February 20, 2012 | last updated April 19, 2012 2:00 pm

After BofA Fee Fallout, Smaller Banks Aren't Seeing Large Spikes In Activity

Remember a few months ago when Bank of America announced it would charge a $5 fee to customers who use their debit cards?

Since then, local bankers say they've seen increased interest from consumers looking to drop their big banks.

"I can't pinpoint an exact number, but we've had a substantial number of customers tell us they came to UniBank to avoid the fees," said Chris Foley, senior vice president and director of retail banking at the Whitinsville-based institution.

Total loans for the bank were up 20 percent in 2011 compared to 2010, bank data shows.

Other local bankers reported similar trends.

"I think it's been more than just that one incident; it's been the whole debacle since 2008 that really scarred the reputation of large money-center banks," said Mark O'Connell, president of Hudson's Avidia Bank. "Community banks, like us, have benefitted, picking up loan and deposit customers."

O'Connell said he didn't see a large spike after the debit card fee issue; rather, it's been a steady migration by customers away from big banks and toward community banks during the past few years.

"I think the whole situation created an awareness of the difference community banks offer," said Ellen Dorian, senior vice president of marketing and human resources at Marlborough Savings Bank. "We weren't lending to Greece; we're lending to the communities we serve."

Where Is The Money?

But while local bankers said they've heard anecdotally from customers that they're dropping the big banks, their numbers don't show large spikes in activity.

Marlborough Savings Bank, for example, had about a 3-percent increase in loans and a 2-percent jump in deposits in 2011 compared to 2010, as of Sept. 30, according to FDIC data. Avidia, meanwhile, saw about a 2-percent jump in loans and a 5-percent increase in deposits.

As for the big banks, like Bank of America, they seem to be doing just fine.

According to Bank of America's most recent quarterly earnings report, overall deposit balances for the bank were up $25 billion in the fourth quarter of 2011 year over year, and 2 percent over the entire year from 2010, while there were more than $6.4 billion in new small-business loans. The bank reported $1.9 billion in net income during the quarter as well.

Nonetheless, that hasn't stopped local bankers from reminding customers about the differences between the big and small banks.

Leominster Credit Union has a sign posted on its Shrewsbury Street branch in Worcester that reads, "Tired Of Big Bank Fees?"

UniBank, where Foley works, actually gives customers $5 a month each time they use a debit card for one year. It's an almost direct swipe at Bank of America's fee announcement — which it reversed just weeks later.

As for the swipes credit unions and smaller banks are taking in their marketing, Gordon Edmonds, president of Leominster Credit Union, said it's part of a strategy.

"We're really just trying to create an awareness with the general public," he said. "There is an alternative out there for your banking needs."

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