Banking On New Haven

First in a Two Part Series On The Personal Side of Banking In Greater New Haven

By Mitchell Young


moeny tree handsFrom Connecticut’s small businesses to its corporate titans, no business grows without a strong financial base. Whether our market is across the globe or around the corner, those that have the right financial partners have a leg up on the rest of us.

New online finance solutions and credit algorithms are getting a lot of buzz, but according to some bankers, at least, shoe leather and a handshakes still rule the day.

We talked to eight New Haven County bankers and asked them to participate in our little “baseball card” round up so readers could see the people behind New Haven’s “high-touch” banking.

Connecticut bankers and market experts have told us for years that Connecticut is “overbanked.” Ask a business manager and they will likely “appreciate” the options. 

With many long standing banking institutions, New Haven County’s most successful bankers are of and tied to Connecticut companies and their local communities. 

Our snap shots and the comments below will provide some the opportunity to start the conversations or to build the relationships that these bankers said is the way they do business.

“We’re quite busy, as a local community mutual bank we’re finding a lot of opportunity. Myself as a professional and as a person, I like the role of community banker. The industry is consolidating and there is a difference in how you experience a community bank and a very large bank,” explains Milford Bank’s Paul Portnoy adding, “I enjoy getting up in the morning.”

Getting up happy isn’t always on the table, however. Several of our bankers told us that Connecticut’s challenged economy is making it harder for many of their customers and Connecticut companies in general.

Local banker and community icon Jeff Klaus of Webster Bank notes times have changed, but perspective helps.  

“My first banking job [then New Haven Savings Bank], I worked at the Fairhaven branch. One of my main jobs was to break up fights in the parking lot.” He adds, “it’s a quieter branch now.”  And today’s economy is a challenge, but Klaus has seen worse. Early in his career, in the recession of the late ‘80s and early ’90, banks dropped like flies throughout New England.

“I was at CBT in Hartford, one quarter we made $50 million and the next quarter, lost a billion.”

Klaus, who is the regional president and runs the Connecticut Middle Market group, says the economy is not fully recovered from the most recent recession.

I believe Connecticut technically is in recession, we have weak fundamentals. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t have two conversations with clients or prospects where the fiscal state of the state isn’t discussed.”

While the macro is gloomy, Klaus explains there are companies navigating somewhat better than others, “if you sell a technology-based product or service internationally or domestically, but outside of Connecticut, you may be doing very well, we do have clients like that.”

People’s United Bank’s James MacDonald also serves a larger company market [to $50 million in sales] and he echoed concerns from Klaus, saying of his clients, “many are doing remarkably well given the general business climate [in the state], those customers that have diversified throughout the country and in many cases, overseas.”

MacDonald says government approach to business rankles business people and undermines the state’s economy, explaining, “I would say it is a universal concern that my customers voice. Connecticut cuts deals for the “Pratts” of the world only when they’re faced with a significant number of employees leaving. But the business that’s doing $25 million with 120 employees, they generally think those companies have no where to go and view them as captive.”

He adds, however, that analysis is no longer accurate in his market, and its why jobs leak out of Connecticut, not just up and leave. “What some of the politicians don’t understand is that there are many companies that are privately owned that have opened satellite manufacturing in South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, and elsewhere. They made a decision to go there going back sometimes twenty years. They, we, all have the natural inclination to survive. I’m born and raised in Connecticut, I want them here.”

Liberty Bank’s Dan Quesnel was himself a small business owner for several years and views his job through that lens in his part of the banking market.

“Things are improving, especially coming out of ‘09 and 2010. Banks are lending again, I know Liberty is.”

With his background, he’s also an advocate for his sector, saying, “there is more emphasis on the small business, not just because that is where the growth is, but we have a responsibility to foster small business, that’s where the innovation is going to come from.” 

His assignment in New Haven County may be part of the reason for his optimism, he joined several of his colleagues in explaining that the New Haven region is a bright spot for the state.

“I see New Haven as a very strong area for Liberty Bank and the state in general. When you include the suburbs, there is a tremendous amount of growth and not just in service industries. There is a lot of light manufacturing, a lot of hard core businesses.”

Klaus joined that rosier view of greater New Haven, “New Haven has a blue bubble over it, it is a fairly healthy submarket. [Greater] New Haven’s economy among large cities [in Connecticut] is the best right now.”

Start Bank’s Tom Whitbread is a small business banker, Start being a 6-year-old bank that climbed to $100 million in assets in that short time and focusing on small and somewhat larger companies. Whitbread says the market is mixed.

“The market’s still tepid, it’s growing, opportunities are there, but it’s still soft. I think everybody will agree with that.” Adding, however, about the city itself, “I think you see things associated with the university, the hospitals, that are buoyant, you see neighborhoods like East Rock that are doing well.”

Mike Sulkis of Bankwell also weighed in on the city of New Haven saying, “the market post-recession remains relatively healthy. New Haven is interesting, because it is supported by health and education - by Yale, to a lesser degree Quinnipiac, UNH and Albertus, there is a different dynamic [than the rest of the state].”

Sulkis added, “New Haven typically lags the rest of the country in terms of job growth, but the city itself seems to be a great incubation area. We still saw activity throughout the down period, and we continued to lend, we got involved in projects around the county. We still see decent activity and remain cautiously optimistic. Our phones haven’t stopped ringing for commercial real estate lending. We’re competing with other banks, we’re not getting every deal.”

Steve Villecco of United Bank is another seasoned banker and he is happy with his move to Rockville Bank [which then merged with United Bank] five years ago. Like MacDonald and Klaus, Villecco is after the bigger fish, he says , “I chose United Bank because of its size, at six billion [in assets] we can compete with the big banks and the community banks. It gives us a great ability to navigate across the market.”

Villecco supports some comments about the competitive nature of the market,  “it is very competitive, in that $5-50 million range, banks are looking for credit quality more than ever. For those established companies that are well-managed and profitable, all the banks are talking to them. It is a different story for start-ups or those that have had a bad year or two.”

Villecco joins the chorus on the overall strength of the economy, “its been in neutral, I’ve seen some companies that have grown well since 2009 and others saying they haven’t been able to invest because things are tightening up, expenses creeping up, there are some bright spots, but the general feeling – neutral.”

Ion Bank’s name is a symbol of the bank’s desire to grow in the region [formerly named Naugatuck Savings Bank]. Lee Fernandez was recruited to help make that happen.

Fernandez brought up the banks SBA lending, noting, “we focus on commercial real estate, investment property, SBA lending. We’re an SBA preferred lender, so we’ve been doing a lot of SBA. We’ve ramped up our SBA production and we’re hoping to double it in the next couple of years. We do the 504 and 7A loans.”

As an experienced but young banker, Fernandez says he was attracted by the opportunity that Ion presented, competition be dammed. He says, “I saw it as a very active environment, I’ve had experience [12 years] at other banks and the culture is very different. It’s a mutual bank, we focus on serving the needs of the community. Our employees live in New Haven County, our customers live in New Haven County and we’re just focused on New Haven County, that’s just a different mindset than what I had coming from a bigger bank. Which is great.” 

And great is good.

JeffreyKlaus medResJeff Klaus 
Webster Bank

Age: 55

Where you grew up: New Haven

Education/Military Service: Rutgers College, B.A., History; UCONN MBA, Finance

Mother and/or Father’s Occupation: Mother retired as the Director Of Admissions at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science; Father retired as a physician and researcher.

 First Ever Job: Summer lifeguard at Camp Farnam

First Full Time Job: Management Trainee at New Haven Savings Bank

 Years in Banking: Since 1984 [32]

 Years at Current Bank: 9

 Current Position: Webster’s Regional President for Connecticut

 Favorite New Haven Region store or restaurant: 116 Crown

On my day off .....“ Cooking and spending lots of family time with as many of the 5 kids as we can gather together

 Most satisfying banking deal in my career: Bringing to life the Elm City Market with an initial mortgage loan

Community service board membership etc.: Many, including founding board member of Amistad Academy/Achievement First; NH Chamber Board member; and Mayor Harp’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Literacy

portnoyPaul Portnoy

Milford Bank

Age: 62

Where you grew up: I grew up in Fairfield

Education/Military Service: I graduated from the University of Connecticut (Storrs) with a B.A. in Economics

Mother and/or Father’s Occupation: My mother was an art teacher and my father was an accountant

First Ever Job: My first job was handling a newspaper route, delivering the Bridgeport Post to homes in my neighborhood.  

First Full Time Job: My first full time job was as a Connecticut State Bank Examiner.  

 Years in Banking:  I have been in the banking industry for 40 years

 Years at Current Bank: I have been at The Milford Bank for 11 years.

Current Position: My current position is as a Commercial Lender. I split my time between a dedicated commercial loan production office in New Haven and the main office in Milford

Favorite New Haven Region store or restaurant: My favorite store is the Guitar Center in Orange. As the sales people can probably attest to, I spend countless hours window shopping.

“On my day off .....” I like to spend time outdoors walking and biking. Connecticut is a beautiful state.

Most satisfying banking deal in my career: Over my career I have done many loans. My most satisfying are relationship-driven where I work with the client over a number of years to help achieve their goal. One in particular was a business which did a series of acquisitions over a number of years that I financed. In addition to being able to help him achieve his long-term vision of building a regional company, he was able to sell the business at an opportune time which allowed him to pursue other interests. We continue to talk to each other periodically.

Community service: I am a board member of the New Haven Boys & Girls Club, Jewish Community Center, and the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce.

macdonald wJames Macdonald 

Peoples United Bank

Where you grew up:  Thomaston, CT

Education/Military Service: I attended American University, in Washington, DC and later received my MBA from the University of New Haven.

Mother and or Father’s Occupation: My father was the General Manager of Waterbury Buckle Co (now owned by ITW) where I spent summers working for the then minimum wage of $1.95/hr.  My mother was a school and then VNA nurse.

First Full Time Job: My first job was with the former Berlin Savings Bank(now part of Webster) in 1979 where I began as a teller and eventually moved up to branch manager.

Years in Banking: I have had the privilege of working in the commercial New Haven market continuously since 1985, beginning with Connecticut National Bank at 1 Church St, then Webster Bank, and today at Peoples United Bank at 265 Church St (commencing in 2002).

Years at Current Bank: 14

Current Position: First Vice President/Market Manager

Favorite New Haven Region store or restaurant: It is difficult to identify a single New Haven restaurant as my favorite, but the bar was set very high early on when I was introduced to the old 500 Blake St Café in Westville.  In the intervening years, there are just too many restaurants too good to single out any one spot.

“On my day off …..” you’ll find me playing golf and when the weather doesn’t cooperate, I am playing my piano in my living room as I took up the piano 4 years ago.

Most satisfying banking deal in my career: I was involved in banking the leading sports apparel manufacturer headquartered in New Haven;  I also was fortunate to assist in a management buyout of an underwater construction company.

Community service: I was a board member of the New Haven Boys and Girls Club for many years.  I was a 20+ year board member of Leeway, Inc. a non-profit nursing home for people with AIDS.


Age: 48

Where you grew up:  I was born and raised in New Haven where I attended New Haven public schools

Education/Military Service:  B.A. and MSM from Albertus Magnus College

Mother and/or Father’s Occupation: My mother was a stay-at-home mom who had her hands full keeping up with me and my brothers. My father was an elementary school teacher in New Haven for 38 years. He was also the first male kindergarten teacher in the State of Connecticut.

First Ever Job: Stocking groceries at the former Crown Kosher Supermarket on Whalley Avenue in New Haven.

First Full Time Job:  I worked for the Credit Card Division of People’s Bank.

Years in Banking:  26

Years at Current Bank:  5

Current Position: First Vice President of Commercial Lending

Favorite New Haven Region store or restaurant: The original Frank Pepe’s of course!

On my day off .....”  I enjoy spending time with my wife and kids.  This includes listening to my daughter and son as they study their musical instruments as well as watching them participate in martial arts. We also enjoy day trips throughout Connecticut.  This time of year we enjoy apple picking at Bishop’s Orchards in Guilford, museums / galleries in Greater New Haven, and the amazing shoreline and beaches before it gets too cold.

Most satisfying banking deal in my career:  Very early in my commercial real estate lending career, I was able to provide commercial mortgage financing for a father and son who together owned a well-respected local contracting company.  As a result, they were able to purchase their first light industrial property in East Haven from which they were able to grow their family business.   

Community service:  I am a past board member of the former Domestic Violence Services of Greater New Haven and I am currently an adjunct lecturer at Albertus Magnus College.

Tom Whitbread 1Tom Whitbread

Start Bank

Where you grew up: Syracuse, New York

Education/Military Service: Undergraduate – foreign languages/international studies, Graduate – MBA in Finance; CFA

Mother and or Father‘s Occupation: DND

First Ever Job: Delivering newspapers in my neighborhood

First Full Time Job: International Treasury (cash management/foreign exchange management) at Mannesmann Capital Corporation, New York, NY

Years in Banking: 25

Years at Current Bank: 6

Current Position: Senior Lender

Favorite New Haven Region store or restaurant: Portofino

On my day off .....” I enjoy Woodworking

Most satisfying banking deal in my career: Business acquisition financing for a young New Haven resident and business; watching both mature and succeed

Fernandez LeersLee Fernandez

Ion Bank

Age: 35

Where you grew up – Prospect CT

Education/ Miltiary service – Post University, Bachelor of Science in Business Administration

Mother and or Father’s Occupation- My mother was seamstress for a necktie factory in Waterbury. My father was a small business owner.

First Ever Job-  Holiday Hill in Cheshire CT

First Full Time Job: CitiFinanical as a Loan officer

Years in Banking: 12 Years

Years at Current Bank: 1 year

Current Position: Vice President, Commercial Lending

Favorite New Haven Region store or restaurant: Adrianna’s

“On my day off .....” Spend time with my wife Jillian and my two children Jackson and Isabella.

Most satisfying banking deal in my career -  I worked with a manufacturing company that had become over leveraged. The high payments were affecting the company’s ability to grow. We were able to restructure their debt and lower their payments. Since then, their sales have doubled and they are continuing to grow. 

Steve Villecco United BankStephen Villecco 
United Bank

Age: 56

Where you grew up: I spent my early childhood on Pearl Street in New Haven and then moved to southern Hamden.

Education/Military Service: Hamden High, 1978, Providence College, 1982

Mother and/or Father‘s Occupation: my Mother was a Regional Bank Branch Manager and my Father worked for the U.S. Postal Service.

First Ever Job:  Busboy at Laurel View Country Club, Hamden

First Full Time Job:  SNET – sales of yellow page advertising

Years in Banking: 33 years

 Years at Current Bank: 5

Current Position: SVP Regional Commercial Banking Manager

Favorite New Haven Region store or restaurant:  Modern Pizza

On my day off .....“ Priceless times to play golf with my two boys (now in their late 20’s) and my daughter (19).  Best 4-some and my wife doesn’t mind since she doesn’t play.

Most satisfying banking deal in my career: Having grown up in southern Hamden, it was quite satisfying to partially finance the rebuild of a manufacturing company in the Putnam Avenue area of Hamden in the aftermath of the 1989 tornado. I used to walk by the company on my way to middle school for 3 years and frequently rode my bike through the area to visit friends or play basketball at a nearby park.  

Any community service board membership etc.: Currently Board member of New Haven Chamber of Commerce. Former Board memberships on the Clifford Beers Foundation and Boys and Girls Village in Milford.