Michael Welch
CEO, UniBank
Age: 61
Industry experience: 2 years 

When Michael Welch became CEO of UniBank two years ago, he had no banking experience. What the Worcester native and longtime former headmaster of his alma mater, Saint John’s High School, did have was a background in service and finance – experience that has guided his approach to leading a mutual bank.  

After graduating from Marquette University, Welch volunteered at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, one of the poorest communities in the U.S. and a place where he has returned intermittently over the years. After doing graduate work at Boston College, Welch had leadership roles at educational institutions, including in finance and fundraising. He became UniBank’s CEO in July 2019, and the Whitinsville-based bank recently passed the $2 billion-asset threshold. 

Q: How did your role at UniBank come about?
A: I was lucky enough to be appointed as headmaster of Saint John’s High School in Shrewsbury, where I led the school for 15 years. That was a great opportunity. It’s a school rooted in the community. As a person, I come to serve organizations, and sometimes leaders stay too long, and the organizations start to serve them. I never think that’s healthy for people or for the organization. So, I had a great run at St. John’s, a great career, and then I went back to Red Cloud Indian School at Pine Ridge and helped them run a successful capital campaign. I then came back to Massachusetts, and I was lucky enough to be asked to run a mutual bank in Whitinsville.  

When I was in the interview process, the bottom line was: “Mike, the more money we make as a bank, the more you get to give away to the community.” With that as our number-one tenet, I said yes. We’re the largest mutual bank headquartered in Central Massachusetts, and as we recognized the $2 billion milestone last year, we’ve got the bulk and the size to be here for the next 150 years.  

Q: How did UniBank grow over the past year? 
A: Through the PPP program. The pandemic has caused people to reflect on the true nature of relationships, personally and professionally. I think people, particularly small businesses, discovered their place with much bigger banks, how they were perceived by some of the biggest banks, and their ability to access decision-makers during the most critical and challenging of times. A number of folks during 2020 and into 2021 found that they were able to call me directly or able to call senior leaders directly to get quick action on PPP loans. It’s the mindset. We’re here to serve the community. More and more businesses and individuals are bringing their business over as a result of how we’re serving – not servicing – but serving. We also run a very strong specialty lending group, and that remains strong this year. 

Q: What does the specialty lending group do?
A: One of the strengths of UniBank throughout the years has been that we’re not what people may perceive as a stereotypical community mutual bank. We have an airplane portfolio, and the bank has been involved for a number of years with boats. The bank has looked at where are diverse opportunities to engage the marketplace, to bring diversity and then spread the risk by having a variety of business lines.  

Q: What are some new products or initiatives that you have planned? 
A: Our online presence continues to grow, continues to evolve. That’s been part of our strategic planning. Our UniPay product [for municipalities and businesses] and the growth of that certainly is part of the planning. I think the other piece is our growth in commercial lending and our ability to do sizable loans.  

And then to grow our presence. That’s, I think in part, why I’m here. I’m a Worcester kid. I know the Worcester business community in many ways. I think UniBank’s presence in Central Mass. and MetroWest in particular will continue to grow through existing relationships and maximizing new ones. 

Q: UniBank has a television commercial running in the Boston market. Are you looking to expand into the area?
A: Because of our size and the strength and depth of the business line, we do a number of commercial business deals inside of Route 128 in Boston. I think we’re positioned now to do even more in that space given the relationships that we have and the position to work with. I think our footprint, particularly in the business space and commercial space, will continue to grow in the East, including Boston.  

Q: Was that a new experience for you to film a commercial?
A: No, I’ve done some other [commercials] for schools. Given the pandemic, with people unable to meet and do business in person, part of UniBank’s marketing plan has been to penetrate into people’s lives. You can’t do that in person, so we made a significant enhancement to our commercials on TV. And people have been commenting. It’s been a great way for us to really get our brand out there at a time when no business was being done in person. We knew people were spending more time on screens – whatever those screens are – and it’s where we positioned ourselves.  

Q: How will UniBank’s size help it survive as a mutual bank for another 150 years? 
A: Two billion dollars today is not what $2 billion is going to be 10 years from now. We need to continue to grow ourselves, continue to be strategic, continue to position ourselves in the marketplace, continue to grow in tech. There’s a sophistication that’s required. Mutual banks have some stereotypes of being small and sleepy and slow. Today, to look to the future as being mutual, you’ve got to be adept, strategic, decisive – yet keeping your core. And I think that’s what’s going to resonate, particularly with this new Millennial generation. They want to do business with organizations that stand for something. Is it hard work? Sure it is, because the challenges are growing. It’s the blending of the size and scale with the personal, community-serving approach – that’s the model that we’re running, and we find that resonates with people. 

Welch’s Five Favorite Places 

  1. Worcester/Blackstone Valley 
  2. Pine Ridge Indian Reservation 
  3. Cape Cod 
  4. Bryce Canyon 
  5. The Tetons 

From Headmaster to Head of $2B Bank

by Diane McLaughlin time to read: 4 min