When Eastman Savings and Loan launched on Nov. 20, 1920, George Eastman had a vision.
As his film and camera company grew, so, too, would the wealth of his employees. Through his new financial institution, Eastman Kodak Co. workers would find avenues to prosperity.
“The purpose was to encourage thrift among Kodak employees,” said Faheem Masood, president and CEO of what is now ESL Federal Credit Union. “The idea was it would give them a pathway to buy houses, to become rooted in our community and become more engaged in our community. Neighborhoods would build, schools would build and the community would flourish.
“The foundation of the credit union was to build a community.”
Over the past century, the offerings have expanded and the customer base has ballooned well beyond just being the bank for Kodak employees, but ESL Federal Credit Union still believes its mission is to continue to help the Rochester community grow.
Instead of just one Eastman Savings and Loan bank, there are 22 ESL branches throughout Greater Rochester. Instead of just serving some 76,000 Kodak employees and retirees, ESL has 374,000 members, as well as banking relationships with 11,500 businesses.
“We articulate that our purpose is to help our community thrive and prosper,” Masood said. “We really codified that as our purpose. We provide financial guidance and solutions to people in our community.”
The mission commenced on Feb. 1, 1996, when the institution became a federal credit union. Since then, no local financial institution can match ESL’s standing: $8.1 billion in assets, nearly eight times more than it had 24 years ago. That doesn’t include the $2.6 billion of invested assets by the wealth management division.
Members benefit from the success, too. Ever since ESL became a credit union, it has paid an annual owners’ dividend, with a total of more than $170 million returned to members.
This year those dividends came early. Cognizant of how the coronavirus pandemic would impact the community, ESL fast-forwarded $20 million in dividend payouts to June rather than waiting for January of 2021.
“We prepaid what we expected our dividend would be in January of next year,” Masood said. “We decided it would be better for our membership if we made that payment this year. That was quite an infusion into our market, particularly at the point, when the pandemic hit.”
News of the 1996 switch from Eastman Savings and Loan to a credit union wasn’t necessarily viewed by members as a positive. Kodak employees had come to very much appreciate the personalized service. If a teller didn’t know their name, another employee at the bank sure did.
That personal touch was just one element of the ESL culture officials made sure they did not lose when they transitioned to the new business model.
“When we announced we were becoming ESL Federal Credit Union, we heard from so many people, ‘Please don’t change, please don’t be different than you are, we feel like you’re our family,’” said Celeste Kier, senior vice president and director of marketing and customer experience. “They were worried about our growth; ‘You’re going to grow, you’re going to be like everyone else.’
“We are happy to say they don’t think that way about us. We have maintained that really familial feel with our customers. It is our values. That is how we treat our customers.”
Not everything has been status quo — in a good way. ESL has continued to add services. In 1997, the firm introduced ESL Investment Services, its wealth management services division.
In 2010, the Business Banking division opened, providing services to businesses of all sizes. In 2017, trust services launched. And one year later, ESL officially created its community impact team, “which really oversees what we do to reinvest in our community,” Masood said. “Ultimately our vision for what we do on the community impact side through our investments is to help build a more resilient, equitable and healthier Greater Rochester.”
Part of that impact came by awarding $16 million in grants in 2019, a number that will approach $20 million this year.
But even as they have grown and added more services, they’ve maintained the feel of the hometown bank by reacting to member needs, according to Kier.
“We hear what our customers say,” Kier said. “And other than ‘Can you put an ATM on my corner?’ we really listen and prioritize what we do so that we’re supporting our customers.
“If you can listen to your employees and you can listen to your customers and your community, and really create that experience where people feel valued and heard, you will do well.”
Part of the growth has been within the structure. Several years ago, ESL took steps to ensure financial stability for a greater percentage of workers, according to Arline Santiago, senior vice president and general counsel for firm.
“We recognized we had a significant enough number of employees that were working part-time,” Santiago said. “As a result, they had multiple jobs; they were holding two or three jobs. We recognized we had an opportunity to offer full-time employment. We could still deliver on our business needs but alleviate some of the pressures that those employees had.”
But the most prominent change over the past 20 years was the decision to build a new headquarters in the heart of downtown at 225 Chestnut St. ESL christened the building in 2010, bringing 300 employees downtown. Today around 450 of ESL’s total workforce of 850 work in the building.
It was much more than just a new office, though. By building new and moving downtown, ESL’s management team trumpeted a belief in Rochester, something virtually no other firm was doing. There was little new development downtown as the first decade of the 21st century was ending.
“A physical structure downtown is a representation of what we grew into,” Masood said. “That was an internal pride, but also an internal pride in expressing confidence in our community and the downtown area.
“We felt spending that money downtown would have a multiplier effect, unlike if we had gone to the suburbs. We really felt from a community perspective that was a signal in great confidence in our downtown’s future.”
And if ESL could do it, the maybe other should as well.
“I frequently hear from other stakeholders,” Masood said, “that our moving downtown at a time when not many people were building new here gave them confidence that they need to perhaps take that step too.”
The new headquarters was symbolic for another reason.
“I also think it kind of reflected a bit more that we aren’t a Kodak financial institution, we truly are a community institution,” Masood said. “From a community, from a business community, from consumers, it just communicated that ESL is at a different level than the old Kodak bank.”
ESL is turning its attention to the city again. While there are 22 branches — with another to enter the market in 2021 — there are two stand-alone banking centers within the city limits.
“While we are truly throughout Greater Rochester, we recognized we weren’t truly serving the city of Rochester,” Santiago said. “With that in mind, we have engaged with the city to look for opportunities to construct new branches in the future.”
The initiative to establish a presence in the city is very much a priority, and along with it comes the desire to help spur change.
“We expect to bring services closer to some of the under-banked, under-served communities to help out on the prosperity end,” Masood said. “It is really key to provide financial access to help people build wealth and prosperity.”
For too long, too much of the city has been ignored, he said.
“We have a 100-year history with this community and a 100-year history also means looking at the past and understanding what passive or active roles we may have played in where our community is today when it comes to racial inequities,” Masood said. “We need to make sure we understand — and we help each other understand — how decisions made in the past have impacted where we stand as a community. And then we have to ask ourselves the question, ‘What do we do to overcome class disparities?’
“As long as those conditions exist, we can’t have a prosperous community, and we have to strive toward addressing it.”
Indeed, turning 100 is cause for not just celebration but also reflection.
“Being around for 100 years says a lot,” Masood said. “A 100-year history means you’re built to last. A hundred years of service means a responsibility to the community that has given you its confidence and support. We have the opportunity to have impact on so many more people, to make our community even greater. It’s pride but it’s also a sense of responsibility of continuing this history, and returning to a community that has allowed this organization to flourish.
“We all live here. The vast majority of people doing business with us live here. These are our neighbors, these are our friends. They rely on us and we take that responsibility very seriously. And at the same time, we have a legacy that we have to uphold and we take that very seriously.”
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