Spreads Liquid Sunshine
A fence now surrounds the beloved 155 East Butler Street headquarters of Ambler Savings Bank.
It is a temporary barrier as the bank undergoes a major building project, and a paradoxical sight for a bank that has never closed itself off from the community it loves and has lived to serve for 140 years.
For almost a century and a half, Ambler Bank employees have reached out to every corner of the Montgomery County area and the surrounding Philadelphia region, always a leader in erecting bridges, not walls.
Several bank leaders embrace the holiday classic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a fitting metaphor for the bank’s long-term commitment to supporting its neighbors in good times and bad.
Chain-link fence or no, nothing is keeping the bank from staying fully connected to the community.
Proof positive: Ambler Savings Bank was accepting hundreds of atypical deposits last spring: jars of peanut butter, boxes of cereal and elbow macaroni, cartons of corn, and cans of chicken noodle soup.
The collection was part of the celebration of Community Banking Month this past April. Foregoing a lavish party for themselves, bank leaders decided instead to donate to the hungry by collecting canned food for Philabundance, the major food bank feeding the stomachs and spirits of fellow citizens in the Greater Philadelphia region.
More than 50 employees at the bank’s four branches – in Ambler, Schwenksville, Fairview Village, and Limerick – along with customers and community members, donated 459 pounds of food for Philabundance as part of its “Beet Hunger” campaign, and to help the food bank provide nourishment for more than 75,000 individuals each week.
Here in Pennsylvania, about 12.5 percent of households experience food insecurity each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In nearly one-third of those households, one or more members also experienced true hunger. Philabundance leaders often lament the fact that many of their former donors are now recipients, as the languishing economy has turned some generous givers into unwilling, but unavoidable, receivers.
Roger Zacharia, Bank President and CEO, credits Marketing Director Leann Pettit as the brains and heart behind the food drive. Zacharia, a Penn State alum and a certified public accountant, was brought in to the bank four years ago as Chief Financial Officer as part of a planned succession strategy in anticipation of Martin Brown’s retirement recently.
Brown had been the cherished face of the bank, amassing a spectacular 41-year tenure, and earning the distinction of holding the longest tenure of any CEO in the banking industry in the area encompassing the City of Brotherly Love. A newly inducted PACB Hall of Famer, Brown served as the grand marshal in Ambler’s holiday parade this past year, walking the streets ahead of Santa Claus, handing out lollipops and chapstick to everyone, and greeting everyone with a broad smile, despite leaden skies and a harsh winter chill.
Although it was a rain-soaked, icy, dreary day, “He was in his element,” recalls Joan Coleman, Senior Vice President of Lending, who, as of 2015, will have been with the bank a remarkable half-century. Coleman began her career at Ambler Savings Bank in 1965 as a teller and has had a front-row seat on the bank’s, and the town’s, amazing transformation.
The bank also plays an active role in the Ambler Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs.
Zacharia and Coleman are Rotarians; Chief Financial Officer Tom Keenan is a Kiwanian. They are more than just members, however; they are officers and MVP teammates who always have their “give” on.
Keenan, the father of two boys and two girls, hails from Germantown Savings Bank, Commonwealth Bank and Leesport Bank. He is now Treasurer of Ambler Junior Baseball, though his four children have aged out and haven’t played in the league for the past four years. He has also coached sports teams for decades.
Some of his favorite memories are derived from his involvement with the Kiwanis’s Variety Club, devoting his time to children with physical and mental disabilities.
The Variety Club is a “feel-good type of place,” Keenan said. “We don’t just try to make them feel special, we try to make them feel normal.”
He has gone from a three-block commute from his home to Ambler Savings Bank to a three-mile commute as the building project unfolds. The bank and its community service magic are never far from his heart.
The bank also sponsored the second annual Arts and Music Festival in downtown Ambler over a two-day span in mid-June. This signature event brought thousands of people to the area, organized by Ambler Main Street and Ambler Rotary Club.
“It was a wonderful event,” Zacharia said. “We are very proud of our involvement in that.”
The bank donated $5,000 to the inaugural event, which is free to attendees. For the second year of the event, the bank increased its sponsorship to $15,000 to cover the price tag of the musical acts. Bank employees volunteered at the beer gardens, the wine tent and throughout Main Street. The musical stage was located squarely in the bank’s main parking lot along Butler Avenue.
Popular bands included the Secret Service Band and the Sopha Kings. Dozens of art vendors sold original, handcrafted pieces under bright white umbrellas.
Coleman worked the ticket booth at the event and helped to track the funds. “The chairs were lined up, the stage was set, and we had bands playing all day, all kinds of music.”
“It was very well-received.”
With a theater and playhouse nearby, many people made a day of it, she said. It was old-fashioned fun meets twenty-first century Ambler.
Zacharia said they hope to keep the festival as an “evergreen” commitment. Their involvement allowed the event to become self-sustaining this year.
The bank also sponsors the annual Kiwanis carnival and fireworks display on the Fourth of July with a $10,000 donation. One of the marquee events in the community, it is held each year at Wissahickon High School, as everyone from infants to octogenarians turn their eyes to the sky for a pyrotechnics extravaganza.
The patriotic tribute is fitting for a bank that has long been a treasured piece of Americana. Back in 1874, the village of Ambler had only 35 homes, a lumber yard, a coal yard, and two mills. When the bank was first launched, their goal was to help people finance the purchase of a new home.
The bank found one of its first homes at 8 East Butler Avenue beginning in 1939, as World War II began to rage.
By their 75th anniversary, they had financed over 2,000 homes.
In 1955, they built new offices at 44 East Butler Avenue and changed the name to Ambler Savings and Loan Association. They rapidly outgrew that facility and moved to 155 East Butler Avenue. In 1962, they moved into new space graced with a spacious lobby and, for the first time, a drive-up teller window. Over the years, the bank bought two additional buildings to expand its Ambler campus, and to include a dedicated loan office.
In 1974, the year of its 100th anniversary, the bank opened its second branch, in Schwenksville.
The name was changed to Ambler Savings Bank in 2002.
Now, the familiar fixture’s footprint is, uncharacteristically, all fenced in. Wrecking crews started the demolition of their main office building and will soon demolish the lending building.
Bank leaders stress it is a temporary inconvenience for maximum, long-term convenience.
In what Zacharia deems an “aggressive and optimistic project,” the existing Ambler facilities are being torn down and a new headquarters will be built on the corner of Lindenwold and Butler Avenues in the heart of Ambler. It will incorporate ecologically friendly features and house an ultra-modern bank branch.
The brand-new, more modern, more customer-friendly three-story facility will allow the bank to grow even more and to continue to serve customers as an independent mutual financial institution for many years to come.
Built on the same location as the old building, “It will be bigger, better, nicer,” Zacharia said.
Meanwhile, the branch has temporarily relocated 100 yards down the block, to 106 East Butler Avenue in Ambler – site of the former Ambler Athletic Club – next to the Ambler Theater, and near a laundromat and bridal store.
The new building is expected to be completed in 2016.
“We are somewhat of a unique town. Being a community bank, it’s ideal. We have so many businesses. Customers can walk the main street in town,” Coleman said.
Coleman recalls fifty years ago, when she first started at the bank, customers could easily amble downtown. There were two men’s clothing shops, two women’s clothing shops, two gift shops, a toy shop, a Woolworth’s, restaurants, and of course, the bank.
“People knew you by name.”
But those days are not over, despite the pull of technology and traffic.
Consider the legacy of just-retired Martin Brown, Coleman noted. “There are not enough accolades to honor a volunteer so committed to the community.”
During Brown’s venerable tenure, Ambler Savings Bank went from a $25 million institution in 1973 to a $320 million institution in 2014.
Recalling the recent holiday parade, Coleman said, “It was rainy and chilly but so many people were still out with umbrellas. It was liquid sunshine.”
“It’s so nice to have the exposure. It ‘s so nice to be able to say hello to customers face-to-face.”
The trustees are all local, she noted.
So what does Ambler Savings Bank mean to her? “The bank has been my life.”
“I can’t say enough. I’m stumbling over my words but I know what is in my heart. My heart is in Ambler.”
Pointing to a recent mitten tree collection, she said, “We are always trying to think of those who need some help.”
“Personally, I have been so fortunate to have grown up with the bank, to have experienced the many changes in products offered, the joy of helping a couple with their first mortgage loan, and the privilege of serving our customers. It is only right to ‘give back’ to the community; to reap the rewards of knowing we tried to make a difference.” Coleman said.
Keenan echoes that sentiment. “It’s a great town and a great town to be a part of. Everyone knows everyone. I feel very fortunate.”
Clearly, like Jimmy Stewart’s kind-hearted angel-friend, they are all earning their wings, one good deed at a time.
This Community Bank Profile can be found featured in the January 2015 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.