Architect in Life: Banker Takes the Long View in Front Office

By JAMES KINSELLA

In his earlier years, Chris Wells thought about becoming an architect. As it turned out, he did become an architect - not of bricks and mortar, but of the hopes and aspirations of people's lives.

Mr. Wells, 40, had learned what banking could mean for the people in a community.

"You're helping people to where they want to go," said Mr. Wells, who is possessed of a ready smile and a relaxed manner. "You deliver it, and then you watch it develop in front of you. There's a lot more immediate gratification in banking. There's a lot of it every day."

If Mr. Wells knows he likes banking, the board of trustees at Dukes County Savings Bank knows that it likes him. Last year, the board appointed him president of the institution, which is preparing to celebrate its 50th birthday next month.

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Henry Corey, an Oak Bluffs attorney who was among the founders of the bank and who still sits on the board, characterizes Mr. Wells as "personable, knowledgeable and very well aware of community banking."

But Mr. Wells was not necessarily looking to go into banking when he graduated with a degree in business management from Keene State College in Keene, N.H. He was looking for a job. He found one as a teller at the Cape Cod Bank and Trust branch in Harwich Port.

Within a week, he knew he loved it.

While at the bank, he also got to know Jim Rice, then president of the institution. Mr. Rice had an emphasis on what he called the circle of banking - one that consisted of the bank's customers, its staff and its responsibility to itself. And that has stayed with Mr. Wells as a key part of his management philosophy.

In 1994, he moved to Bank of Boston, where he started out in commercial lending. He later moved to the bank's Private Bank office in Yarmouth Port, an operation founded to serve the needs of wealthier individuals. Along the way, he worked on projects to acquire smaller banks for Bank of Boston, such as Pacific National Bank on Nantucket and Falmouth National Bank in Falmouth.

After a brief stint at Fleet, he moved on to become a vice president at Merrill Lynch in Hyannis. He had been there five years when he learned that Dukes County Savings Bank was looking for a president to replace Edward (Ted) Mayhew, who was retiring after 25 years as the bank's president. Mr. Wells, who wanted to stay in the Cape and Islands area, decided to go after the post.

While he did not set out to become a bank president, he knew as he built his resume that he would have the ability to be part of a management structure.

He came aboard as president last November. In January, Mr. Wells, who had grown up in Orleans, came across the water to make a home in Vineyard Haven.

He heads a bank that, despite its youth, is the largest player in the Vineyard banking market. Dukes County Savings has 62 employees, six branches, one trust office, $275 million in assets, $235 million in deposits and $30 million in capital. In its most recent fiscal year, which ended last Oct. 31, the bank recorded net income of $2 million.

Mr. Wells credits the bank's employees and his management team - which includes executive vice president Bob Wheeler, chief financial officer Tom Sharkey, and retail banking officer Micki Anderson - for the bank's performance, which he said rates well in its peer group.

At present, the bank has a return on assets of .77. That means that for every $100 of assets, the bank nets 76 cents. As one of his goals, Mr. Wells wants to increase the return on assets to one dollar and beyond.

But he has no tightly detailed plan to get there. Instead, he hopes to increase the bank's commercial lending, and to re-energize its trust department.

He also hopes to increase the bank's productivity by giving its employees more latitude to make decisions. "We're trying to empower all the people who are here," he said.

Dukes County Savings is further solidifying its commitment to the Island by building a new operations center off State Road in the Nobnocket section of Tisbury. The center, slated to open next year, will house the bank's back of the house operations and its trust operation.

In February, the bank underscored its commitment to the community by creating the Dukes County Savings Charitable Foundation. "We did that to create and fund a charitable foundation that would be here in perpetuity," Mr. Wells said. The bank's trust department will manage the foundation's assets, which will generate income to fund worthwhile community endeavors.

The emphasis on community, Mr. Wells said, comes straight from the top, the bank board of trustees. Mr. Corey said he and other Vineyarders established the bank in 1955 when they perceived the existing banks were not serving the community. At present, Mr. Wells said, the board is adamant that the bank meet those needs, and remain independent of outside control.

Being bankers, Mr. Wells and his management team keep a sharp eye on the Vineyard economy. Among their concerns: rising commercial rents that Mr. Wells said increasingly pose a barrier for new businesses to enter the market. Another concern: the decline in the number of Steamship Authority passengers coming to the Island.

The bankers also keep tabs on their competitors in the Island banking market. They understand they cannot coast given the presence of banking giant Sovereign Bank, which operates Bank of Martha's Vineyard. In the competition for customers, Mr. Wells is aware Sovereign can offer cutting-edge services. He said Dukes County Savings is prepared to respond to stay competitive.

At the same time, Mr. Wells said he also understands the value of unsophisticated banking that is flexible enough to meet particular customer needs. It's an approach, he said, where a community bank can do especially well.

"We've kept it simple, and the Island appreciates what we've done here," he concluded.