How Bankwell CEO Christopher Gruseke and his team live the bank’s mission to do well by doing good

Bankwell CEO Christopher Gruseke and his team live the Connecticut community bank’s mission to do well by doing good—and they have more than 200 charitable initiatives to prove it.

By Andrea Lahouze

Professional portraits of dogs adorn the walls of Bankwell’s branch in New Canaan, Conn., and then make their way to the other branches of the bank. The décor is not just a testament to bank employees’ collective fondness of canines. It’s part of the Bankwell Pet Adoption Project, an employee-initiated campaign to spread awareness about the plight of homeless animals and find them loving homes. The $1.8 billion-asset community bank partnered with local photographer Michael Bagley and nine local animal rescues and shelters to photograph dozens of adoptable dogs and cats, then hung the framed photos in the branch in hopes that customers would be stirred to adopt and donate pet supplies.

Of the 41 dogs originally featured on Bankwell’s walls, 33 have already been adopted by locals. Seeing the campaign, a local business called the Pet Pantry Warehouse has added to the effort, giving baskets of pet supplies to adopters.

Bankwell’s Pet Adoption Project is a living example of Bankwell CEO Christopher Gruseke’s community banking philosophy, “Doing well by doing good.” Gruseke had spent more than 20 years in investment banking but wanted to start helping his own community.

“[In my investment banking job,] I’d spend one week a month in London doing sales and trading with tens of billions of dollars on a daily basis,” Gruseke says. “For me, [community banking] was an opportunity to do business in my own neighborhood.”

Doggone wonderful—Bankwell’s Lynne Gomez and photographer Michael Bagley with an adopted dog and Bagley’s shelter pet portraits in Bankwell’s New Canaan branch.

Gruseke was one of Bankwell’s founding investors when it opened in 2002 as The Bank of New Canaan. Fifteen years on, the bank has grown to 140 employees and nine branch locations. Its community support extends to more than 200 initiatives, from sponsoring Children’s Opportunity Fund at the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk to supporting Fairfield Theatre Company and New Canaan’s Caffeine & Carburetors event, which draws thousands of people to town. Gruseke says he is particularly drawn to opportunities where the community bank can serve as a nonprofit’s financial partner in starting or expanding a particular project.

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve tended to focus on certain partnerships in addition to writing checks,” he says. “We’ve chosen some, and looked for more, significant partnerships where we can do well in the communities together.”

Among Gruseke’s favorite Bankwell-supported nonprofits is the Ram Council, a New Canaan nonprofit that provides local high school students with access to fun activities and healthy alternatives to underage drinking and other substance misuse. Students pledge to live substance-free in exchange for admission to activities like bowling, movies, dinners and pool parties. Gruseke learned of the organization at a charitable dinner and was moved by students’ stories detailing the challenges of avoiding drugs and alcohol, and the benefits they’ve experienced by living substance-free.

“Just to hear these young adults say what it’s like, the pressures they go through and all the things they see … I thought, wow, that really made a big impact. I introduced myself to [the Ram Council president] Joyce [Sixsmith] that night and said, ‘We’ll help you if you can roll this out into other communities.’”
With Bankwell providing seed money, a second substance-free council has recently been established in nearby Wilton, Conn. Gruseke hopes it will continue to expand to other towns and cities.

“We’re doing it because it’s a value that we believe in, and we’re trying to be good neighbors,” he says.

Bankwell employees have also directed the founding of a charitable initiative called Bankers Helping Bankers. In response to Hurricane Harvey, a handful of employees searched for community banks with similar profiles to Bankwell that were affected by hurricanes Harvey and Irma last year. The community bank’s 140 employees raised a collective $7,500 to help one community bank in Houston.

Special delivery—Bankwell also collected and delivered donations to the Connecticut Humane Society. Pictured above (from left to right): Ann Mitrione, Wilton branch manager; Lynne Gomez, executive assistant to CEO Christopher Gruseke; Lucy French, marketing associate; and Bliss Kern, Connecticut Humane Society Westport district manager.

The donation pool grew even larger when Bankwell hosted a company party to celebrate its recent receipt of two awards. Bankwell was named one of the Top 100 Best-Performing Community Banks nationwide in 2016 by S&P Global Market Intelligence, and is also one of 29 banks in the Sandler O’Neill Sm-All Class of 2017, an elite list comprising exceptional community banks with assets under $2.5 billion. In lieu of party favors, Bankwell instead added another $7,500 to its donation, bringing the total amount to $15,000.
“It’s not a lot of money, but it’s more the effort that you’re letting people know you’re thinking of them,” Gruseke says.


New Canaan, Conn.
Assets: $1.8 billion
Retail locations: 9
Employees: 145
Founded: 2002

Gruseke boils his interest in charitable work down to being a “curious citizen.” “There are so many opportunities out there, but if you just sit in your office and you’re not out in the community, you can’t be aware of what they are,” he says.

“I think this is what many community banks do very well. Otherwise, your money’s the same color as the next bank’s, and you have the same checking account and all that stuff.
“People want to have a connection with you, so you need boots on the ground,” he adds. “You need to be looking around your neighborhood to see where you can make a difference.”

Andrea Lahouze is deputy editor of Independent Banker.