Trailblazer: Gorham Savings Bank

Stephen deCastro, president of Gorham Savings Bank. Photo: Sean Alonzo Harris

Gorham Savings Bank of Maine teams up with financial coaches to prepare local entrepreneurs to move their businesses forward.

By William Atkinson

Name: Gorham Savings Bank
Assets: $1.1 billion
Location: Gorham, Maine

Gorham Savings Bank’s idea to provide financial education to local businesses came about as a result of a successful business competition that the $1.1 billion-asset institution had already had in place for a number of years.

“For the last six years, we have been running a Shark Tank-like competition called LaunchPad for latter-stage startup businesses,” says Stephen deCastro, president of the Gorham, Maine, community bank. Each year, the bank gives away $50,000 in prize money to the business that made the most successful presentation to a panel of judges, as well as another $10,000 to a business under its Emerging Idea Award.

To date, more than 550 applicants from more than 100 local cities and towns representing 25-plus different industry groups have signed up to compete in LaunchPad. Gorham Savings Bank usually receives 100 to 200 applications each year from businesses that are typically just below the “bankable” level, deCastro adds.

Quick stat


The amount Gorham Savings Bank gives to the top business in its LaunchPad competition

Looking at the challenges and opportunities those businesses have faced over the years, the bank wanted to come up with a way to provide businesses with financial tools. “We wanted to help them make the next leap in the right direction with their businesses,” says deCastro.

The community bank came up with an invitation-only workshop series that started in March 2018 with 15 small businesses. The program, Forward with Funding, consisted of six 2.5-hour evening sessions at no charge. “We created the program as a way to help entrepreneurs become more profitable,” deCastro says. Topics in the program included how to better understand their businesses’ financials, how to present their business plans, how to make financial projections, how to optimize their businesses financially and more.

However, Gorham Savings Bank didn’t want its own staff to present the information in the sessions. It wanted outside experts. The community bank had been involved in government-sponsored programs like the U.S. Small Business Administration’s ScaleUp America Communities initiative, which deCastro says put them in touch with local experts who could serve as the program’s financial advisors. The bank selected Michelle Neujahr and Gerry Brown, business consultants and coaches, who had both been involved in ScaleUp. Together, they brainstormed the details of what Forward with Funding would include.

Gorham Savings Bank maintained a presence in the program, however. Bank executives introduced the program to participants on the first night, and when the program was completed, participants could meet with the bank’s commercial lenders to review where they were, what potential financial needs they might have and how they could go about meeting those needs.

Participants in the 2017 program found the information useful, deCastro says. “These were people with very different types of businesses, but in very similar stages of their business lifecycles, so they could relate to a lot of common experiences and challenges,” he says. “In addition, when business owners better understand how all these pieces fit together, the odds of success increase remarkably.”

The program’s most significant benefit deCastro has seen is participants realizing the importance of organizing their financial information. In fact, a couple were able to articulate some specific financing requests to the bank’s commercial lenders. “This is a great sign that the program is meaningful and having an impact,” he says.

“The first class last year went so well that the group wanted even more.”
—Stephen deCastro, Gorham Savings Bank

Another benefit deCastro has noticed is that participants have created an informal network with each other, sharing their own challenges, opportunities, ideas and solutions during the past year. “In fact, the first class last year went so well that the group wanted even more,” deCastro says. “So, in addition to scheduling a second class of new businesses this year, we are considering the idea of creating an alumni program for business owners who were involved in the program last year.”

This year’s class, which launched in October 2018, is also limited to 15 invitation-only participants. “Anything larger than this would be too difficult to manage,” deCastro says. Both years, the selection of 15 participants has been based on recommendations from Gorham Savings Bank’s commercial bankers, as well as from Neujahr and Brown. “This year, we also added the pool of participants from our LaunchPad program and actually selected a couple of participants in this group to be part of the 15 that we ended up selecting for the Forward with Funding program,” deCastro says.

What’s in it for the bank? Obviously, the program has provided good publicity and has created new opportunities for business lending relationships with participants. “However, while we do hope that these businesses use our bank for loans and continue to be very successful, the main reason we offer the program is that we know we are doing something good for the community [by] helping businesses succeed, which is good for the overall local economy,” deCastro says. “In sum, the participants may not all become Gorham Savings Bank clients, but we do know that they are all Gorham Savings Bank fans.”

William Atkinson is a writer in Illinois.