when a 24-year-old man, my father, Harold Webster Smith, opened First Federal Savings and Loan Corporation of Waterbury on the second floor of the Farrington building in downtown Waterbury in an office that was 11 by 38 feet.  He opened it in the Great Depression to buy and build their homes.  Borrowed $25,000 from family and friends.  The government put in $75,000 to get him started because they wanted to make sure there were construction loans being made,” said Smith.

Over the years, the bank evolved into what it is today: a $26 billion dollar commercial bank still headquartered in Waterbury.  Although the services may have changed over the years, Jim Smith says the values of this bank have not.

“I’m most proud of the fact that we’ve been stewards of the values my father laid down, and when I think about what the company has achieved over the time I’ve been here and even since the day we were founded, to be a big, strong company that can invest in service to its customers and continue to grow, I think that has been a real positive over my 40 years here,” said Smith.

That’s why he retook an iconic photo, showing him in the same spot his father was decades ago.

“Humble banker, hat in hand, living up to his customers,” Smith said as he described the photo of his father.

“I’m standing on the same door stoop in my father’s footprints.  I call it the footprint photo, with Joe Baltrush’s grandson Peter Baltrush,” said Smith.

The photo is also up in every office of Webster Bank to remind employees that service to the customer is a top priority, even during stressful times like the Great Recession.

“We were running toward our customers when a lot of other companies may have been running away from their customers.  Things like have a moratorium on foreclosures at the end of 2008 because we knew something was wrong and we didn’t want our customers to not have the opportunity to renegotiate the terms of their mortgage loans,” said Smith.

Smith said the company did the same with its small businesses and continues its commitment to Connecticut, even though the state has its share of financial concerns.

“I think Connecticut’s problem at this point is that the growth rate is a little lower than the national rate.  That’s why if we make the structural changes that are necessary to be able to bend the spending curve and increase revenue because you increase business confidence, we’ll be OK,” said Smith.

He knows Webster Bank will continue to grow even as he passes the reigns to new CEO John Ciulla.  Smith will be the non-executive chair of Webster’s board, but won’t be in the management team.  He says he will miss the relationships he has with each and every Webster banker, but has every confidence in the new leadership team moving forward.

“I wish for John and the team that they continue to transform the company focused on the high priority strategies that we have put in place.  What I do know is that whether it’s 5, 10 or 20 years from now, that Webster will still be a company that exists to serve its customers,” said Smith.