BUILDING SOMETHING: The Baltic Group Managing Partner Irene Schmitt surveys 400 Wesminster St. with Harold Antonson, grey jacket, city of Providence electrical inspector, and Don Hardy of Sheridan Electric.
Turning around a failing institution like the former Framingham Savings Bank in Massachusetts is no small feat, but it’s one that led to Irene A. Schmitt’s latest role as an agent of change in a firm she founded and owns.
TD Banknorth bought out the savings bank in 2001, but only after Schmitt helped position the bank to survive a legacy of bad loans, and become its president under a new name, MetroWest Bank.
The problems Schmitt, 50, who now lives in Cumberland, faced head-on and turned into opportunities at Framingham Savings proved pivotal in leading to the work she does today for the business she founded and runs as managing partner, The Baltic Group.
“Never did any of us [at Framingham Savings] envision that we would end up with more than 600 failed projects that needed to be totally restructured – and there was nobody to buy them. I just rolled up my sleeves and went to work.”
“I spent four years just going to foreclosures,” she recalled.
Schmitt, who graduated from Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., in 1984 with a B.A. in business management, took the initiative to present a business plan to the bank’s board. It involved setting up a real estate investment company and then running it: hiring property managers, real estate brokers, leasing people.
With Schmitt taking the lead, the savings bank grew from one with eight branches and $400 million in assets to 21 branches and a billion dollars in assets.
In 1996, at age 33, she was named to the board of directors and then, in 1998 she became both the youngest person and only female to be named president of MetroWest Bank in the bank’s 113-year history.
“During tough times, that’s when careers are made,” Schmitt explained. “I was lucky to work for a board that didn’t care I was a woman; they cared that I was competent.”
Asked to stay on at TD Banknorth, a large Canadian-based firm, she spent three years there as a consultant but at the same time started The Baltic Group, knowing she didn’t want to remain at a large corporation.
Today, the Baltic Group handles a mix of real estate investments and developments, identifying and acquiring properties or projects, turning some around and then either holding or selling them for the core group of investors that the limited-liability company represents.
Baltic Providence, one of the Baltic Group’s investments, owns the Providence building at 400 Westminster St. that houses Providence Business News.
Like many successful career women, Schmitt credits her parents’ example with teaching her how to overcome adversity, which included learning English as a foreign language when she came to the United States with her parents and three sisters from the Azores. Accustomed to tropical weather, her mother at first repeatedly slipped and fell on her way to work in the snow, Schmitt said.
“But she kept picking herself up,” Schmitt added.
Her mother and father, who both worked two jobs, instilled in her the work ethic she has today and models to her own children, Adam, 20, and Amy, 17: “When it’s hard you put a shoulder to it,” she said. “When it’s really hard you put two shoulders to it. When it’s really, really hard, you say a prayer, go to sleep and deal with it the next day.”