In Person

Pandemic, Merger Challenge Operations Leader

Back Office in Key Role as Deal Approaches

As Eastern Bank’s executive vice president of operations, Martha Dean is taking on an even more critical role in enabling the bank’s planned merger with a $6 billion-asset Boston-area bank.

Martha Dean has spent her entire banking career working in back-office operations and technology, but she started with a different goal.  

After taking a summer job as a loan file clerk while she made plans to study speech pathology in graduate school, Dean ended up staying at the bank. Her career has taken her to banks across Central and Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and twice she was involved with building operations divisions for de novo banks.   

Now, as Eastern Bank prepares to acquire Century Bank to form a $22 billion-asset bank with branches across Southern New Hampshire and Massachusetts, Dean is set to play a key role in making the combination a reality on the ground once it’s approved by regulators. 

After joining Eastern Bank in 2014, Dean became the senior vice president of operations in 2018 and was promoted to executive vice president earlier this year. Dean’s team of 12 separate units touches every part of the bank, she said, and the groups range from loan production and check processing to wire room, international operations, fraud analytics and business solutions.  

Q: With a job that touches every part of the bank, what were some challenges you faced during the pandemic?

A:The first one was how quickly events turned and how quickly we needed to get people into a hybrid mode, predominantly with remote workers. There are always some things that we have in operations that have to be done on site. Just the coordination of all of that – and deploying all the various technologies that people needed to stay productive no matter the work environment – was big.   

Another challenge was the products and services that came about because of the pandemic. The SBA Paycheck Protection Program loans were a big one for us. Volumes that were 10 times what we would typically do in a year we were now doing remotely. It was quite a sense of accomplishment as we look back at all of those milestones and what got done.  

How can banks attract and keep a new generation of workers in the industry, including operations?

It involves the approach of always staying connected with networks and being deliberate in your recruiting efforts. It’s a topic we talk about a lot, especially with diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. It’s really understanding this back-office role of operations and what the opportunities are for people as opposed to thinking about it as a technical task. If we think about operations as a whole and take a step back and think about all of the attributes that people can experience in a back office, it can be a career path for staying in operations or it could be a launching pad to go to a commercial division or a retail division, because you’re getting to know from the ground up how the bank works. And then there’s fintech. That’s very exciting for the younger generation. That’s the place that they want to play in.   

Did the pandemic create challenges with mentoring employees?

I actually think it’s one of the positives that came out of the pandemic. There’s something very personal about having a video chat with somebody that’s uninterrupted when you’re not in the office space. It almost has become a real safe zone to have good conversations with people. I think the other piece is the pandemic made us focus more on communication. We had to get very deliberate in our actions of what we wanted to accomplish and what were the priorities. I think our mentoring efforts have actually increased because of the pandemic.   

Were there challenges in recruiting employees?

We’ve been very successful at both recruiting and onboarding in this remote environment. This pandemic really slowed us down, so that we had to be thoughtful of our approach of getting people acclimated and still getting them to build relationships with all the peer departments. The onboarding has been hugely successful to the point that we have spun off a small group of people that were onboarded remotely to continue to give us feedback – what worked, what didn’t work, how do we get better – because there’s an element of it that I think is going to be our new normal.  

How has your career in banking influenced your role in the community?

Every day in bank operations, we’re providing customer service either to our internal partners or our customers, finding what the needs are, where the problems are, and then coming up with the solutions to get the transaction done or get the problem resolved. Once you go outside of the four walls of the bank, it’s that same mindset: Where is the need, where is the expectation, how do we help fill those gaps?  

Earlier I talked about PPP and the volumes and the challenge that was for us. But that was incredibly insightful for our ops team to see how their efforts in the bank, their attention to detail, the urgency of the transaction got money into people’s hands quickly that needed it in the community. And the feedback from the community on how much those efforts helped them really allowed many of us to connect the dots about how what we do every day significantly impacts the community as a whole.   

What kinds of roles are your team working on now?

Big events – whether it be the stock conversion or an acquisition – for operations, it’s an opportunity to learn and be engaged. My teams are getting to see activities and transactions and bodies of work that they don’t see in their normal day-to-day operations. As we think about mentoring our staff and building their skills, every one of those opportunities directly correlates to the staff that’s going to work on those efforts. We had an operational team that assisted with the stock transfers and with the customers coming in to do the transaction – the detail and the accuracy that was needed in that project. And now with the acquisition, we’ve got teams highly focused on data-mapping that is not part of their day-to-day, so their skill set is growing with every opportunity.