A More Perfect Union

A More Perfect Union

Union

Union Building & Loan Savings Bank and Bridgewater

You used to be able to smell the delicious aroma of freshly baking bread from one end of town to the other.

So recalls one of the faithful employees of Keystone Bakery, a family-owned business with 125 years of history in Beaver County, a smokestack region located 20 miles northwest of Pittsburgh along the western bank of the Beaver River.

But in 1985, Keystone’s bakers ruefully baked their final batch of bread, shut off the ovens, emptied the baking pans, and wrapped their last loaves.

In a bitter ending to a sweet success story, Keystone Bakery succumbed to the rigors of the economy and a trend toward state-of-the art mega-plants that left little Main Street bakeries like Keystone cooked.

When this Bridgewater landmark and major employer turned off its ovens, after mixing it up since the start of the Civil War, its demise stood in stark contrast to the sweet survival story of yet another local Bridgewater institution also buffeted by the rigors of the economy, a merger-and-acquisitions stampede, and the slow march of technology.

Union Building & Loan Savings Bank has been operating in Bridgewater, Beaver County since 1886. And the bank goes on. That longevity in and of itself is extraordinary, although CEO Mark Nelson is steeped in modesty when speaking of his bank and his leadership.

Union Building & Loan is one of only two area banking institutions that has survived, said Nelson.

He is notably modest about his bank’s achievements, “knowing our limitations,” and preferring to work quietly to simply “be good at what we do.”

And that understated pride and humility is part of the bank’s secret to survival, and success.

The bank and its eight employees take part in the community in dozens of small but meaningful ways: bookfests, pumpkin festivals, Christmas light-up-the nights, spring flings, regattas, and Fourth of July fireworks celebrations are part of their community investment through all seasons. Their staff members are also active in the local Rotary Club, Meals on Wheels, and the Beaver County and Rochester Chambers of Commerce.

With one branch office, on Leopard Lane in West Bridgewater, Nelson is proud that his bank is “well-known, well-regarded and well-respected.” And they are not going to change their spots.

Part of their community presence is solidified by spots of a different color: advertising spots. Over the airwaves travels the advertising jingle in their radio ads, which were produced by their own employees.

Nelson wrote the original jingle himself and helped produce the spot; in true home-spun Bridgewater style, his staff members are the talent.

This exposure has led the bank to hold the number-one berth in the county for construction mortgages.

With a new cracker plant expected to open its doors just a few miles away, realtors and builders have seen a terrific uptick in activity, and a new road system is now underway.

“We are excited by the possibilities,” Nelson said.
The bank has been handling nearly 50 percent of the new construction mortgages in the area, Nelson said. But not all is rosy.

He knows that the regulatory environment is a threat to the good things Union is doing, and he is constantly reminded of the unintended consequences of well-meaning regulatory moves.

But like Union, Bridgewater is a survivor. Far from stagnant, it is a bedroom community undergoing a revitalization. In recent years, a new fire department building has been built by the borough; townhouses and condominiums are filling the horizon; and a new bridge connecting Route 51 and Route 65 is on track to open later this year, bringing a welcome influx of traffic through the Bridgewater community.

Although no large businesses call the area home, many doctor’s offices and small medical clinics operate there, along with mom-and-pop shops, with financing help from Union.

The county seat of Beaver just undertook a face-lift of its Main Street streetscape, as did Bridgewater.

One new building that was recently constructed and opened for business holds a public accounting firm and retail shops. Another, a one-time G.C. Murphy store, now houses an Italian restaurant and a Starbucks.

The bank participates in the county’s First Time Homebuyers Program and homeownership counseling.

With seven full-time employees and one part-time, Nelson noted that, “We are very lean that way, but we seem to get the job done,” Nelson said.

They see it as their responsibility to educate people even if they are not the lender of choice.

“A customer is not just a number,” Nelson said. “That is truly true here.”

Tellers know the personalities and extended families of their customers, and are ready with a joke or a serious planning session. While other banks may be pruning their branches, Nelson knows that many customers still want to meet, know and talk face-to-face with their local banker.

Their radio ads reinforce that dynamic. The 60-second spots emphasize that Union does not invest in products – in stocks or CDS – but in people. That is the way the bank has operated for more than a century – and why.

Nelson himself has been at Union Building & Loan for 20 years. Before Union, he worked at Mellon Bank in Pittsburgh, compiling a grand total of 35 years of banking experience, and gaining a well-rounded vantage point upon bank operations both big and small.

Other Union Building & Loan supporters also have a long and stellar record. Four of the seven full time employees each have over 30 years of banking experience.

They also have six bank directors, of which five are from outside the bank.

One director has been serving since 1954, a whopping half a century. He is still very spry and very engaged, Nelson said with pride and admiration.

Because Union is not a stock corporation, they answer only to their customers.

“Union Building & Loan Savings Bank has survived when others have not,” said Nick DiFrancesco, of PACB, “because their recipe for success is doing simple but necessary things right. And they remember that their products are not accounts or loans; they put people first.”

“The bank has exhibited a great determination to endure, to overcome obstacles, and to carry on,” DiFrancesco said.

And although outstanding businesses like Keystone Bakery no longer scent the air above Bridgewater, the townspeople know where their bread is buttered.

With their simple philosophy and engaged, community-minded employees, the bank has been able to mirror the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, and form a more perfect Union.

This Community Bank Profile can be found featured in the April 2014 issue of Transactions. Not a subscriber? Visit the Transactions page on this website or call PACB at 717-231-7447 to start receiving the magazine.