President and CEO, Avidia Bank
Industry experience: 34 years
Mark O’Connell began his career as a public accountant auditing banks throughout New England, including Hudson Savings Bank. After the bank’s treasurer approached O’Connell about joining as its controller, he started at Hudson Savings Bank in 1988 and became president and CEO in 2004. Avidia Bank was formed in three years later when Hudson Savings merged with Westborough Savings Bank. During O’Connell’s time as leader, Avidia began partnering with financial technology companies to diversify the community bank’s revenue stream.
O’Connell is currently the board chair for the Massachusetts Bankers Association. He plans to retire as Avidia Bank’s leader in May 2023 – on the 35th anniversary of his first day at Hudson Savings.
Q: What are one or two accomplishments you are particularly proud of from your career?
A: When I started here back in 1988, the bank had two locations in Hudson, like $120 million in assets and about 40-something employees. So, the growth [makes me proud], and our ability to help the community more by growing from that number to now $2.3 billion with 270 employees and nine locations. We’re serving a bigger community, not just Hudson. We’re serving MetroWest, and we’re able to meet the loan needs of many more people than we could back in 1988. With all the mergers and consolidations, a lot of towns end up not having community banks on their Main Street any longer, and I think that negatively impacts those communities long-term.
Q: Do you expect Avidia Bank to continue to keep branches in its communities?
A: I don’t see us expanding our branch network significantly going forward because of the lack of need to reach customers. In the past, to really get into a community you had to have a branch. To some extent, I think that’s still needed a little bit, but less so. Our last branch that we opened was in Framingham. It’s been very successful, but really the success has been brought to us by our employees getting out there and knocking on doors in that community and letting customers know what we can do for them.
The old days of just everybody walking in the Main Street bank locations to do whatever they had to do, that just doesn’t happen with all the electronic tools that you can use. We don’t see ourselves expanding our branch network with brick and mortar significantly in the next few years, but I don’t see us closing any branches either. The ones we have we will maintain. We own a number of them. The ones we lease, we have long-term leases on those.
Q: What do you look back on as one or two of the biggest challenges you faced?
A: I was around in the early 1990s when the real estate recession in New England hurt a lot of banks. That was a challenging time. The FDIC was very hard on banks. We didn’t have any major issues, but it was a challenging time for all banks. The 2008 period was a struggle. And I think the ongoing struggle is the continued need to spend a lot of money on technology and the increasing cost structure for that. We have to find ways – and we continue to find ways – to leverage the money we spend on technology to reduce costs elsewhere. I think some of that is a need to probably hire less people than we would have to hire in the old days when we didn’t have technology.
Q: As the current chair of the Massachusetts Bankers Association Board, what are some of the priorities for the remainder of your term?
A: My term runs till the end of June and on an annual basis the chairman rotates through every year. We’re going to continue our advocacy for the banking industry both on Beacon Hill and on Capitol Hill. A new top priority is we formed a [diversity, equity and inclusion] council over the past year. And we want to continue to push that and make sure banks are adopting policies that will make them better in that realm.
Q: How has the DEI initiative been received by banks?
A: I think most banks have been very happy with the assistance Mass. Bankers has been able to bring to them. Your small banks might not get to do everything Bank of America does. But there’s a lot of things we can do to make our employees feel more welcome and included, ways of enhancing our mentoring programs at banks and things like that. The longer-term goal is to continue to reinforce that and bring tools to the banks that allow them to better empower their people to have a more inclusive workforce.
We’ve set up a DEI committee within Avidia Bank. We also have engaged a consultant to help us with that and prioritize what’s most important. We’ve started with mentoring people. A lot of times the lower-level employees don’t feel that anybody is there to help them advance, and that’s what we’re trying to do in that regard. We’re a mutual savings bank. We give a lot to the community.
Q: Do you see Avidia being able to remain a mutual savings bank?
A: There are fewer and fewer community banks or mutual banks in Massachusetts. But the ones that are left are larger than the ones back in 1988. At over $2 billion [in assets], we have the size and wherewithal to do all the things that banks need to do today. And as long as you continue to focus on servicing the communities you’re in, I think the communities need you, and they’re going to support you if you support them. I think we’ve done a good job of that.
I’m retiring, so I can’t say what long-term could happen, but as long as I’m around, we’re not going to convert to any stock bank. I’m going to stay on the board for a couple of years, and I would be pushing towards staying mutual as the way to be for the near-term. Now, if the industry evolves or regulations evolve, things could always change. But I don’t see that in any short-term horizon for Avidia Bank.