Five Questions With: Leland R. Merrill

Leland R. Merrill is executive vice president and chief operating officer for BankNewport. He is responsible for planning, organizing and controlling the bank’s operational activities. He also serves as the Middletown-based bank’s chief lending officer. He joined BankNewport in 2004. During his tenure, he has led several strategic and operational initiatives, including the growth and expansion of commercial lending, credit administration and consumer lending services.

In addition, Merrill led development of a business banking group focused on personalized service to small-business customers; the implementation of lending program partnerships with Lending Club and BancAlliance; and the formation of BankNewport’s Marine and Recreational Lending Division through the acquisition of OffShore Financial and JustBoatLoans. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Rhode Island.

PBN: What are the key elements of your job?

Merrill: I have an extraordinary group of banking professionals working directly under me, so, to be honest, my main responsibility is to give them proper guidance in their roles and to make sure they have the tools and the resources they need to deliver on BankNewport’s commitment to the community and our customers.

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At the end of the day, the ultimate goal for all of us at the bank is to deliver a superior customer experience and to make sure we provide the services and products our customers are looking for in a secure and sound manner.

PBN: How is the bank’s loan portfolio evolving?

Merrill: Fifteen years ago, BankNewport was primarily a community residential lender. Over the years, we made a purposeful, gradual shift to a more commercial and business lending focus.

During the past five years, we have expanded our commercial lending product offerings, hired several new loan officers and business banking professionals, and increased our limit for single commercial deals to $20 million, which covers most of the commercial lending opportunities you will see across Rhode Island. Overall, the commercial lending portfolio has almost doubled in the last five years from $440 million to just over $800 million.

Residential and consumer loans remain strong and represent 50% of our overall loan business. In fact, BankNewport introduced several new residential loan products over the last two years, including [a Federal Housing Administration] product, a first-time homebuyer program, a professional program, along with the introduction of our first online mortgage loan application.

The bank’s consumer lending area also continues to grow, with the development of a marine and recreational lending division – through the acquisition of JustBoatLoans and Offshore Financial – that is originating boat loans from New England down the entire East Coast to Florida.

PBN: How has the bank’s new lending center in Providence impacted the bank?

Merrill: The new lending center is a continuation of BankNewport’s expansion into the Providence market, providing our customers and prospective customers with expedient borrowing opportunities on a full range of lending products. Coupled with our two new Providence branch locations and our Dorrance Street executive offices, the bank has broadened its ability to serve even more customers and businesses.

Having a well-versed team of branch staff, residential lenders, commercial and business lenders, and insurance producers, along with the decision-makers readily available in the upstairs executive offices, has been a game-changer for BankNewport. Our commitment to the Providence metro market will soon be expanded with the opening of our Johnston branch in November.

PBN: What’s been your biggest accomplishment at the bank?

Merrill: I discussed the transformation of the bank to be more of a commercial lending institution in a prior question. In my heart, that is what I am most proud of. I joined the bank 15 years ago with that being our main goal, and with the help of many along the way, including the guidance of our board, it has really transformed BankNewport.

Commercial and business banking is where the rubber hits the road. It is where the bank is most able to help the communities we serve. You are helping businesses grow; helping them move into new markets; maybe building something new; and most importantly, creating jobs. In the long run, it is the creation and expansion of businesses and the development of new jobs in the market that is going to continue to make Rhode Island a great place to live and work.

PBN: What is the bank’s top priority and what could the future hold?

Merrill: BankNewport’s top priority now, and for the foreseeable future, is to be viewed as a statewide bank. For 175 years, BankNewport primarily served Newport County. In the 1990s, we expanded throughout the East Bay communities of Bristol County, and then made the big jump across the Jamestown Bridge in 2007.

As BankNewport celebrates its 200th anniversary this year, we’re completely focused on continuing to expand the exceptional services, competitive products and advanced banking technology offered to our customers. BankNewport is a Rhode Island community bank and we want all Rhode Islanders to be able to consider us as their trusted financial partner, working with them to meet their financial and life goals.

Scott Blake is a PBN staff writer. Email him at Blake@PBN.com.

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