Bringing It Home

Gail Snowden helps BankBoston lead the nation in community banking

Having grown up in Boston’s Grove Hall neighborhood, Gail Snowden knows about the inner city and all its trappings: chief among them, dwindling financial support for residents and small businesses. That’s why, in 1990, Snowden jumped at the opportunity to put banks back on urban streets. Today she heads the nation’s leading inner-city banking initiative.

As group executive of BankBoston’s Community Banking Group (CBG), the 53-year-old Snowden oversees an operating budget of $35 million and a team of 450 employees. Since its inception in 1990, CBG has grown from seven failing Boston branches to a thriving 42-branch network in three states. In 1997, Snowden’s group delivered $17 million in profits, with a higher return on equity than BankBoston’s company-wide goal. With $70.5 billion in assets, BankBoston is the 16th largest bank holding company in the country.

“There’s always been a market in the inner city, but no one in banking had ever focused on it,” says Snowden, who is also chairman of the board of Freedom House, a Grove Hall community center founded by her parents. That fact didn’t deter her. When BankBoston’s CEO handpicked her eight years ago to help the seven wayward branches, Snowden didn’t waste time. “I was determined to prove that we could meet the needs of the community and still do business safely,” she says.

Snowden built a diverse management team and studied the needs of Boston’s urban communities. “We needed a way to reach a definite niche market,” she explains. Her vehicle became First Community Bank, a specialized bank-within-a-bank that offered user-friendly products such as $500 entry-level loans, programs for first-time home buyers and shortened credit applications.

Local civic leaders were invited to join First Community Bank’s advisory board, and advertisements were changed to include people of color. Then Snowden had her team spread the gospel of banking. “Wherever there was a group gathering, we had people speaking,” she recalls.

Long-ignored communities started to believe. First Community Bank and branches began opening across New England. In 1992, Snowden opened a branch in her former Grove Hall neighborhood, where there hadn’t been a bank for 23 years.

The next step was to help rebuild inner-city neighborhoods. In 1995, Snowden created a real-estate lending unit that has financed over $55 million in urban projects. Two years later, she took it further and founded BankBoston Development Co. (BBDC), which provides equity capital. “We had to prove we were willing to take risks and partner in community growth,” explains the Harvard alumna. In its first year, BBDC invested $58 million in various community projects.

Although Snowden’s career at BankBoston has been nontraditional, “with the CBG, everything’s come together,” she says. With a bachelor’s in sociology, she entered the trainee program at Bank of Boston (the name was changed to BankBoston in 1996) and quickly rose. By the mid-’70s, she was a branch manager in need of more business knowledge. While working full-time, she attended Simmons Graduate School of Management and earned her M.B.A. to enter the bank’s loan officer program.

During her 30-year tenure, Snowden

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