With its crisp mountain air and densely forested hills, Monroe County in northeastern Pennsylvania has long been the setting for coveted outdoor getaways and a picture-perfect playground for adults and families.
Especially in the 1950s and 60s, the Poconos was a quintessential honeymoon haven, attracting the just-married and the just-need-a-break with its cozy cottages, sprawling resorts, and abundant hiking, biking, boating, skiing and fishing. It was—and remains—a pristine land of picturesque waterfalls, winding trails, wooded peaks, century-old pine trees, abundant wildlife, and sparkling lakes first discovered by the Lenape Indians.
As a result, the area’s housing stock consisted largely of vacation homes for discriminating residents of New York City, which was only a short 90-minute drive away.
These homes-away-from-home and lush green resorts were nestled in a county named for our fifth President, whose tenure in the 1820s ushered in the aptly named “Era of good feelings.”
Today, the resource-rich area is transitioning away from that resort town image to become a beautiful backdrop for businesses and bustling neighborhoods, where most of the homes are now single-family residences owned by full-time dwellers.
In a testament to its broad and lasting appeal, the region’s population increased by a remarkable 70-plus percent since 1990. Up until 2008, Monroe County was one of the fastest-growing counties in the Commonwealth, with many of the area’s residents still commuting to New Jersey, New York, or the Lehigh Valley for work.
And as population and prosperity grew, East Stroudsburg Savings Association, or ESSA, was there every step of the way, as a lender, leader, philanthropist, and full-time partner.
Now, ESSA is approaching a peak of its own, as it prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary in November.
In commemoration of the birthday of its state charter, secured on November 1, 1916, during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, a “big party” is planned for employees and customers, said Gary Olson, ESSA’s President and CEO.
Merging the past with the present, ESSA will bring back some of the vendors from yesteryear for its 100th anniversary celebration, along with retired directors and many of the dignitaries of today.
It will be a rich reward for the many people who helped the bank move mountains in its century of growth and giving.
Olson feels fortunate to be at the helm of an institution that has transitioned with the times—and the marketplace. He grew up in the 1970s in ESSA’s universe, when there were 40,000 people in Monroe County, Olson recalls, “Today, there are 165,000.”
Olson is a graduate of East Stroudsburg University (ESU), where his father once taught. As a health and physical education major, the young Olson hoped to follow in his father’s footsteps and teach.
But he took a summer job at ESSA and soon veered off his planned career path like a snowmobile’s path down a wooded mountain slope. Banking became his lifelong passion.
Aside from washing dishes and flipping burgers, the bank job was the “only real job I ever had,” Olson joked. “I am the original homing pigeon.”
The bank began as one branch and two employees, but today has 25 branches and 300 employees.
John Gish founded the East Stroudsburg Savings Building & Loan Association in 1916 at 93 Crystal Street, in East Stroudsburg, operating as a traditional thrift institution. In post-Revolutionary War days, the town had mostly been a farming community until the railroad arrived in 1856, altering and accelerating everything. When the borough of East Stroudsburg was first incorporated, in 1870, it had only 51 houses, and was anchored by a match factory, cigar factory, brewery and silk mill.
After operating from several locations on or near Crystal Street in East Stroudsburg, the bank moved into new headquarters at 75 Washington Street in 1966. In 1969, a resolution was passed, calling for the merger of East Stroudsburg Building and Loan with Commonwealth Building and Loan Association of Stroudsburg and Keystone Building and Loan Association of East Stroudsburg. Completed in 1971, the union formed East Stroudsburg Savings Association (ESSA), with combined assets of $20 million.
ESSA continued to operate from a solo office until 1978 when it built its first branch office inside the Stroud Mall in Stroudsburg. The pace of expansion proceeded at lightning-speed after that mall debut. Additional locations were added in Brodheadsville, Stroudsburg, Mount Pocono, Marshalls Creek, Tannersville (inside Weis Markets) and Bushkill in 1983, 1985, 1989, 1991, 1993, and 1997, respectively.
In 1998, the Brodheadsville branch opened inside Weis Markets, combining convenience with a rich banking heritage in one often-visited location. The Asset Management and Trust Division was added, and a community-centric ESSA Foundation was formed to fund the needs of 501(c)3 organizations in the Monroe County region.
Then in 1998, inspired by an out-of-state bank whose leaders talked about their model at a national banking conference, W. “Jack” Wallie, John E. Burrus, and Richard E. Talbot worked to create the East Stroudsburg Savings Association Foundation. The Foundation was formed to solidify the belief “in returning to the community a portion of the profits to improve the quality of life.” This initiative provided nearly $2 million to the Pocono region. Olson explained, the bank earmarked 10 percent of its net income each year for the foundation to use in awarding grants to local charitable organizations.
Complementing that community focus, more branch openings followed in East Stroudsburg (inside Weis Markets), Stroudsburg (inside Weis Markets), Pen Argyl (inside Weis Markets), and Blakeslee in 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002, respectively. In 2003, the bank completed construction of the new corporate headquarters in downtown Stroudsburg. That same year, the bank’s assets reached a milestone of $500 million.
ESSA grew to include a full spectrum of products and services, including a highly personalized Asset Management and Trust Division. With this broader mission in mind, in 2004 the institution underwent its third name change, becoming ESSA Bank & Trust.
In 2006, ESSA determined that the best way to fuel its continued growth was to convert from a mutual to a publicly owned entity. ESSA Bancorp, Inc., the holding company for ESSA Bank & Trust, received regulatory approval to complete its conversion in 2007. Shares of ESSA Bancorp, Inc.’s common stock began trading on April 4, 2007 on the NASDAQ Global MarketSM under the symbol “ESSA.”
In an authentic “We made it” moment, on April 11, 2007, members of ESSA’s executive management team and board members traveled to New York City to take part in the closing bell ceremony at NASDAQ, where Olson had the honor of ringing the closing bell.
That same year, the Tannersville branch opened, and the ESSA Foundation was replaced by the new ESSA Bank & Trust Foundation, which became permanently funded with $12 million of ESSA stock. Currently run by Suzie T. Farley, the foundation emphasizes five key areas: housing, parks and recreation, education, community health, and the arts.
The bank’s assets reached $1 billion in 2009. Branches continued to open rapidly in 2010 with four new branches in Mountainhome, Bethlehem (inside Weis Markets), Allentown (inside Weis Markets), and Schnecksville (inside Weis Markets).
In 2011, ESSA Bank & Trust expanded its presence in the larger Lehigh Valley region by opening an office in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to house experts in commercial lending, trust, mortgage loan origination, and brokerage securities. That same year, the bank acquired two well-respected employee insurance and benefits consulting firms, now named ESSA Advisory Services and headquartered in the Bethlehem office.
On August 1, 2012, ESSA acquired First Star Bancorp, Inc (“FSSB”) and its wholly owned subsidiary, First Star Bank, and added nine branch locations throughout the Lehigh Valley, in Alburtis, Allentown, Bath, two in Bethlehem, Nazareth, New Tripoli, Palmer, and Wind Gap. After the acquisition of First Star Bank, total assets reached $1.5 billion.
ESSA purchased the deposits, loans, and a branch facility located in Marshalls Creek, Pennsylvania on January 24, 2014 from First National Community Bank (FNCB). ESSA consolidated two of its branches located in Bushkill and Marshalls Creek into the new facility in early 2014 to maximize efficiency.
In April 2014, ESSA acquired Franklin Security Bancorp, Inc. (“FSB”) and its wholly owned subsidiary, Franklin Security Bank, which had two banking facilities serving Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. This acquisition opened the gateway to two new markets adjacent to Monroe County.
In December 2015, ESSA acquired Eagle National Bancorp, Inc. (“ENB”) and its wholly owned subsidiary, Eagle National Bank. ENB operated five branches in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, which spanned Devon, Haverford, Lansdowne, Upper Darby, and West Chester. This acquisition brought the bank’s total assets to $1.8 billion.
From a simple housing-focused bank originally based in Monroe County, the full-service bank now does business from Chester County to Lackawanna County, and Berks to Pike Counties, and even in points beyond.
Olson believes one of the biggest turning points for the bank came in the early 1980s, during the Reagan Administration, when the world of banking was deregulated. The board assembled a strategic plan that led to the phenomenal growth of today.
“We had to learn how to compete so we put together a strategic plan because the government wasn’t going to do it for us,” Olson said.
When the plan was put together in 1983, Olson was only in his 20s, but he considers himself blessed to have had a seat at the table.
“We all worked together to make that happen,” he said.
Copies of the plan are updated every year. He keeps copies of every plan in his office cabinet.
“We just kept putting one foot in front of the other and taking it one step at a time.” When he started, the bank had $48 million in assets, and now has $1.8 billion.
Still, the bank’s guiding principles stayed the same. The bank retained the same talented board and management team for more than 30 years, which Olson believes contributed markedly to their success.
The chairman of the board has been there since 1982. Before him, the chairman was there since the 70s.
“We have long-term directors and a long-term management team working together,” Olson said.
Always tracking metrics, “We are not on the leading edge, but we are certainly on the wave. No grass is growing under our feet, that’s for sure,” Olson said.
“The strategic plan allowed us to compete and to take us to where we’ve gotten today.”
While many big banks still operate in the area, “We are community bankers, so all our competition is friendly competition.”
And where once Pennsylvania had over 500 banks, ESSA feels blessed to be among the remaining 170 banks or so—and to be one of the top 50 in size.
“If you ask customers what they like about ESSA, they would say the culture here. We’re friendly. We’re here to help. We’re here to listen. We’re here to solve and resolve problems.”
“They are looking for a safe, sound, stable institution.”
And more than that, “We are a reliable partner” for the Pocono region and beyond.
Part of the proof rests in the Foundation, which was included in the strategic plan. The mission statement, written with “guiding principles” in the late 1980’s, stated that the bank was to “work to make the community a better place to live.”
At first, most of that work consisted of volunteering at nonprofits. Each year, 25 to 35 percent of ESSA employees volunteer for more than 100 local organizations. In total, bank employees log more than 8,500 hours in yearly volunteer efforts.
“Preserving open space is a big cause, as are children’s activities and causes-such as Children and Youth and the YMCA,” Olson said.
The bank also left its transformative imprint—and name—on the Pocono Health System. Thanks to a big-hearted $1.6 million donation to the medical center, a brand-new, world-class cardiac unit opened in 2005 under the name “The ESSA Heart and Vascular Institute.”
Before the center was built, a resident in need of complex heart surgery, such as a coronary bypass, would be forced to travel to the Lehigh Valley or Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Olson said. But no more.
They attracted a world-renowned surgeon to the area, who still remains.
Consumer Reports now consistently ranks the ESSA Institute as one of top bypass hospitals in the U.S..
“It’s been a good thing for the community,” Olson said.
Families can stay here in the area if patients need advanced cardiac care.
Today, the ESSA Bank & Trust Foundation, established in 2007, has awarded grants totaling more than $10 million to regional entities. The Foundation Board of Directors meets and reviews requests quarterly.
The bank also gives to Stroudsburg Little League, built a baseball field called ESSA Park, and has donated funds to many charitable organizations.
“We’ve donated to hundreds of non-profits, benefitting thousands of families in the markets we serve,” said Olson.
And as he and his staff approach a century of service, they can drink in the God-given natural beauty and know that they were able to move mountains in their own sure and steady ascent.