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Tompkins Bank of Castile takes on the big banks in Buffalo

John M. McKenna is eager to compete against big names like M&T Bank and KeyBank.

McKenna, 52, is president and CEO of Tompkins Bank of Castile. The Batavia-based bank is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, but opened its first Buffalo Niagara branch, in Amherst, just a few months ago.

McKenna, a Rochester native, joined Tompkins Bank of Castile in 2009, and became its president and CEO in 2015.

Tompkins Bank of Castile's roots are in small communities with strong ties to agriculture, but the bank has expanded into big markets like Rochester, and now Buffalo. Its Buffalo regional market executive, Adam Desmond, has been laying the groundwork since 2017.

Back in 2000, the bank was acquired by Ithaca-based Tompkins Financial Corp., and operates as one of four sister banks under the parent company, which has about $6.6 billion in assets.

McKenna talked about facing dominant competitors in Buffalo and the prospects for more branches here:

Q: What led Tompkins Bank of Castile to open a Buffalo-area branch after all these years?

A: We had been parachuting into Buffalo for well over a decade, just following referrals and relationships and helping folks over there, just doing more and more, including a referral to Russ Salvatore.

A few years ago, we began to realize: A) we're making a lot of headway. We really seem to be sitting well with lots of folks over in that region; B) it's a big market and opportunity; and C) there's no way we're truly to grow it in a broad way without actually being there.

John McKenna, president and CEO of Tompkins Bank of Castile. (Provided photo)

Q: The Amherst branch opened last December. What's the response been like?

A: The reception has been great. … When we sit and talk to people, they like the story, they like what they're hearing. They're often being referred by others who have already worked with us. … While we're certainly trying to get the word out to the entire community, a lot of our energy is around what I call hand-to-hand combat: face-to-face meetings with commercial businesses, not-for-profits, municipal, other institutions like higher ed. … We've made great progress from a business perspective.

Q: What is it like opening a branch in a market where M&T and Key dominate in deposits?

A: It's really unique. It's very unusual to have such concentration in such a big market. There's plenty of little towns around America that have one bank or two banks. To have two banks with the kind of share that those two have collectively is really unusual.

Candidly, we view that as an opportunity, because from a positioning perspective, while we're definitely a community bank and we're organized that way and we make decisions locally quickly, responsively, that we think is real differentiator, we're also quite a bit larger than all the community bank competition.

We bring quite a bit more in credit capacity, depth on some of the product areas that are important to commercial [customers], municipal and other larger entities.

We feel like there's a great niche for us there. We're large enough and have the capacity and capability to serve all of the largest public companies in Buffalo, all the way down to the smallest. A lot of the community bank competition is going to be focused a little more downmarket.

People are usually open to another option. Not that people are fleeing M&T or Key; I don't think they are. Those are both wonderful organizations and really good at what they do. But in a lot of ways, the competition, while they have dominant shares, there's very few at that level.

Q: Will you open more branches here?

A: We definitely intend to continue to grow there. Geographically, it's a big market. Having more brick-and-mortar [locations] is going to be an important part of the strategy.

That said, we're not intending to simply pop up a handful of locations overnight. We're going to grow more organically.

In large part, people will drive it. So as we come across opportunities to get great talent into the organization – look at where their history has been and their network – that as much as anything else will drive how and when that next site arises, and then the site after that.

Adam Desmond, the bank's Buffalo market executive, stays in close touch with John McKenna on Buffalo growth plans. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

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