PITTSFIELD – As part of its new banking strategy, the Berkshire Bank holding company announced on Wednesday that it plans to lend and invest $ 5 billion over the next three years to help strengthen communities in its five States.
The initiative, titled “BEST Community Comeback”, will distribute the $ 5 billion through strategic and targeted investments and programs in four key areas: Powering Small Businesses, Community Funding and Philanthropy, Financial Access and empowerment, and financing of environmental sustainability.
To break down the money further, $ 2.5 billion is for mortgages and loans in low and moderate income neighborhoods; $ 1.5 billion is for small business loans; $ 300 million will go to environmental initiatives that include loans for low carbon projects and greenhouse gas emission reductions; and $ 15 million is for community contributions. The remaining money will be distributed throughout the program.
Investments in specific geographies have yet to be announced, but Berkshire County is expected to be a major beneficiary of the new program, bank officials said.
“We are improving the level of investment in our communities with this plan by approximately 60 to 70 percent,” said Gary Levante, vice president and head of corporate social responsibility for Berkshire Hills Bancorp. “60 to 70 percent is beyond what we’ve done in the past. So that’s going to mean a significant increase in the dollars we invest and lend in the Berkshires compared to a similar three-year period in 2018. to 2020. “
With the exception of its branch network and frontline employees, the majority of Berkshire Bank’s workforce is still located in the Berkshires and concentrated around Pittsfield, where the bank’s administrative headquarters are located, said officials. bank officials.
“So while we don’t have specific goals for each community at this point, what I can say for sure is that our lending and reinvestment levels will be commensurate with the size of our operation. and the size of our customer base in those communities, ”said Levante.
BEST stands for Berkshire’s Exciting Strategic Transformation, a plan the bank’s new CEO Nitin J. Mhatre first revealed to investors in May as a way to reverse the 175-year-old regional bank’s recent financial woes. .
“When we unveiled our plan in May, we talked about improving our financial performance, improving customer satisfaction, digitizing our operations and becoming one of the country’s leading socially responsible banks,” said Levante. “What we announced today is really this plan that has translated into the community impact we’re going to have on places like Pittsfield and Berkshire County and places in our market.”
In a statement, Mhatre said the new initiative highlights “our purpose, realizes our vision and will enable our communities to reach their full potential.
“We believe that building stronger communities requires a better banking approach,” said Mhatre, who became CEO in January.
Money for Small Business also includes targeted programs like financial coaching and technical assistance, community funding and philanthropy, including $ 15 million in community contributions and $ 50 million for socially responsible investments under management. .
As part of financial inclusion and access, $ 200 million has been set aside for minority mortgage borrowers. Under the leadership of the bank’s former CEO Richard Marotta, Berkshire Bank had launched a plan to target traditionally underserved banking populations. In an interview this year, Mhatre told The Eagle that Berkshire Bank intends to pursue this strategy set out by Marotta and the former executive vice president / head of the bank’s experience and culture office, Malia Lazu, but in a different way.
The initiative announced Wednesday is expected to reach 300,000 people with financial wellness programs and create 200,000 socially responsible customer bank accounts.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily different,” Levante said when asked to compare the two shots. “This plan is an improvement, an improvement in which we put dollars, goals and specific targets in each of these areas.
“So rather than just saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to do financial access and inclusion,’ we’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to affect 300,000 people with this programming,'” he said. declared.
“And rather than saying that we are going to give our loans to outsourced and minority populations, we are going to say that we are going to give $ 200 million in mortgages to minority homebuyers and help them realize the dream of homeownership. . “