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A Career in Community Banking: Executive Chairman Stephen Ensign to Retire After 42 Years at Lake Sunapee Bank

  • Stephen Ensign, outgoing executive chairman of Lake Sunapee Bank, at his office in Newport, N.H., last week. Ensign will retire at the end of April after 42 years. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Stephen Ensign, outgoing executive chairman of Lake Sunapee Bank, at his office in Newport, N.H., last week. Ensign will retire at the end of April after 42 years. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • “I’m not done yet,” said Stephen Ensign, executive chairman of Lake Sunapee Bank, who will retire in April. “There are things I can do to help this institution at the bank and on the board, and I’ll continue to work on community projects like workforce housing and other community projects I’m interested in.” (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    “I’m not done yet,” said Stephen Ensign, executive chairman of Lake Sunapee Bank, who will retire in April. “There are things I can do to help this institution at the bank and on the board, and I’ll continue to work on community projects like workforce housing and other community projects I’m interested in.” (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Stephen Ensign, outgoing executive chairman of Lake Sunapee Bank, at his office in Newport, N.H., last week. Ensign will retire at the end of April after 42 years. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • “I’m not done yet,” said Stephen Ensign, executive chairman of Lake Sunapee Bank, who will retire in April. “There are things I can do to help this institution at the bank and on the board, and I’ll continue to work on community projects like workforce housing and other community projects I’m interested in.” (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Newport — An almost 200-year-old horse-drawn fire wagon, the first one used by the town’s firefighters, sits on display in lobby of Lake Sunapee Bank’s headquarters on Main Street.

The 1815 wagon is not only a reflection of Executive Chairman Stephen Ensign’s passion for history and his devotion to the Newport Fire Department, where he served as a volunteer firefighter for more than three decades, but it also can be considered a symbol of the bank’s long commitment to the community.

“If you go to any of our buildings, there’s always some photograph or something that shows our ties to the community,” said Ensign, who is retiring at the end of April from the bank where he has worked for 42 years.

During an interview in his office last week, Ensign looked very much the executive who had steered the helm of one of the Twin States’ largest banks since 1987 — crisp white shirt, smart tie, white hair, a man who conveys organization, being on top of his game with a keen business sense. But that’s where the stereotypical movie image of a straight-laced, pragmatic banker more interested in bottom lines than humankind ends.

The avuncular Ensign has the romantic notion that the bank has a responsibility to the community and its employees have the ability to help others make dreams come true. It’s a philosophy that permeates his leadership and one that has served him and the bank well.

Since mid-1980s, New Hampshire has seen the number of banking institutions in the state fall from 115 to 35. Meanwhile, under Ensign’s guidance, Lake Sunapee has expanded, taking over four banks, a trust company, an insurance agency and an investment group. And the bank now has 300 employees, 32 offices in Vermont and New Hampshire and $1.3 billion in assets.

Maintaining those connections with the communities, and understanding the needs of its customers, are the fundamental principals that have guided Lake Sunapee, Ensign said, helping the bank to weather a number of national economic downturns and to prosper and grow exponentially during his time working there.

When he started in 1971 after giving up a short-lived, financially frustrating job selling real estate, the bank was still known as Newport Savings Bank. He was one of 13 employees, starting as a teller in the only office, a tiny space alongside other small Main Street retailers all occupying the ground floor of the current headquarters building. Lake Sunapee now has the whole floor, and most of the rest of the three-story building.

“There was a feeling back then that you had to have one employee for every $1 million you had in assets. We had $13 million in assets. I guess they must have made an extra million, so that’s why I got hired,” he said with a laugh.

When Ensign, who turns 66 in April, retires next month, he will leave behind the bank he’s guided for the last 26 years, an institution that has gone from a state-chartered mutual savings bank to a federally chartered savings bank with its stock trading on the Nasdaq exchange.

“In Steve’s 42 years here, he’s touched on every important decision with the bank, and he’s done it with great humility and care for other people,” said the bank’s chief executive officer, Stephen Theroux, who succeeded Ensign last June as part of the planned leadership transition.

“He’s leaving the bank in strong financial shape with a great stability in leadership. It speaks well for the bank and for his stewardship and the leadership he has provided,” Theroux said.

“And on a personal level, we’ve been friends since the 1970s. We’ve worked together much of that time, and we live on the same street in New London. We’ve probably had more lunches together than any executive team in the country,” Theroux said.

A Handshake and A Promise

In the last four decades, a great deal has changed in banking, but at least for community banks, much has stayed the same, Ensign said.

During his early years, before computers, business was still transacted with a handshake and a promise. Loans were committed using a two-part paper form — the originals for the bank and the copy for borrowers — and accounts were recorded and balanced on handwritten ledgers.

“At the end of the day, if you couldn’t balance to the penny, you had to stay until you found it. I’d get calls from my wife wanting to know why I was staying so late, and it’d be was because I was out of balance.”

Soon after he became a loan officer in the early 1970s, Newport was still a Friday-night town with merchants open late for the mill workers who had just been paid that day.

Ensign vividly recalls one of his first lending experiences with a young man who wanted to propose to his girlfriend over the weekend.

“He’d been down to the jewelry store, and he saw a ring he wanted to buy. He needed $800. I was so taken by the romance of his story that I gave it to him. I believed him and wanted to help him out. There wasn’t anyone else there to ask, and I couldn’t even file the paperwork until Monday morning. I just put it in my desk drawer.

“All weekend, I worried that I’d been taken for $800, but that turned out not to be the case. I have no idea if he got married or even bought the ring, but he did pay the money back. I learned a lesson, and maybe, I did make his dream come true.”

Now, with federal regulations, piles of paperwork and rapidly changing technology, it would be more difficult to make such a loan, Ensign said.

“But the fundamental business hasn’t changed. It’s just everything wrapped around it that has. The way people access credit certainly has changed with the new technology. But what we did then is exactly what we do today at community banks.

“When you break it down, we still make car loans. We still lend money for mortgages, and we try to be responsive to the financial needs of the community and to help people out when we can,” he said.

Ensign said he and members of the board started crafting his transition toward retirement in 2007 and working with Theroux to succeed him. Theroux also is grooming the management team that will eventually take his place, in keeping with Ensign’s plans to continue strong leadership.

“Last year, I stepped back from most of the duties of running the bank and turned it over to Steve (Theroux). I had intended to stay on until 2014, but after a year, I recognized that it would be better for the institution for me to step out earlier and let Steve have his turn at running things,” Ensign said.

On May 1, Ensign will become a consultant with the bank, working a day a week or so and will remain chairman of the board of directors. He’s actively serving on a number of civic boards and will devote more time to those.

He’s going to buy his company car, a 2004 Volvo with 157,000 miles, and keep driving it as long as it holds together. He’ll also spend more time with his three children, who all live nearby, and with his grandchildren, he said.

“I’m not done yet. There are things I can do to help this institution at the bank and on the board, and I’ll continue to work on community projects like workforce housing and other community projects I’m interested in. ... It’s a way I can give back to the community and help people. That’s what a community bank does.”

Warren Johnston can be reached at wjohnston@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.