CBIA seeks to make state less business-hostile in 36 short months

 

In three years, it may be accomplished. If so, Connecticut then be among the top 20 states to do business on every major assessment list.

That’s if the Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA) has its way. The organization has set business preeminence for the state as the goal of its new campaign, “CT20x17.”

“It kind of grew out of disappointment, with some of our member companies, and conversations they’ve had with our president and CEO [John Rathgeber],” says Joseph Brennan, CBIA’s senior vice president of public policy, about the campaign’s origin. “It was born out of frustration that Connecticut hasn’t been moving forward as fast as it could.”

The main, overriding concern that CT20x17 aims to address is economic stagnation, Brennan says.

“Overall, the problem is economic growth. Our economy has been growing very slowly. It’s actually shrunk” over the past several years, Brennan says.

He adds that two top reasons for the state’s lagging economic situation is its transportation infrastructure — including lack of an expanded rail service — and a workforce that lacks training for available jobs, which leaves managers and administrators with “an inability to find skilled employees for [their] businesses,” says Brennan.

Add in factors such as the high cost of housing, highway congestion, energy costs and other variables associated with doing business, and Connecticut finds itself coming up short, Brennan adds.

He points, for example, to a 2013 CNBC survey that listed the Nutmeg State 45th among states for business environment nationwide. The survey considered broad indicators such as technology and innovation, education, business friendliness, cost of living, access to capital, workforce, economy, infrastructure, cost of doing business, and quality of life. In all, 51 specific competitive measures were examined. The measures were determined with the help of input from national business groups.

While the CNBC survey ranked Connecticut high (No. 5 nationally) in the education category, it was positioned at the bottom of the list for infrastructure, cost of living and cost of doing business (Nos. 49, 48 and 43, respectively).

By comparison, Connecticut’s neighbors, Massachusetts and New York, fared better even with comparable metrics in some categories. For example, both border states ranked lower than Connecticut for cost of doing business. The Bay State was listed as No. 47 and Empire State No. 49 in that category. Both also scored low for cost of living: Massachusetts at No. 43 and New York No. 47.

But those low scores were tempered for those states by high scores in areas such as technology and innovation (New York tops in the nation; Massachusetts No. 7) and economy (Massachusetts No. 3, New York No. 14). Overall, Massachusetts ranked 16th, while New York ranked 35th among top states in the country for business, according to the CNBC survey.

The way business is assessed for surrounding states is important to Connecticut because it can affect the economic climate and opportunities here, according to Frank J. Johnson, president/CEO of the Manufacturing Alliance of Connecticut (MAC).

“States that surround us are looking to take our businesses away,” he says. One way to do that is to offer a higher-quality workforce.

“There’s a growing skills gap in Connecticut,” says Johnson. “There’s a huge difference between the number of positions out there and the number of positions [being filled].” Technical jobs in areas such as quality control, computer numerical control (CNC) machine operators, and tool-and-die makers lack qualified people to fill them, he says. Many experienced workers in these areas are retiring, and jobs are becoming available much more rapidly than they can be filled.

State programs such as STEP UP — which provides incentives for businesses to train and hire low-income and/or unemployed workers — help. But they are far from a cure-all, Johnson says.

“STEP UP has eased [the situation] somewhat, but the number of people who can participate in a program like that, it still doesn’t fill the voids,” Brennan says.

However, while Forbes and other surveys report business-ranking findings for Connecticut are comparable to those of the CNBC survey, it must be remembered that many of the variables are not completely dispassionate, Brennan says.

“They’re based on data points that are researched. A lot of it is very subjective,” Brennan says, adding, “I don’t think we’re the 45th worst place to do business — I think we’re better than that.

“We have a great quality of life in Connecticut,” he adds. “There’s great potential in Connecticut. We have world-class businesses here, and an educated workforce. There are a lot of assets.

He acknowledges, however, that perception is key.

“Unless we can eliminate this perception that Connecticut is not a good place to do business,” companies will not take root and/or grow and expand in the state, Brennan says.

Perceptions, as well as “having practical solutions” about the state’s business climate, is where CT20x17 comes in, says Brennan. The organization’s steering committee will determine the direction of initiatives that range from business-friendly legislative support, to better job-targeted training, to educating citizens about the potential for greater middle-class mobility.

“We want to let the voting populace know to vote for candidates” who support CT20x17 goals, Brennan notes about the latter emphasis. “This is the initial stage, just to kind of get [individuals and organizations] buying into the overall concept,” he adds.

Getting the message out to elected officials — and the people who vote them into office –— is one part of the CT17x20 strategy. Media campaigns, community meetings and other directed efforts are all part of the plan to place Connecticut among the top 40 percent of business-friendly states in the country by the year 2017.

General areas of focus include improving the state’s fiscal policy (operating within a consistently balanced budget); reducing business costs and red tape; improving the mass transportation system, including roads, bridges and seaports; and enhancing the talent pool through better education and pipeline opportunities.

CBIA estimates that an initial, roll-out budget will be about $500,000.

“Since this is a multi-year plan, we have no way of knowing what the total spend will be over the next three years,” Brennan acknowledges. “For this calendar year, we will likely spend somewhere between $400,000 and $600,000 on advertising. We generally do all of our creative in-house, so we do not anticipate any spending there.”

In the two months since CT17x20 was announced, dozens of local, regional and statewide entities have signed on in support of it. They include MAC, Connecticut Retail Merchants Association, Connecticut Lodging Association, Bridgeport Regional Business Council, Mechanical Conductors Association of Connecticut, New Haven Manufacturers Association, Business Council of Fairfield County, Motor Transport Association of Connecticut, Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Connecticut, and a number of chambers of commerce, to name a few.

“We don’t have final solutions,” Brennan says. “It’s really a broad coalition.”

“Obviously, we’re supportive of the idea of making Connecticut more competitive for businesses,” says MAC’s Johnson. “We always have wanted businesses to start, grow, survives and of course stay here.”

Johnson says the similar goals of MAC and CBIA make for a natural coalition.

“There’s a lot of commonality in our desired ultimate goals,” Johnson says. “The last survey we did with our members, taxation and the regulatory burden” were among top-priority concerns.

CT17x20 is “timely,” Johnson believes.

“On the one hand, with Connecticut’s budget challenges it’s probably difficult to take on an initiative like this,” he says. But on the other hand, Connecticut must become more competitive with other states, he adds.

Paul S. Timpanelli, president and CEO of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council (BRBC), agrees with Johnson that this is an opportune time the CT17x20 initiative.

“I think we’ve made progress in the past few years. The trend is right,” Timpanelli says, noting that this is an election year. “So I think we can bring some attention to the matter.”

The issue of whether or not to support CT17x20 was brought before BRBC’s board in mid-April.

“The board voted to fully support it,” says Timpanelli.

“I think it’s critical for the future of Connecticut in terms of job growth. The state of our state in Connecticut is not good. We need a regulatory environment and a taxing environment that’s more friendly to businesses.”

Hopefully, the aspect of the  CT17x20 effort to focus on elected officials will be beneficial, says Timpanelli.

“That’s part of the strategy, and we have to place this question much more in the mind of the average voter,” he says, adding, “Hopefully, it’s much more than a business initiative.”

“There are a number of things,” explains CBIA’s Brennan, “that individuals can do to support the CT20x17 campaign. The first step is to become familiar with and spread the campaign’s goals and objectives. Next, engaging in public discourse would be helpful.

“Attend legislative events in your district to engage with legislators and hold them accountable on economic issues,” says Brennan, who offers several ways for the average citizen to become involved. “Write a letter to the editor supporting efforts to improve our economic standing.  Sign up for the CT20x17 campaign, subscribe to the campaign’s social media accounts and attend campaign events. Follow up with your legislators during legislative sessions to make sure they are supporting the goals of the campaign.”

Just talking with friends and family also will have an impact, he says.

“Share information about the campaign with family, friends, work colleagues, etc.,” says Brennan. He adds that one of the most crucial individual actions should not be overlooked.

“Register to vote, become knowledgeable about the candidates, and be sure to vote on Election Day,” he adds.

A website is currently being developed, and information about CT20x17 will be available on it soon, Brennan says.

 

 Acquisition affords New Canaan Bank footprint in N.H. County

 

HAMDEN – Quinnipiac Bank & Trust Co. is being acquired by Bankwell Financial Group, Inc., a move that will expand the latter’s business operations into New Haven County and add $100 million in assets to Bankwell’s coffers.

The acquisition calls for Quinnipiac to merge into Bankwell Bank. Bankwell Financial Group is the holding company for the Bankwell Bank, which now has six branches and one loan office in Fairfield. Quinnipiac is headquartered in Hamden.

“We’ve been looking to get into New Haven County for actually several years,” says Peyton Patterson, president and CEO of Bankwell Financial Group. She adds that as Bankwell has grown as a commercial bank it has sought to extend its geographical reach. She declined to comment about whether other banks had also been under consideration.

“We’re just delighted to be partnering with Quinnipiac,” she says.

The agreement, announced April 1, was unanimously approved by the board of directors of both financial institutions. It is expected to close the third quarter of this year. Terms of the transaction include an exchange of 25 percent of Quinnipiac shares for $12 cash, or $3.6 million in aggregate; and exchange of 75 percent of Quinnipiac shares for 0.56 shares of Bankwell Financial Group stock. Quinnipiac shareholders have the choice of receiving stock, cash or a combination of both.

Quinnipiac President and CEO Mark Candido and Quinnipiac Executive Vice President Richard Barredo conceived Quinnipiac in 2005 as a community-oriented bank, as opposed to an impersonal financial institution. After an extended planning stage, Quinnipiac opened to the public in 2008. It emphasized local service and catering to clients that might have been underserved by larger banks.

Patterson says Quinnipiac’s emphasis on local, hometown banking will continue.

“Clearly, for this to be successful, we have to preserve that,” says Patterson, who previously was president of NewAlliance Bank before it was acquired by Firsts Niagara Bank in 2010. She notes as well that Bankwell’s greater legal lending capacity should help Quinnipiac further the goals on with it was founded.

“They really are a like-minded community bank,” says Candido of his new parent company. “They enjoy a terrific reputation in Fairfield County. They have excellent food drives, clothing drives, blood drives” as part of Bankwell’s community outreach, he adds.

While Quinnipiac’s healthy business operations make this “perfect timing” for the acquisition, the Hamden bank has never been in a position when it felt such a change was necessary to maintain that health, Candido says.

“We’ve been doing so well literally since we opened and, truth be told, we were sought after by a number of banks,” he notes.

Like Patterson, Candido emphasizes that among the advantages of becoming part of the Bankwell group is the ability it will give Quinnipiac to compete with larger banks, such as will lending.

“I truly am excited,” Candido says.

Both Candido and Barredo will remain in positions equivalent to those they currently hold. Candido will head the greater New Haven regional market, and Barredo will continue as chief credit officer.

Bankwell Bank was founded in 2002 as a Connecticut state commercial bank. It is the banking subsidiary of Connecticut bank holding company Bankwell Financial Group, headquartered in New Canaan. This most recent deal with Quinnipiac boosts the holding company’s total assets to $779.6 million. The company’s loans total $632 million, deposits $661.5 million, and shareholders’ equity $69.5 million.

 

 Wells Fargo perfects the art of doing well by doing good

It is not a whim. It’s not a knee-jerk impulse. Nor is it a gratuitous activity. And it certainly isn’t an afterthought.

The community initiatives in which Wells Fargo Bank participates are a part of its DNA, says Kevin Burke, the financial institution’s regional vice president for commercial banking.

“It’s our overall philosophy, from corporate down,” Burke says. “Our view is that we can’t be successful unless the communities we operate in are successful.

That means supporting worthwhile initiatives across the spectrum, from business to the arts to education. For example, Wells Fargo has supported a Gateway Community College initiative that allowed high-school students to take college-level courses. They gain not only advanced knowledge, but save money by earning college credits before entering college.

“It’s more economical” for students, Burke points out.

Wells Fargo has contributed grants to the local community that total in the millions of dollars. In 2011 it contributed almost $700,000 in grants and donations to area nonprofits. Among its future-investing projects is a $300,000 contribution to underwrite the total cost of the New Haven Promise: Partnership for its initial year. A program of New Haven Promise, the program helps students, parents and community members increase college enrollment and help students take advantage of a possible free college education.

Funding is important, yes. But “It’s not just providing funding” for various projects that closely knit Wells Fargo into the fabric of the greater New Haven community. The bank has become a part of the organizations they support.

Wells Fargo affiliates have volunteered for hundreds of local projects ranging from financial education to life and social skills to small-business seminars to arts education. The community members served ranged from students to professionals to retired seniors.

“Our team members participate in these organizations,” Burke explains. They match their own interests to those of the community, and are allowed time off from work to lend support. Burke himself is a patron of the arts, for example. He serves as chairman of the board of the Shubert Theater. He’s been involved for the past decade or so.

Being involved means having first-hand knowledge of what is needed and where Wells Fargo can most effectively deploy its resources — both financial and human.

“In talking to community leaders [in the arts], they told us that government is cutting back a lot on arts funding,” Burke says. So the bank was able to target its resources where they could be most helpful.

For example, as part of outreach efforts a dance ensemble went into New Haven schools to help improve conflict-resolution initiatives for at-risk students. Wells Fargo has also supported New Haven Symphony Orchestra performances in area schools.

Wells Fargo employees have in fact taken time off work to wield hammers and saws, helping to build houses for Habitat for Humanity, a frequent partner with the bank. Last year some 30 Wells Fargo employees worked on a house being built on Congress Avenue, in New Haven’s Hill Section.

Such projects, reiterates Burke, “help bring people into the community.”

The bank is constantly seeking out opportunities to be an exemplary corporate citizen and contribute to the community that it serves.

“We’re going to be teaching in New Haven schools with Junior Achievement in April,” says Helene Robbins, a vice president of Wells Fargo Private Bank and a trust and fiduciary specialist. “There are a lot of dedicated people in this office.” Robbins herself serves on the boards of the Community Fund for Women & Girls, the Gateway College Community Foundation and the ACES Education Foundation. She and some of the staff at Well Fargo’s New Haven office are also involved with the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce, Habitat for Humanity and St. Vincent’s Medical Center.

“Community outreach has always been a common theme here,” explains Robbins, who has been with Wells Fargo and its predecessor banks since 1979. “We’ve gone through a number of different mergers and acquisitions before we became Wells Fargo, and I’ve actually come through most of those organizations. So giving back to the community and getting involved has always been a part of our role."

“There are a lot of wonderful organizations in the Greater New Haven area and they are always looking for new people to serve on their boards, to be volunteers and certainly to be donors,” says Robbins, who lives in Cheshire. “My advice [to bank employees] would be to find out what motivates you, what your passions are and go out into the community and do some good work.”

“For our bank’s community outreach, one of the things is philanthropy,” says Kent McClun, area president of Wells Fargo Bank in Connecticut. “We support a lot of the non-profits in the New Haven area and across Connecticut. But more so, we have a very strong focus on volunteerism. That’s really bringing the 1,500 people in Connecticut that work for us to come together to volunteer time and effort toward the non-profits. That’s what we really put a lot of muscle behind. Not just dollars, but commitment in time and effort that help support the community.”

Southington resident McClun, who has been with the bank for 15 years in different parts of the country, notes that Wells Fargo collaborates with other organizations in New Haven to further serve the community.

“We’ve done some things in New Haven with Yale, the Hope Scholarships, and the Wells Fargo Community Room with the United Way so that non-profits could actually have a place to meet,” says McClun, who serves on the board of the Connecticut chapter of the American Red Cross. “I’m also involved with the Waterbury [Regional] Chamber of Commerce. I’ve been with the bank in Connecticut for the last four years.”

“I’m specifically responsible for community development to help meet our Community Reinvestment Act goals, primarily focused on deploying capital and investments in low- and moderate-income communities,” explains Arnoldo Ulloa, Wells Fargo’s vice president of community development. “I will focus on community development organizations and serve on the board of New Haven Neighborhood Housing Services, which is a non-profit affordable housing developer.”

Ulloa says New Haven Neighborhood Housing Services focuses in the Dixwell neighborhood of the city.

“They have recently purchased several of the foreclosed homes in that area and have converted them into affordable homes for people in the community,” says Ulloa, who resides in Bridgeport and covers the state for the bank. “We donated several homes that were foreclosed and provided some funding as well to [enable] the organization to retrofit those buildings and put them on the market for families that need affordable housing. We’ve also been very active with foreclosure mitigation and have a close relationship with their clients in making sure we provide modifications and other forms of solutions for people that are struggling to stay in their homes.”

Ulloa serves on the board of New Haven Neighborhood Housing Services and the Community Economic Development Fund in Meriden, which serves the entire state.

“My role is statewide, so I try to be positioned close to all the locations I serve,” says Ulloa, who has been with Wells Fargo for four years. “But I have to say that New Haven has been the market where we probably have committed the most — not just in financial resources but also in human capital. It’s a place where there are a lot of really innovative solutions being provided to community development. It’s been a very exciting time to be working in this market.”

Ulloa works with other bank staff on the New Haven Promise scholarship initiative and has provided seminars to parents on 529 savings accounts to help them save for their children’s college education.


“We really try to invest all our time, our people and our financial resources in helping to improve educational access for communities, because Connecticut has the largest achievement gap of any state in the country,” says Ulloa. “We identified that as something that’s a priority and we want to use our resources to help address it. We’ve been very active in improving education — not just in New Haven, but throughout the state.”

Felicia Hunter contributed additional reporting to this article.

 

 HARTFORD — Insurance companies that refuse to underwrite policies for subsidized housing or impose a surcharge for such a policy are breaking the law, warns the Connecticut Fair Housing Center.

Nevertheless, a number of insurance providers continue to discriminate, the center reports.

In a recent release, the center noted that it continues to hear from landlords who encounter discriminatory insurance policies when seeking to gain coverage for subsidized housing for which residents may use vouchers.

One such landlord was New Haven resident Marco Francia, who acquires apartment buildings in distressed neighborhoods and rehabilitates them. According to the center, Francia tried to obtain liability insurance for such a property, but the insurance company selected rejected his application because the property’s tenants used Section 8, federally subsidized housing vouchers. He submitted his application again. It was accepted, but a surcharge was imposed. In addition, he has to assure the insurer that a maximum of only 20 percent of his tenants would  have vouchers.

Despite the Connecticut Superior Court’s ruling that the state’s Human Rights and Opportunities Act’s stance against housing discrimination applies to liability insurance and landlords, the center still receives complaints, it says. It urges anyone who has had such an experience to call 888-247-4401.

 Credit picture still not near 2007 levels 

 

  

HARTFORD — Credit conditions in Connecticut eroded slightly during the fourth quarter of 2013 after reaching high levels earlier in the year, according to the fourth quarter 2013 Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA)/Farmington Bank Credit Availability Survey.

Overall, the credit picture is slightly better than one year ago but still has a way to go to reach the record levels attained back in 2007, before the economic recession.

"While conditions are not ideal, the credit spigot is open for businesses," said CBIA economist and vice president Peter Gioia. "Together with low interest rates, conditions can continue to support growth." 

The Farmington Bank Credit Availability Index (FBCAI) recorded the fourth quarter index level at 38.8, down from the third quarter index figure of 51.4. 

On a positive note, the fourth quarter reading also represents a 29-percent increase from the level recorded one year ago. 

"From the credit surveys, we've seen significant improvement year after year," said John Patrick, president and CEO of Farmington Bank. "Banks like ours are ready to lend to commercial businesses in Connecticut." 

The FBCAI's future expectations component, which measures credit availability three to six months from now, stood at an index level of 40.9, down 20 percent from last quarter's reading of 51.0. 

Negative opinions about future credit conditions outweighed positive opinions by almost a two-to-one margin, indicating that credit conditions are still likely to be challenging for many firms as they move through the year. 

"It's a little disappointing to see the fourth-quarter credit readings slip a bit when we've had other positive signs that the Connecticut economy is rebounding," said Don Klepper-Smith, chief economist and director of research at DataCore Partners in New Haven.

Only 17 percent of respondents rated conditions as either good or excellent, while 53 percent rated them average.

In addition, when asked how they would use credit if available, almost half (46 percent) stated they would invest in new plant and equipment. 

Another 19 percent said that they would use new capital to maintain their current workforce. 

The Fourth Quarter 2013 CBIA/Farmington Bank Credit Availability Survey was emailed to approximately 1,900 Connecticut businesses in January.