Whether he’s grinning and bearing it—or as serious as a Civil Warcannon, banker Howard Boyle gives matters his full attention. One ongoing challenge is how to boost the economy of his hometown of Kent, Ohio, and migrate his Home Savings Bank more toward a commercial base. Boyle’s goal as this year’s chairman of the ABA Community Banker’sCouncil: to foster better banker/association dialogue.
By Steve Cocheo, executive editor,
Ohio banker combines love of traditions with a willingness to improve on accepted approaches. This helps in his banking, his ABA leadership, and his winemaking
Ordinarily, Howard Boyle is a pretty obliging fellow, a classic, can-do community banker. But he’s not fully cooperating today, and you just don’t argue with someone who’s got a six-pounder field cannon standing behind him, a Colt Navy revolver strapped to his hip, and a sharpened cutlass hanging off his belt. You tend to listen to what they say.
“No, I can’t do that,” Boyle insists, shaking his bearded, forage-capped head, as he grounds his rammer—by itself a pretty formidable convincer—on his back lawn.
A photographer has just asked the normally affable Boyle to smile a bit. But Boyle, a dedicated amateur historian and longtime Civil War reenactor, declines to grin. He’ll pose in his uniform as much as the photographer asks, but he won’t crack a smile.
He’s not being shy, just realistic. Boyle, dressed as a first sergeant of Union artillery, explains that during Civil War times, folks didn’t smile for photographs. It simply wasn’t done. And Boyle is a stickler for detail, so, although he’s enjoying himself immensely showing off his unit’s cannon in the rain, the banker looks solemn as a tintype of Abe Lincoln after First Manassas.
Honoring the traditions
As you might guess, Boyle has a thing about traditions of all kinds. When Boyle, 56, isn’t “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,” you may find him involved with a vintage of another kind…
With a little bit of drama, Howard Boyle pours a few glasses of red. He lifts his own, toasts a guest’s arrival, and sips. He “chews” the wine. Considers a moment. And pronounces judgment.
“A little bit ‘oaky,’ but it’s not bad, not bad,” he says. This is more than just a bottle of wine. It represents a blend of ongoing experiment, hobby, and family history.
Tonight’s selection is the latest effort by Boyle and a cousin in their quest to capture the flavor of their Grandma Milano’s homemade wine. While Boyle believes they have generally arrived at the taste of the original family recipe, he still likes to tinker and adjust.
And what Howard T. Boyle II does with wine and war, goes many more times in his banking. Boyle, president and CEO at Home Savings Bank, Kent, Ohio, runs a savings institution that has been doing traditional community banking since 1898. But for Boyle, the status quo isn’t good enough, not for Kent, itself, not for Home Savings, either. For some time, he has been evolving closely held Home Savings to an updated model, respecting the proven and embracing the new. And he brings the same desire for continuing improvement to his service as the 2006-2007 chairman of the ABA Community Bankers Council.
Tinkering with savings charter
When Boyle started working for Home Savings in the mid-1970s, after his Army service ended, the thrift had $8 million in assets and four other employees. (Today it has 43 employees and $100.9 million.) For many years of its history, it might have served as a role model for the “Bailey Brothers Building and Loan” from Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Boyle became president in 1985. In the 1990s, the S&L’s board decided it wanted to get away from its almost exclusive focus on mortgage lending. As residential mortgages increasingly became a commodity, they became an inadequate income source for a smaller lender competing with much larger providers. The board and management decided to do more commercial lending, and changed charters and regulators, becoming an FDIC-supervised savings bank.
“We felt that we needed to get more involved with lending that we could have some control over,” says Boyle, “and we’ve been moving in more of a bank direction ever since.”
Boyle says he has found ABA’s National Conference for Community Bankers and other association events helpful in building the network of experienced contacts that have smoothed Home’s transition.
Also helpful has been the thrift’s devotion to the local market. Thomas Myers, president of Davey Drill, was a personal banking customer for more than 20 years, and moved most of his commercial banking business to Home Savings about six years ago.
Myers says he got “ticked off” at bad service from the large branch banks.
“Maybe I’m just a dinosaur,” says the manufacturer, “but I like personal relationships with my banker. Home Savings isn’t offering the lowest interest rate I could get, but I go there for superior service. I like dealing with someone who is going to give me an answer to a request without having to go ask somebody else.
And I don’t have to constantly repeat my story every time I want to sneeze.”
Transitions can take time, and the bank still does plenty of home mortgage lending, but much of it is securitized or made so it can be. But the bank does more commercial real estate lending and more business lending than ever. In time, this will bring in more business deposits, which will help improve the bank’s bottom line and beef up its return on assets.
“We’ve got a ways to go,” says Boyle.
The Kent that was
As noted earlier, Howard Boyle is a dedicated amateur historian. While he has a strong interest in the Civil War, he really shines when it comes to local history. He is a long-time member, and past president, of the Kent Historical Society, and one is hard-pressed to find any part of the town, the county, or nearby Kent State University that Boyle can’t recite the history of at will. Walking along the Cuyahoga River, which splits the town, Boyle points out the remnants of the Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal, which first put Kent on the map in the 1840s. Major railroads replaced it, and for a long time, Kent was a prosperous railroad center.
But the railroads faded to a scant reminder of what they once were. Passenger service is long gone, but Boyle was instrumental in saving the abandoned train station from destruction. Today it is a popular local restaurant, the Pufferbelly.
Building KENT 2.0
Boyle is one of the city’s biggest boosters. Even today, with a strong team of managers standing behind him, Boyle practices the community feel that would make a George Bailey proud. Indeed, if there were such a title, Boyle’s would be “president, CEO, and CCO”—standing for “Chief Community Officer.”
Boyle knows Kent, and is known in Kent, in ways only a similar community banker would understand.
“It seems as if everyone knows Howard,” says Daniel Smith, executive director of the Kent Area Chamber of Commerce. One begins to believe it. A city bus roars by, and Boyle, standing at a stoplight, is recognized by the driver, who waves.
Boyle returns the wave, as if it were a perfectly ordinary thing, which it is. Mind you, this is in a metro area of around 28,000.
Boyle preaches what he practices, too. Mike Lewis, vice-president, says that one of the first things that the banker told him when he was hired was that Lewis could choose anything that dovetailed with his own interests, but he wanted him involved in community affairs.
“There’s hardly a meeting that goes on in this county where we are not sitting at the table,” says Boyle.
“That’s all part of the deal of community banking, it’s how we extend ourselves. I don’t look upon such things as a burden, I look on them as opportunities.”
Eyesores to showplaces
Kent, business and political leaders say, has long been a community in transition. The gradual departure of the railroad facilities from the 1930s through the 1970s struck a blow, as did the gradual erosion of the northeastern Ohio region’s interests in heavy industry.
Boyle points out that nearby Akron, famous once for tires and rubber goods, doesn’t smell anymore, because those industries faded, and Akron found new alternatives. Kent has also seen most major industrial employers go by the boards, and a gradual comeback has been building momentum. Through this period, a stabilizing force has been Kent State and its students and faculty. The college crowd has helped make downtown entertainment businesses an economic booster.
Boyle serves on more organizations working for the betterment of Kent than one could possibly list. But Boyle brings to the table not just ideas and talk, but Home Savings’ dollars, in the forms of outright donations, and prudently applied credit and credit concepts.
An example of the first is a park in downtown Kent that the bank provided for the community, Home Savings Plaza. The land that the park sits on used to hold several landmark buildings. But the whole half-block burned in 1972, taking 13 businesses and a big piece of downtown’s heart with it.
Home Savings played the major role in the solution. Over time, the bank worked its way through a jungle of ownership issues involving the land. Finally, rights to the entire block were secured, and the bank brought in landscaping and construction crews.
The resulting Home Savings Plaza, the use of which was given to the city to commemorate the bank’s 100th anniversary, makes a nice spot for lunch in the spring and summer, with thousands of bulbs in bloom, and a representative contingent of the city’s famous jet-black squirrels ready to share your food. And, on summer Thursday evenings, the plaza becomes the bank’s combination outdoor movie theater and concert venue. Often Boyle is out there, filling helium balloons.
Downtown Kent is undergoing a transition, says City Manager Dave Ruller, “and we couldn’t have done it without Howard.”
The city has recently been accepted into the National Trust for Historic Preservations Main Street Program, an effort that attempts to assist downtown districts to organize and generate revitalization through local “bootstrap” means. Further, Kent State’s new president, Lester Lefton, has talked of increased efforts to cooperate with the city for mutual benefit. One current example of what this will mean is an incubator for high-tech businesses specializing in liquid crystal technology that a Kent State spinoff, Kent Displays, will be establishing with an $8 million state grant.
And there are many smaller firms that have come to replace the old big employers, many of them still in manufacturing. Boyle says he recently came across a product—battery casings for antique autos—that he only accidentally found out was made right in town.
“Kent doesn’t celebrate all of its successes so well,” says City Manager Ruller. He feels the city has a “blue collar modesty,” arising from its working-class roots.
Applied finance in action
Meanwhile, the downtown’s comeback is a continuing slog, a battle of small moves and successes.
“Howard understands that you can’t sit idly by waiting for the perfect project to show up on your doorstep,” says Ruller. The creation of West River Place is a good example of that.
The 80-year-old Bissler Building, a former furniture store and funeral home, sat on the Cuyahoga, a derelict.
A redevelopment project was conceived, and, after some evolution from the original concept took place, West River Place, LLC, was created by several private investors in the area. Home Savings helped the project with innovative financing.
“I looked at a number of different banks,” says Barbara J. Carlson, one of the owners. “Most wanted us to obtain letters of commitment from every tenant who would come into the building before they would lend us anything. And that was strictly impossible. I needed a bank that was willing to look at this project in a nontraditional way.”
Carlson says Home Savings was willing to structure a “borrow as you go” approach. As each tenant signs their lease, the bank has advanced an additional chunk of the building money. Because the project is a rehab, and because of its shape, it has been practical for tenants to move in while construction in other parts of the building continues.
Wal-Marts, credit unions, and more
Community bankers concerned about growing competition from nontraditional sources have an understanding friend in Howard Boyle. Whether the topic is Wal-Mart’s ongoing attempts to get into banking, or credit unions’ expansion, Boyle “gets it.”
Kent has Wal-Marts north, south, east, and west of it, so anything that the retailing giant gains in the financial services sphere matters a great deal to Boyle.
“They would be a problem for us,” Boyle says. “They would be the low-cost provider.”
Credit unions are a formidable competitor for consumer and auto loans. The $29.6 million-assets Kent Credit Union, which is open to anyone in the area, took over the student credit union at Kent State in late 2006.
“I wouldn’t care if credit unions were competing with us, if they competed under the same rules I do,” says Boyle. But because they have advantages over banks by statute, he says, it’s critical for ABA to address this priority issue. “We need to be able to compete on a straight-up basis,” Boyle insists.
In a similar vein, regulatory burden needs to be addressed because it creates an unfair advantage for larger institutions over small ones. Boyle points out that the large branch banks that he competes with have central compliance and other staffs to address such issues.
Boyle believes facilitating banker-to-association communication will be his key role as ABA council chairman.
“I’ll feel I’m successful if I can get people to tell ABA what they are thinking,” says Boyle. “I want them to tell ABA what their problems are, and how ABA can better help.” A special goal for Boyle during his term has been to assist ABA to find ways to recruit more savings institutions.
Boyle’s cherished cheroots
Boyle knows when to work hard and when to relax. Weekends, he enjoys sailing on Lake Erie in Jersey Girl, named for his wife, Linda Boyle, who comes from New Jersey, and daughter, Kelly, who lives there. Weekdays, a cherished relaxation ritual is his Thursday afternoon cigar smoke with two local stockbrokers. For years, the three have huddled in the bank’s boardroom, enjoying the fellowship of smoke and conversation.
Recent Ohio anti-smoking legislation has threatened the tradition, but Boyle, in typical can-do mode, feels certain that won’t be a long-time barrier. BJ
Tramping with the Boyles of war
Long before getting into Civil War reenacting, Howard Boyle had experience with artillery—very big artillery.
Boyle served in the 74th Artillery Detachment, in Lagerleckfeld, West Germany, in the early 1970s. He guarded, and later, drilled in the firing of, Pershing missiles. He looks back on it as the worst job he’s ever had. Why? “Boring!” says Boyle.
Not so Civil War reenacting. Boyle’s interest in reenacting came about through his older son, Tom, now 23 and an investment banker in New York City. The Boyle family went to a local reenactment one year, and young Tommy, fascinated, said he and Howard ought to join up. Boyle found that the boy was too young, but promised that they’d look into it when he reached ten.
The banker says he thought his son would likely forget the whole thing, the way kids do. Boyle himself has long been a Civil War buff, but not every armchair soldier chooses to leave the armchair.
But on his tenth birthday, Tommy called in his dad’s promise, and asked when they were going to follow the drum. Thus the Ninth Ohio Independent Battery and Light Artillery reenactment unit, based on a real unit that was recruited from Boyle’s part of Ohio during the war, gained two new recruits: Pvt. (now First Sergeant) Boyle and Tommy Boyle, “powder monkey” and sometime bugler. The Boyle’s younger son, Colin, now a sophomore at Seton Hall University, joined the action a few years later. (The Boyles’ oldest child, daughter Kelly, lives near New York City, where she works in publishing.)
The Boyles’ home contains Howard’s “War Room,” a mini military museum sporting muskets, bayonets, swords, and more. It is also the home of Howard’s Civil War clothing closet.
Why doesn’t he just hang up the uniforms in his bedroom closet? Boyle explains that, for the sake of realism, reenactors don’t wash their uniforms too often. And they are heavy, dyed-in-the-wool (literally), itchy, hot, year-round woolen uniforms. Boyle says the diehards want the feel of what a real soldier, unable to bathe or wash for days at a time, would feel.
Considering all the time spent sleeping on the ground and stomping through woods and fields; sweating to pull a cannon into place; and going through the loading and firing routines, frequently with real gunpowder (but not shells or cannon balls) things can get a bit rank. And that’s nothing to do with insignia.
In addition, Boyle acknowledges, sometimes he brings home “critters” in his clothes. Linda Boyle, hearing all this told to a visitor, just smiles the smile of a patient spouse.
Rodents and reenactors
Boyle can tell all kinds of reenactor stories. One night in the mid-1990s, as he
and his son Tom tried to sleep in their pup tent near Gettysburg, a fellow reenactor yelled to Boyle that he was headed back to his car, in full retreat.
“The mice are eating all my leather!” the reenactor complained.
Boyle struck a match—he smokes big fat cigars, so he’s got them handy—and sure enough, little field mice were crawling all about the tent. The Boyles hung up all their leather belts and pouches to get them away from the nibbling creatures. They resolved to stick it out like real soldiers. However, neither slept much the rest of that night.
History in first person
Boyle has attended close to 50 events, all told, over more than a dozen years. When you ask Boyle what really clinched reenacting for him, he tells the story of his first reenactment. His unit was part of a tactical event that called for a great deal of movement by the artillery. At the time, the unit had a mountain howitzer, a 450-pound weapon. Most of the Ninth Ohio’s movements during the event were cross country, chasing reenactor infantry. There were no horses; only ten very tired, sweaty guys manhandling the metal monster over hill and down ravine, lifting it over fences.
Finally, the event was over, and it was time to go back to the unit’s campsite. Someone proposed a shortcut, one of those, “as the crow flies” routes. The bedraggled troop could soon see their campsite. Relief grew.
But then came the bad news. The “short-cut” meant going down yet another gully, across another stream, and up one last *!@#*$%@ hill.
Some guys might have wanted to roll the cannon to the edge of the hill, give it a good push, and hitch into town for a few modern cold beers. But not Boyle.
“I thought to myself,” says the banker-historian, “‘I don’t want to forget this. This is like being in a living Civil War photograph, except it’s all in color.’
“I thought, ‘I’m getting to experience everything they saw and smelled. The vivid colors. The smell of the battlefield. The smell of the sweaty woolen uniforms. The smell of the cigars and pipes. This is how they lived, this is how they felt’.”
It is even possible that, at that moment, Boyle smiled. — Steve Cocheo
The electronic version of this article available at: http://lb.ec2.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/sb/ababj0207/index.php?startid=28