When Christopher Oddleifson took over as Rockland Trust Co.’s CEO in 2003, Massachusetts had more than twice as many banks headquartered in the state than it does today.
As over 100 mergers in 20 years shrank the state’s banking industry, Rockland Trust would become a key figure in bank consolidation, a strategy that Oddleifson said might have saved the bank.
“As I looked through the windshield ahead in 2003, I said, ‘M&A has to be opportunistic,’” Oddleifson said. “Now that I look in the rearview mirror 20 years later, I can say that if we didn’t build scale with those acquisitions, we probably would have been one of the bank statistics as well.”
Bank acquisitions helped Rockland Trust grow from a $2.3 billion-asset bank when Oddleifson arrived in February 2003 to having nearly $20 billion in assets today. Oddleifson stepped down from his role as CEO of the bank and its parent company, Independent Bank Corp., on Feb. 6 and will retire from the bank after staying on in advisory role through the end of the year.
From Opportunity to Strategy
Oddleifson had no experience as a CEO when he joined Rockland Trust, but he had been through mergers.
After beginning his career in the mid-1980s at a consulting firm working with several industries, including banking, Oddleifson wanted to cut back on travel ahead of the birth of his first child. He looked at opportunities in a few industries before taking a job at Signet Bank in Virginia. When Signet was acquired by First Union Bank, Oddleifson moved to North Carolina and spent five years as president of one of the bank’s divisions, First Union Home Equity Bank.
When the next merger saw First Union and Wachovia combine, Oddleifson received a severance package and decided to take some time off before pursuing his next job. He and his wife had wanted to move to New England, making the late-2002 job offer Oddleifson received to be Rockland Trust’s CEO a welcome development.
“I didn’t have a commercial background like a traditional banker,” Oddleifson said. “But what the board I think saw in me is I was able to take good organizations and bring them to the next performance level, which I think we’ve done here at Rockland Trust over the last 20 years.”
Rockland Trust was not in a position to acquire other banks at the start of his tenure, Oddleifson said. The bank instead focused on organic growth with an eye toward taking advantage of M&A opportunities if they arose.
That first opportunity came in 2004, but it almost didn’t happen. Rockland Trust had lost out on a bid to acquire Falmouth Cooperative Bank but got a second chance when the top bidder bowed out.
The same situation happened in 2008 when Rockland Trust initially lost out on acquiring Somerset-based Slades Ferry Trust Co., only to get another chance when the winning bank dropped out. This merger, which Oddleifson called the bank’s most successful, helped change Rockland Trust’s acquisition strategy.
“With those two acquisitions, we developed the skill, the experience and also the reputation of saying what we’re going to do and doing what we’re going to say,” Oddleifson said. “Over the course of 11 acquisitions, we’ve become one of the preferred buyers in the region.”
A Deliberate Approach
As mergers transformed Rockland Trust – from a ninefold growth in assets to an improving stock price – they also helped shrink the state’s banking industry. It’s down from more than 200 banks headquartered in the state in 2003 to about 100 today.
Oddleifson noted that when he finished his term as the Massachusetts Bankers Association board chair in 2010, the trade group had more than 200 members, including banks headquartered in other states that operate in Massachusetts. The association now has about 120 members.
But without the M&A strategy that gave the bank the scale it needed to compete, Oddleifson said, Rockland Trust might have ended up being acquired itself. He expects the bank consolidation that has lasted for more than three decades to continue in the years ahead, both regionally and nationally.
Also helping the bank has been the deliberate approach it has taken toward growth, Oddleifson said, including before the Great Recession when other U.S. banks were expanding their markets and products. During the financial crisis, he said, Rockland Trust had the capital and firepower to bring on more customers compared to other banks.
“Careful, boring, one-step-at-a-time – being smart, being customer-focused, being relationship-focused, not being flashy – carries the day,” he said.
Expect More of the Same
For Oddleifson, Rockland Trust becoming a larger bank has not changed its approach with customers. The bank has an “unrelenting focus” on relationships, Oddleifson said, that is instilled in the culture and goes beyond a standard tagline.
“We are talking about [relationships] all the time,” he said.
Focus its acquisitions within the Eastern Massachusetts region has also benefited Rockland Trust, Oddleifson said. He noted that the mergers all took place within or adjacent to Rockland Trust’s existing market, so the bank went into these transactions already knowing the market, common customers and some staff. The concentrated market also gave Oddleifson a chance to visit all branches and loan centers, now totaling more than 120, every year.
Oddleifson expects Rockland Trust’s strategy to continue under its new leader, Jeffrey Tengel, the former president of Connecticut-based People’s United Bank before its acquisition by M&T Bank.
“He really understands this notion of our vision to be the bank where each relationship matters, really understands the power of community banking and has a humbleness about him that stand well for my colleagues and for our customers and our communities,” Oddleifson said.
Correction 10:15 a.m., Feb. 27, 2023: An earlier version of this article misstated Rockland Trust Co.’s total assets. The total assets are nearly $20 billion.