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Tompkins Bank of Castile branch's team returning to roots

Tompkins Bank of Castile's modest branch inside an Amherst office park feels a long way from M&T Bank's venerable headquarters or KeyBank's sleek regional offices in Larkinville.

But the six people driving Tompkins Bank of Castile's expansion into the Buffalo Niagara region say they like it this way. Some of them used to work together at big banks, and they see themselves as returning to their roots.

Tompkins Bank of Castile's first area branch, at the traffic-heavy intersection of Sheridan Drive and Hopkins Road, was formerly home to an eye care business. Construction workers are completing its transformation to a branch for a scheduled Dec. 17 opening.

The six employees based at the branch are experienced in banking, insurance or wealth management. And they work for a bank headquartered in Batavia with origins in the 1860s. But when they gather around a temporary table in the conference room and rave about their jobs, they could be mistaken for employees of an ambitious startup, raring to take on the competition.

"I feel energy," said Heather Alessi, the Amherst branch manager. "I think we play off of each other. There is so much energy right now, we're just ready to explode."

The group is small enough that they were able to attend a recent Sabres game together with clients, and trusting enough to introduce business prospects to each other. They have formed friendships with each other, if they didn't already know each other from past jobs.

Mary Szabat, Tompkins Financial Advisors' Buffalo Niagara market leader, recently joined her colleagues for a bank tradition: delivering apples and cheese to clients and prospects. She was struck by the response. Some of the conversations lasted an hour, or even longer.

"It wasn't just dropping it off and shaking hands and here's our business cards," Szabat said. Instead of just a couple of days, the deliveries took a couple of weeks to complete.

Szabat spent 30 years with M&T Bank. Her first branch manager, Mark Czarnecki, later became M&T's president, and she watched M&T blossom into a banking powerhouse. More recently, she worked for Canandaigua National Bank in Rochester, commuting from her home in East Amherst. When she learned about Tompkins Bank of Castile opening an Amherst branch, she reached out to Adam Desmond, the bank's Buffalo Niagara market leader, and had a job offer within two weeks.

Lisa Hartnett (left) and Heather Alessi say they welcomed the chance to work for a smaller institution. (Matt Glynn/Buffalo News)

"I was so excited, because I felt like I was going back to my roots and I was going to be able to deliver what I was passionate about," said Szabat, a senior wealth adviser.

Lisa Hartnett had worked at an insurance agency that was absorbed by First Niagara's insurance agency, which was in turn acquired by KeyBank, and then USI Insurance Services. Working for a big firm like USI didn't interest her.

"From a personal point of view, my business card kept changing," Hartnett said. "(Customers) look at you like, 'Who are you working for now?' That to me is unsettling if you're the customer." Hartnett said she wanted to get back to a "hometown feel," and her business card now says she is an account executive with Tompkins Insurance Agencies.

Anthony Franco, a commercial banking relationship manager for Tompkins Bank of Castile, has to compete with bigger banks chasing the same deals. He has devoted a lot of time to drumming up business as the bank tries to gain a foothold.

"One thing we don't have currently is a large portfolio of existing loans, so we're not strapped to our desks managing loans that have been on the books for 10 years," Franco said. "We can go out and meet with clients and networking events and really do business development initiatives."

Kyle Kurkowski has been with Tompkins Insurance Agencies since 2010, in Batavia and then Brockport. He has turned his attention to Erie County. Unlike his colleagues at the Amherst branch, he doesn't have a background at bigger institutions. "This is all I know, working together like this," Kurkowski said.

Desmond, the bank's Buffalo Niagara market leader, calls the Amherst branch's imminent opening "my early Christmas gift." He has been laying the groundwork for the bank in the region since joining in April 2017.

Desmond expects the bank will add more branches in the region over the next few years. (Tompkins Bank of Castile is one of four sister banks under the same parent company, Ithaca-based Tompkins Financial Corp., which has about $6.7 billion in assets.)

For now, Desmond is focused on getting the Amherst location open and is eager to see what his team can do.

"It's the end of the beginning," he said. "Now we're getting to the fun part."

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