Sewickley Savings Bank, headquartered 11 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, has three branches, 21 employees, a storied 133-year history, and numerous charitable and community causes they contribute to annually.
Behind the numbers are long-time leaders and core values like loyalty, reliability, acceptance, compassion and hope.
President and CEO Michael L. Swaney, who has led the bank for the past five years, is keenly aware of the Sewickley institution’s proud legacy, dating back to post-Civil War times. He carefully shares yellowed copies of newspaper reports from the 1954 Executive Officers’ report, which ran in the Sewickley Herald, and the bank’s 90th and 100th anniversary publications, complete with faded photographs of employees of the past, sporting pompadours, thick-rimmed eyeglasses, bold plaid suit jackets, and beehive hairdos.
The old-time principles frozen in time in those photographs and in the low-slung brick buildings still endure today, in an impermanent, always-on world.
Sewickley: Pace and Place
Sewickley is a Native American term that means “sweet water.”
Historians have long debated whether that namesake “water” referred to the Ohio River, or the maple syrup that flows abundantly from the area’s lush canopy of maple trees. Others suggest it comes from the Indian word for raccoon, “sawi,” and “ukli, which means “town.”
Nevertheless, the name for the upscale borough in Allegheny County–one of the wealthiest in the Commonwealth—has remained since its founding in the 1770s. Since then, the area has been the home to many Pittsburgh Penguins and Steelers legends, including Mario Lemieux and former coach Chuck Knoll.
The “sweetness” pervades the area’s housing, its vibrant business community, and the borough’s 3,800 residents.
The Borough of Sewickley today has its own hospital, YMCA, library, community center, arts center, and countless churches.
Community events include Gallery and Art Walks, Light up Night, a Santa Parade, the Harvest Festival, and the Memorial Day Parade. Bank officers have played live seasonal music at the holiday Light up Night, participated in the Harvest Festival and provided support for the Memorial Day and Santa Holiday Parades.
Across the Ohio River from Sewickley, the region’s Moon Township suffered a major loss of traffic when the landside terminal of Pittsburgh International Airport relocated to neighboring Findlay Township, in 1991. Ever resilient, the township thus shifted its focus from airport commerce to corporate development, residences and serving as the hub of the Robert Morris University campus.
A Bank’s Life
The bank’s talented engine of 21 employees works across three branches: directly on Broad Street in Sewickley; in the former industrial town of Coraopolis; and in suburban, mall-friendly Robinson Township, according to Swaney.
They operate under a lean structure. With few employees, they all wear many hats, he said.
“We do a lot with a little.”
Their efficiency ratio is very low compared to their peers, Henderson said.
The bank was founded in 1884, the year Grover Cleveland was elected President of the U.S. and the scenic rivers of Pittsburgh swelled their banks in one of the worst floods in the region’s history.
The bank began as Sewickley Building and Loan Association, and later became Sewickley Savings and Loan Association.
Formed by local businessmen, professionals and community leaders, the founders included a stone-cutter, a railroad auditor, a grocer, an architect, and a Civil War veteran who served as Sewickley’s postmaster for many years. At its founding, children’s shoes sold for $1.50 a pair, and horse and carriages were the primary mode of travel.
More than 130 years later, the bank still keeps that traditional model of offering basic deposit and loan products.
Recent TV ads for the bank tout that “You’re at home with Sewickley Savings Bank” and the website promises customers a “safe and secure bank.”
With eight bigger banks within close proximity, “the competition from both banks and non-banks is pretty intense,” Swaney said.
Still, quality and down-home comfort rise to the top. The bank has earned a Five Star rating for the past 25 years.
Despite competition, “Our longevity and reputation are long-standing,” Swaney said. “Our customer base tends to be very loyal and multi-generational. We have families that have been with us for many years.”
“Face-to-face connecting is still important to us,” Swaney said. “We give our customers a high level of attention.”
Customers tell the bank their products may not be “exotic” but the bank provides the reliability they crave.
Employee turnover is remarkably low. The average tenure of an employee is 17 years, Swaney said. The previous CEO’s tenure with the bank is 47 years. Vice President and CFO M. Catherine Yankello and Senior Vice President Henderson have both been there for 30-plus years.
The bank has $312 million in assets now, Swaney said. In 2009, that number stood at $285 million.
“We have a very traditional model,” Swaney said. The bank was purely a savings and loan for 90-plus years, helping with savings and home ownership. Only in the ‘80s did the bank add checking accounts, Yankello said.
The growth has been slow, but steady.
In 1884, they had one office.
In 1954, the bank merged with Coraopolis Home Building and Loan. The report of the officers that year, published on January 6, 1955, showed $6.8 million in assets, and promoted an increase in “considerate, rapid service” to prospective home buyers.
“The protection of funds entrusted to us is our paramount consideration,” the report pledges.
In 1981, the Robinson Township office opened.
In 1992, the savings and loan association became a mutual savings bank, Sewickley Savings Bank, which it remains today.
Swaney said the bank’s philosophy has been “slow and steady wins the race.”
“You’ve heard about the tortoise and the hare. Well, we are the tortoise; deliberate, steady and successful”.
“We prioritize quality over rapid growth,” he said.
The 90th anniversary book prepared for the bank’s milestone year showed that the bank gave those who deposited $90 or more in a new or existing account either a steak knife set, a men’s or women’s umbrella or an electric warming tray. Regular passbook savings accounts drew 5 ¼ percent interest.
Reflecting on their longevity, Swaney said, “We survived the Great Depression, two world wars, the savings and loan crisis of the early 1980s, the financial crisis of 2008, and the subsequent “Great Recession” Swaney said.
“We are as strong as ever.”
They are now working to keep pace with the march of technology, offering customers online banking as well as planning to offer mobile banking.
Henderson said they have always strived to maintain a good return on their investments which has provided the bank the ability to grow its deposit base by offering very competitive interest rates. Today, 70 percent of their deposit base resides in CDs, which is “unique compared to most other banks”, Henderson said.
While with a long history in residential mortgage lending, within the past 20 years, the bank began to diversify on its lending side. Competitors such as Quicken Loans, Lending Tree and Wells Fargo, PNC Bank, Bank of America and even local real estate companies with their own mortgage divisions, emerged.
Instead of going head-to-head with them, Swaney said, they entered into commercial real estate and commercial-type loans. They now provide more financing to churches, volunteer fire companies, local townships, school districts, and nonprofits, financing critical items such as school buses, fire trucks and computers.
“These relationships and the money we provide to support our local communities – I feel good about that,” Swaney said. This outpouring includes support for local parades, baseball teams, community food banks plus many other causes.
Management identifies many of the bank’s strengths: it’s high level of capital, liquidity and earnings; its low risk profile; its seasoned management team; its longevity and positive reputation in the community; its high level of personal customer service; and its competitive interest rates, with no shareholders and dividends to pay.
Community Service Legacy
Sewickley Savings was awarded PACB’s President’s Award, the highest award level, in 2016 for their “Grow Your Community” Awards. Their service work through the SECORO Foundation, with both LifeSpan and Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh, earned them recognition and praise.
LifeSpan Inc. is a private nonprofit that helps senior citizens age independently, with dignity and joy. They have redesigned their service model in recent years, from a more restrictive senior-center approach to a more active wellness-centered approach. They decided to offer many opportunities for social interaction for county residents aged 60 and older, who craved independence, activities and companionship.
The bank unselfishly gave $30,000, through the SECORO Foundation, to renovate the kitchen facility used to feed seniors on-site and to prepare meals for the “Meals on Wheels” to deliver to seniors in their homes. The new facility is close to public transportation, free parking, and other popular shops. The center also hosts public meetings, economic development programs, and more.
SECORO later gave an additional $25,000 to LifeSpan, to enhance the quality of life for the region’s high percentage of elderly.
The bank also supports Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh (RTP), through the SECORO Foundation.
For the past ten years, the bank and its foundation have partnered with RTP to sponsor home improvements—both with money and hands-on help. In February 2016, the bank contributed $8,000 toward repairs and improvements to two homes in the area.
Swaney and Henderson recently helped a 94-year-old grandmother with safety upgrades and home repairs at her home located in nearby Mckees Rocks where she has lived for over 70 years.
The SECORO Foundation was started in 2004 by former CEO and President Alex E. Castracane, Swaney said, and has been transformative for the time-honored neighborhood communities in the bank’s service area.
The goal was “to help improve the quality of their lives and make a safe and better environment in which to live,” Swaney said.
For the past 12 years, SECORO has also participated in the “Home Safe Home” program to which they donate $25,000 to $30,000 a year.
The HSH program arranges for contractors to install grab bars in bathrooms, safety railings, ramps, chair lifts and smoke alarms for older residents and those with disabilities at no cost to the homeowners.
Yankello recalls helping a young hearing-impaired man become a home owner. That was 15 years ago. The bank donated property that had been damaged by fire to the nonprofit Hosanna Industries. Bank employees then joined Hosanna in rebuilding the home and restoring livability. The bank then provided this young man and his wife the mortgage to purchase the newly renovated home.
They also helped with the Union Aid Society, who owns and operates a 22 unit apartment complex providing “very well-maintained housing” to low-income seniors, Swaney said. The bank through the Foundation funded safety upgrades for all the apartments.
Asked what stands out in his mind about the bank’s long history and countless achievements, Swaney said, “It’s not a big deal, and it might seem like a small thing, but when parents have their son or daughter come to our bank for their first home purchase, and you see the impact you have made by earning the trust of the parents.” Knowing how unconditionally and completely parents love their children, seeing moms and dads steer their growing children to Sewickley Savings Bank speaks volumes.
“That’s meaningful to me,” Swaney said.
“That’s part and parcel of who we are.”
Henderson agreed. “We know our customers better than anyone.”
The bank’s strong, reliable “products, combined with personal service and attention,” draw that multi-generational loyalty, Henderson said.
With a loyal customer base, a community service mind-set, and a history of caring, through times of poverty and prosperity, war and peace, Sewickley Savings Bank promises to remain a comfortable “home sweet home” for funds and families. If history is foreshadowing, they will do so slowly, steadily—and successfully.