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May 25. 2013 1:51AM

Husband-and-wife team fuel growth of Optima Bank


Five years after starting Optima Bank & Trust, Portsmouth's only locally owned commercial bank, Pam and Dan Morrison continue to grow the business. (GRETYL MACALASTER/Union Leader Correspondent)

PORTSMOUTH - Five years ago, Optima Bank & Trust became the city's only locally-owned commercial bank. Since then, it has been the number one fastest-growing bank in New Hampshire and has held the number one or number two spot in New England for growth in each of the last five years.

The bank was borne at the dining room table of husband-and-wife team Dan and Pam Morrison, both long-time bankers, who were concerned about the consolidation of banks, and the disappearance of good customer service as a result.

When the couple came back to Portsmouth in 1992, Dan Morrison said there were 100 banks headquartered in New Hampshire, but 80 percent of those are now gone, most swallowed up by larger, national banks.

So the couple set out to establish a bank that residents, small-business owners and entrepreneurs would all feel comfortable using.

"We really saw a need for bringing back the level of service that used to be provided by local banks here," Morrison said, especially as it applies to business customers and entrepreneurs.

They got serious about the idea in 2006 and began the extensive application process for state and federal approval. In total, the business plan was more than a foot thick with 1,300 pages of detail.

In 2007, they filed the applications and quickly received approval. They handpicked a board of directors with banking backgrounds and community connections that could help them get off the ground. The bank has a little more than 250 shareholders now, all with some connection to the greater Portsmouth area. Most live or work in the Portsmouth area.

"It is really locally owned by people right here," Morrison said.

Before they could open for business, they had to raise $10 million in capital, and exceeded that goal by $2 million, at a time when the nation was headed into recession.

The financial crisis really took hold just months after Optima opened in January 2008 with eight employees.

"I will admit it took courage and determination to keep going at certain parts of that," Morrison said.

People wondered if it was prudent to be giving out loans at that time, but Optima followed through with its business plan and has been growing ever since, posting double-digit growth in earnings, assets, loans and deposits for five straight years.

In 2012, Optima Bank's total assets grew by 27 percent to more than $245 million, while total loans were up 15 percent to more than $164 million, total deposits grew by 26 percent to $223 million and total equity capital was up 33 percent to $21.6 million.

At the end of the first quarter of this year, assets totaled $253.2 million, net loans totaled $172.2 million, and deposits totaled $216.5 million.

In addition to full-service branches in Portsmouth, Stratham and North Hampton, the bank opened a commercial and residential loan office in Dover in December and a second loan office at 264 S. River Road in Bedford on April 25.

Pam Morrison said the decision to move into the Bedford/Manchester area was market-driven, and they expect to expand their loan office to a full-service branch in the near future.

"There is certainly a large population still with the larger banks, and we knew we could fulfill the needs of those folks," she said.

There are no tellers in the company's five current locations. Instead, they employ private bankers, allowing every employee to handle any problem or question sent their way.

It is one of the many things that sets the bank apart from it's competition.

Optima also offers online banking, online bill pay and mobile banking. Its debit cards feature a Visa logo and can be used most anywhere. An added benefit is that Optima reimburses its customers any ATM fees charged by other banks, because there are only a few Optima ATMs currently available.

Through mobile banking, customers can take a picture of their check to make a deposit instead of having to go to the bank in person.

Morrison said they are simply using new technology that is already being used by bigger banks.

"We didn't have to invent the app, we just had to customize it," he said.

They also understand that some customers might also want to keep an account with a larger bank, and make it easy for people to conduct transfers between banks, a unique service that is not offered by most banks.

Morrison said big banks have gotten away from local communities, with loan decisions often being made far outside the community and with little flexibility.

"What we have is a local bank and local decision-making," he said. "We can sit down with a customer and figure out if we can do it."

About half of Optima's lending is residential and half commercial.

He said another thing that sets Optima apart is that the bank does not sell residential loans on the secondary market.

"We keep all loans in house," he said.

Optima and its employees are also active members of the communities they serve. The bank sponsors the YMCA in Manchester, the American Red Cross and City Year, among other organizations, and are members of seven different chambers of commerce. The bank is also a leading sponsor of the CEO Forum at the University of New Hampshire and a prime sponsor for the UNH Center for Family Business.

Optima was named the 2013 Exeter Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year in the financial services/insurance category, less than a year after being named the 2012 Business of the Year by the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce.

Dan Morrison also serves on the board of directors for the New Hampshire Bankers Association.

The association keeps an eye on state and federal regulations affecting the banking industry.

In the next five years, the Morrisons anticipate doubling the number of Optima branches and more than doubling the number of employees.

Morrison said they always had a lot of confidence in their plan, but have exceeded their own expectations.

"We intend to continue to grow and build this into a big success," he said.

gmacalaster@newstote.com


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