Queens College Holds Business Forum Breakfast
At a well attended business forum breakfast in the Student Union at Queens College, the first Hank Auffarth Scholarship, named for the late executive known as “Hank from the Bank” and sponsored by the Queens Chamber of Commerce, was conferred on Laura Burke, a February graduate of Queens College with a major in accountancy. In addition to graduating with honors, Burke was active in student activities, particularly as an events planner. The scholarship money is to be used in graduate studies in risk management, also at Queens College. Before the term begins, she said, she expects to pass the last of her certified public accountant examinations. In addition to being an honors graduate and pending CPA and prospective student of risk management, she is also the mother of a two-year-old daughter.
The Business Forum Scholarship was presented to Nadia Abbasi, who majored in mathematics. Like Burke, Abbasi is the first member of her family to attend an institution of higher education, in her case traveling from Bangladesh to matriculate at Queens College. She thanked her family for their support, especially her mother, who had come 7,800 miles from Abbasi’s native country to celebrate her success.
Short Hills, New Jersey-based Investors Bank President and Chief Executive Officer Kevin Cummings discussed “Banking and the Community”. Cummings, a CPA, came to Investors in 2002 after more than a quarter century with accountancy firm KPMG. He said at the time of his arrival as executive vice president, Investors was a small and risk-averse bank, though a new CEO, Robert Cashill, was determined to expand the business beyond securities into loans. An initial public offering in October 2005 resulted in the sale of 45 percent of the bank as a means to make it grow.
Cummings said that the chief task at that time was “changing the heart” of an institution that had 34-hour work weeks and “virtually worked for the government”. The opening of new branches and acquisition of other institutions more than doubled the number of Investors Bank branches. These days, Cummings said, 70 of their current 88 branch managers came into the organization after that 2005 IPO. The IPO happened in a period that began with a seeming financial boom and continued despite a subsequent collapse. He said Investors took advantage of the crisis, becoming one of the rare banks in New Jersey making loans while most others hunkered down and did nothing except wait out the storm. Cummings said the engine of success was the work ethic of the largely new roster of employees, who were determined to make Investors “a community bank that puts community back in banking”.
One of the chief loan projects Investors undertook was financial aid to a prominent cultural institution that beneath its polished surface had become decayed. The Paper Mill Playhouse in Short Hills was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2007, largely owing to mismanaged cost control, Cummings said. The theater appealed to Investors, who turned to the mayor of Short Hills and a local citizen who co-signed a bridge loan. The loan was regarded as risky but all were hoping that it would lead to further aid from a large commercial bank, and eventually it did.
Cummings became president and CEO of Investors in January 2008, as Cashill became chairman of the board. He told the breakfast audience that before and after assuming the leadership position he believed that one’s attitude toward employees and customers is paramount, and that the people one deals with will remember above all how they were treated after facts and figures are forgotten. As a community bank, Investors promotes community work: many Investors employees do weekly service at St. John’s Food Pantry in Newark.
As a businessman, Cummings said, he chose not to engage in wealth management, a “too crowded” area of banking, where investors with a mere $100,000 are disregarded by wealth managers eager to engage with millions of dollars. Instead, he said, he deals more modestly, where he can “keep giving without counting cost”. As a participating observer, he sees the industry in the middle of a “loss decade” that began in 2006.
After the housing crisis, residential real estate has not recovered. Cummings said he bought his first house in 1984, when the market was on the rise and one had to buy before the price went up. Today, he said, his three oldest children are each in a position to buy houses, but all of them shun such purchases. “Low-growth, slow growth” will continue, he said, and consequently, so will cash hoarding. “Businesses are getting used to running lean,” he said. He did admit that New York’s business recovery is better than New Jersey’s and added that the United States and New York are the best places in which to make an economic recovery.