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BROCKTON, Mass. – HarborOne CU’s James Blake knows all about making changes. After all, this veteran banker worked on the banking side for 20 years before he made the move 10 years ago over to the credit union side in what he describes as “the best career decision of my life.” Blake put the same kind of homework he did when he made that career change – he hired on in 1993 as COO with Brockton as the credit union was called then and become CEO six months later – including examining the balance sheet and income statements for the credit union as he did when he determined it was time to recommend the credit union change its name to one he thought better reflected the CU’s expansive field-of-membership. While HarborOne has its roots in Brockton, the state community charter covers four counties – Plymouth, Bristol, Norfolk, and Barnstable – with a total population of 1.9 million. Over the years Brockton CU expanded to the point where most branch locations were outside the city of Brockton and over 70 percent of the members came from outside Brockton. “We’ve been doing research in the marketplace for years and one of the things that consistently came up was the fact there was confusion about whether or not people could belong to the credit union if they didn’t live or work in Brockton,” Blake explains. “We have two distinct markets. We have Brockton, which is approximately 35 percent minority and 55 percent in the school system. Then you have the suburbs, which have far fewer minorities. If you walked into a branch in Canton or in Easton members would be predominately white, middle to upper income, in some areas absolutely upper income.” Overall, “We serve a marketplace of hardworking, pragmatic people. If you respect that, and try to help them with your financial needs, you’ll do very well. It can’t be a mass market approach, and it has to be legitimate and genuine.” The shift in name from Brockton Credit Union to HarborOne was also intended to counter a tendency to view the credit union as a small financial institution confined to one city. People were very surprised when asked if they realized the credit union offered 13 locations and had more than $1 billion in assets. With a number of bank mergers and acquisitions occurring in Massachusetts, including the southern part of the state, Brockton CU wanted to create a more regional presence. “We had to examine our brand and how we were going to present ourselves,” Blake says. “To date we’ve been very successful. Members outside the city were surprised we hadn’t done it (changed the name) in the past. “The city of Brockton is an older manufacturing community. We wanted to make sure people understood the tradition and character of the credit union remain strong. One of the ways we were able to articulate that is that we’re in process of building a new corporate headquarters here in Brockton,” he adds. The 53-year old Blake, is a native of Malden, Mass. A graduate of Salem State College, Massachusetts with a B.S. in business administration, Blake’s pre-credit union employment history includes Atlantic Savings Banks in Chelsea, Mass., then eight years at Mechanics Bank. His last job there before coming to work at the credit union was senior vice president of retail banking and marketing. These days Blake and his family – he and his wife have two children – call Easton – an adjacent city to Brockton – home. Their son is working at Putnam Investments, and their daughter is a junior at University of Massachusetts in Amherst. The family likes to gather as often as possible at a summer cottage on a lake. His sisters, nieces and nephews often join them. The family ties are strong, Blake says, and they enjoy each other’s company. As the cottage suggests, Blake enjoys fishing. Generally every spring Blake, his son, his two brothers-in-law and his son’s best friend head for a fly-in fishing trip in Canada. He’s also an avid Boston Red Socks and New England Patriots fan, likes to read, and enjoys simply spending time with his wife. Like most credit union executives, Blake cites service as key to HCU’s success. He stresses it’s important to measure that. So for the last eight years the credit union has researched its service level. Every week mystery shoppers shop tellers, customer service representatives and telephone contacts. They also check competitors. The shoppers assess what HCU itself has established as best practices. If there’s a dip in performance, “We energize the organization to push that up,” Blake says. The research also covers every member who closes on a mortgage. In 2003 that represented about $520 million worth of business, and HCU earned a 99% approval rating. As refi activity shrinks, HCU anticipates a 50 percent reduction in mortgage business this year. However, the credit union expects its share of market to remain strong. “We’ve built a strong relationship with local builders and real estate companies,” Blake notes. “In the market we’re in that legwork will pay off. In fact, for the first two months of 2004 we were actually ahead of where we had budgeted.” Predictability is another factor in HCU’s growth, Blake continues. “There’s so much discussion today about relationship management,” he says. “One of the things that’s important in any relationship is the ability to be predictable. How will you act under a given set of circumstances? “I think members have gotten a good understanding of how we do business, what kind of rates we pay, what kind of rates and fees we charge – in general, our offering in the marketplace. We’re always in the top 10 percent. Members don’t have to worry about looking at fine print to see if they’re somehow involved in a bait and switch tactic.” Members also appreciate the fact the organization isn’t going to be sold to someone else. For example, HCU’s largest competitor, Fleet Bank, is being acquired by Bank of America. In the past, HCU has actually benefited from such acquisitions. But Blake figures Bank of America has a better reputation than Fleet, and the credit union continues to be concerned about the ongoing cost of technology and the ability of large financial institutions to apply price pressure on smaller rivals. -

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