Area banks’ Expansions Counter Wider Trends

In a digital age, area banks still rely on brick-and-mortar operations.

Patriot Bank, First County Bank and Bankwell are all expanding their branch networks in response to growing business. While customers increasingly bank online, they still want to visit establishments for a range of services. Reflecting that demand, the new branches operate with full staffs and a growing number of interactive features.

“There needs to be a balance between how electronic banking interacts with physical banking,” Patriot Bank President Rick Muskus Jr., said in an interview Wednesday at the bank’s new flagship branch at 999 Bedford St., in Stamford. “We wanted to maintain visibility here, and this building becomes a very important part of that. Overall, our branch network is important to our strategy.”

Opening branches

Patriot’s new 11,00-square-foot branch includes two “live banking” consoles — one in the building and another in a drive-through terminal — that allow customers to video-conference with bankers.

Operating 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, the video ATMs offer many of the services, such as account openings and check cashings, that patrons would find at teller desks. Patriot still employs tellers at the new branch and other locations, but the live-banking terminals offer another option when lines are long or customers are in a rush.

By the middle of the year, Patriot aims to have installed the video ATMs in all of its branches, and also one in its headquarters at 900 Bedford St., across the street from the flagship branch.

“Our goal is to have fewer transactions in the branch and more transactions with the interactive teller machines,” said Patriot Executive Vice President Fred Staudmyer. “But we’ve got to make sure we have plenty of people in the branches because people want to bank the way they want to bank.”

The new branch — which brings Patriot’s total to nine — cost about $3.5 million to acquire and build on a site formerly occupied by Key Bank. It employs 23, including five who service the live-banking consoles.

Patriot is not the only bank expanding its branch system.

First County Bank is set to open Monday a 2,400-square-foot establishment at 1312 Post Road in Fairfield. Taking over a building formerly used as a Fairfield County Bank branch, the downtown location will mark the Stamford-based First County’s 16th branch.

The establishment will employ a team of seven to eight bankers whose specialties include business banking and residential lending. It will also house investment and trust services run by by First County Advisors, First County’s wealth-management division.

“Fairfield is a market we’ve been wanting to get into for quite a long time, but we were never able to find the ideal location until this opportunity popped up,” said First County CEO and Chairman Reyno Giallongo Jr. “We like the town in terms of its demographics and it being contiguous to our existing markets in Westport and Norwalk. We thought it was a logical expansion area for us.”

New Canaan-based Bankwell is also growing its branch network. Between late April and early May, it plans to open branches at 100 Post Road E., in downtown Westport; 1063 Post Road in downtown Darien; and 1145 High Ridge Road in Stamford. With those new locations, Bankwell will have 12 branches.

“We continuously look at where we want to be, and a lot is driven by where our customers are and where we’re getting business,” said David Dineen, Bankwell’s executive vice president of community banking. “Westport and Darien have always been on our radar, and we feel Stamford is a major city and a major area of business.”

Among other notable openings in the area, First Bank of Greenwich expanded last March to Stamford, with a downtown branch at 900 Summer St.

Statewide, the number of bank buildings has declined in recent years. A total of 1,182 bank offices operated as of June 30, 2017, an 8 percent decrease from 2007.

More growth

Patriot, Bankwell and First County are all considering additional branch locations. Customers’ increased online banking does not impede those plans.

“When we look at how customers choose a bank, typically even though a lot of customers don’t necessarily want to go into a bank as often as they used to, they still want to know there’s a bank that is nearby and convenient when they want to have an in-depth conversation with a banker,” said Willard Miley, First County’s senior vice president and director of retail banking.

Customer growth underpins the bullish approach. First County, Patriot and Bankwell are all seeing their assets under management rise by at least several percentage points on an annual basis.

“As Patriot grows, the assertion is our branch network will grow, as well,” Muskus said.