Good Neighbor

Above: Chris Gruseke

As CEO of Bankwell and a longtime New Canaan resident, CHRIS GRUSEKE’S philosophy is that community banks should support their communities. He has been at the helm of Bankwell for a little over three years since it went public, loves the small-town banking business and is passionate about helping others. Bankwell has nine branches throughout Fairfield and New Haven counties and will be opening three new branches, including one in Darien, this spring. We caught up with Chris recently to find out more about his company’s commitment to the local community, as well as those who are farther away.

How did Bankwell get its start, and what’s your professional background? A group of us got together and started The Bank of New Canaan in 2002. Then, we opened another bank in Fairfield and later folded the two banks together. I’ve been CEO of Bankwell for more than three years since it went public. I’ve spent most of my career in investment banking, also serving as COO for Greenwich Capital for three years. I studied for a couple of semesters at Yale Divinity School and General Theological Seminary and was a chaplain at Greenwich Hospital for a time.

What do you find most rewarding about your work with Bankwell? It’s great to run a public company that has its roots in the community. Talking with my investors and visiting other businesses to see what they do in Fairfield County really appeals to me. Bankwell has a strong performance and culture, and we’ve been recognized by several national organizations as a high performer. Last year, Standard and Poor’s Global Market Intelligence named us one of the “Top 100 Best-Performing Community Banks” in the country.

What is the bank’s philosophy about community initiatives? Since the bank’s founding, part of our mission has been to give back to the communities we serve.  We go beyond just writing a check. We’re aware of local and regional issues, and we do our best to develop and customize partnerships with neighborhood organizations so that we can provide value in meaningful ways.

Why is giving back a priority for Bankwell? It’s like breathing the air around you—I can’t imagine it any other way. If you know you’re part of the fabric of the community, then it’s your responsibility to give back. When we started as The Bank of New Canaan, the founders were residents who were involved in town and wanted to be good corporate citizens. This is good for business, but it’s also the right thing to do. We are local business owners who do business with local business owners, so if our neighbors don’t do well, neither do we.

What are some of the ways that Bankwell helps in the community? We are actively involved with more than 200 organizations each year through volunteering or mentoring, or by providing financial support. As a service to the community at large, we provide informational and educational seminars. Although we support groups like local chambers, libraries and the arts and environmental organizations, our main area of focus is providing support for the underserved. We’re very involved with companies that support health and human services, including education, jobs and children in need.

What sponsorship initiatives mean the most to you?  Right now, my favorite is the Rams Foundation Council. We’re a major sponsor of this substance-free group at New Canaan High School, founded by substance counselor Joyce Sixsmith, and I periodically attend and speak at the parent-student meetings. Bankwell also helped bring this program to Wilton. The Maritime Aquarium is another program I love. We have a longstanding partnership with them and support their Children’s Opportunity Fund, which provides financial aid for children to visit the aquarium. Another example is the Fairfield Theatre Company. I initiated our sponsorship of this organization, which entertains over 70,000 patrons each year. We love to support the arts, and this venture helps the greater community.

Can you elaborate on some of Bankwell’s other philanthropies? We’ve partnered with the Glass House over the last few years to create New Canaan Community Days, when residents can attend tours of this historical site for free. Other programs include a winter coat drive with Person-to-Person, and fundraising for the Tiny Miracles Foundation, both in Darien. We’ve just completed a food drive throughout our branches to stock the Open Door Shelter’s food pantry in Norwalk, and we donate to the Connecticut Food Bank. We are a major sponsor of the Darien Depot’s winter fundraiser and have just established the first annual “Bankwell for Good Scholarship” that will be awarded to a high school student member of The Depot for his or her charity work. For the Inspirica shelter in Stamford, we run a holiday children’s gift collection each year. Bankwell also supports Filling in the Blanks’ fall backpack program, and Bankwell staff members volunteer at their food packing events.

Can you talk about the Bankwell For Good annual employee award? This award is granted to the employee who is living out the Bankwell “give back” values. If you want to create a positive culture, you need to highlight the good things about it. This award celebrates the people who take time to get really involved and demonstrate good citizenship.

Does your outreach extend past CT borders? Yes. After hurricanes Harvey and Irma affected Houston and the Keys respectively, we accepted donations from our employees and matched them. I found a small bank in Houston that had been affected, flew down there and presented them with a donation. We are in the process of doing the same for a bank in the Keys. These donations aren’t a huge amount, but they are a heartfelt way to show others we care. Not only do we want our employees to be proud of where they work, but we want to be a place where it’s in everyone’s nature to help others.

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