Irish Eyes Smiling on Suburban Bank's N.Y. Foray
Epstein, Jonathan D., American Banker
Three years ago, William Burke was happily heading Bank of Ireland's small retail operation in New York City.
The 54-year-old native of Ireland had been recruited by the international bank in 1977, and had been steadily gaining prominence in the local Irish community. He had even been chosen by Irish community group representatives as grand marshal of the St. Patrick's Day Parade in 1988, and was twice named one of the 100 most influential Irish-Americans by Irish America magazine.
But his luck ran out in 1993, when Bank of Ireland decided to get out of New York's hotly competitive retail market , putting Ms. Burke in limbo.
The setback, however, turned into a pot of gold when his friend Joseph Murphy asked him to come work for Country Bank as a senior executive. At the time, Country was just a one-branch operation in mostly rural Putnam County, and Mr. Murphy, the small bank's chairman, wanted his friend to help it grow.
Now, three years after coming to Carmel, Mr. Burke has helped $78 million-asset Country take over the role once played by his former employer in the Bronx and New York City's northern suburbs. And in his new post as president, he's preparing to go one step further, to propel the eight-year old community bank straight into the heart of Manhattan.
"If you serve the Irish community for 20 years, you'd really like to continue with that," he said. "There're not too many people who would serve that community. We understand the culture better and the customer feels more comfortable with us."
For Mr. Burke, loyalty to - and unity within - the Irish community has been a primary focus of his day-to-day business since he left Ireland after college and came to the United States. About 100,000 Irish-born people live in the New York City area.
"He has helped a lot of Irish-American people to start businesses that were turned down by bigger banks," said Tom Canty, co-owner of Gilly's & Jenny's Restaurant in Woodlawn. Mr. Canty, who had been Mr. Burke's customer at Bank of Ireland, now banks at Country.
From the beginning of his banking career, in Franklin National Bank's executive training program in 1965, Mr. Burke has sought an active role in Irish-American affairs in New York. He began by playing Gaelic football for a Bronx team representing his home county of Sligo and eventually became league president. He also joined Irish benevolent societies, including the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Those connections proved invaluable to him. As people in the community discovered his line of business, he found himself acting as a financial adviser for both individuals and small businesses. And when he joined Barclay's Bank in 1973 as regional vice president for Westchester County retail operations, he realized that he could use those ties to draw in customers - a practice he later followed at Bank of Ireland.
"After a while, if there was any Irish person looking to open a business in New York City, they'd come to me for advice," he said. " And they've got a certain allegiance to you that never dies. …