December 14, 2023
Christopher D. Maher
A number of years ago leaders were urged to get out from behind their desks in order to learn and understand what people are thinking. This was referred to as “management by walking around”. This certainly works well as a tool to advance a company’s culture but is also a critical tool in assessing the needs of the communities we serve.
At OceanFirst, we never forget our community-based roots, which date back to 1902. Like all community bankers, we generate deposits, originate loans, and deliver services directly to the neighborhoods where our customers live and work – helping residents to thrive and businesses to grow. While we have grown to embrace diverse communities across a region that spans New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, and Maryland, we are still guided by a commitment to help our customers realize their financial dreams. The commitment to serve our communities requires an acknowledgement of each community’s unique needs and the flexibility to craft products, services, and processes to meet local requirements.
In the past few months, along with other OceanFirst executives, I have been taking the opportunity to get to know our communities even better. We launched a series of what we’re calling “walkabouts”. We hit the streets – literally – meeting with local organizations and community leaders on their own turf, walking around the neighborhoods, and seeing firsthand what local people and businesses want and need from their banking partners. So far, we’ve spent valuable time with leaders in Atlantic City, Camden, Asbury Park, New Brunswick and Trenton, Vineland/Bridgeton NJ; Bronx, NY; and Philadelphia, PA – and we plan to continue this initiative visiting more communities.
What we’ve seen and learned on our walkabouts will help us focus the bank’s resources where our communities need them most. And that not only applies to banking services such as loans, but also grants provided by OceanFirst Foundation, and volunteer efforts like our CommUNITY First Day and WaveMakers programs.
The walkabouts have already led to many new or enhanced initiatives. A great example is our NeighborFirst program, which makes mortgages more accessible and affordable for first-time homebuyers in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. NeighborFirst currently offers qualified applicants a discounted mortgage interest rate, low down payment, and reduced fees, among other features. Eligible first-time homebuyers also may receive a $2,000 grant towards closing costs. In 2023, we’ve originated over $29 million in loans to over 110 borrowers through the program.
To serve small businesses in our communities, we recently introduced an unsecured line of credit product with fast approvals. For credit lines to qualified borrowers up to $25,000, we provide decisions within 48 hours – along with a favorable interest rate, and no application fee or closing costs. At OceanFirst we listen to our small businesses and have developed easier access to loans and bankers to help guide them through the process.
We’re also “branching out” to extend our services to one community we visited on our walking tour. In December, we opened our thirty-ninth branch, and first location in New Brunswick, NJ. We look forward to welcoming the community to our new banking center and building personal relationships with local customers.
OceanFirst Foundation, which provides financial support to not-for-profit organizations across central and southern New Jersey, introduced a special round of fall funding as a result of discussions held during the walkabouts. The Foundation set aside an additional $350,000+for special grants to organizations focused on affordable housing, financial empowerment and literacy, immigrant support services, small business technical assistance and access to capital, workforce readiness, and youth leadership and career development and other much-needed services in the communities we share.
Engaging with our communities is not a new experience for us – it’s always been at the heart of what community bankers do. What is new is that, in this digital age, we have committed to an organized process of building bridges through personal contact. We look forward to reaching out to more localities, and re-visiting those we’ve already seen, to make sure we’re listening to, learning from, and meeting the needs of OceanFirst’s communities.
I encourage all business leaders to consider expanding the definition of “management by walking around” and venture out from behind your desk and walk around the markets you serve; especially those with a history of challenges accessing the banking system. Talk with other business people in your community, check in with your neighbors—you will likely learn something, hopefully find a way your business can help others, and perhaps find a way to make your business even better. Finally, I want to thank the community leaders that have patiently taken the time to walk us around their neighborhoods, introduce us to their friends and neighbors, and help us best serve them.