By Rory Winston
Photos by Mike Coppola/Getty Images
Hair/Makeup: Bella on Demand Beauty Alexander Acosta
It’s not enough to be American. You always have to be something else, Irish-American, German-American, and you’d wonder how they’d get along if someone hadn’t invented the hyphen,” wrote the late great Frank McCourt, in Tis: a memoir. Another Irish-American who’d undoubtedly agree with the author is the Joseph M. Murphy, Chairman of Country Bank, who could not only justify the Irish-American hyphenation but could as easily make a case for hyphenating community with bank, intimate with corporation, and relationship with institution; the last hyphen, of course, being his evolution from the son of a teamster from Dunworley, County Cork, Ireland to President of a large real estate investment banking corporation; to being an initial investor and Director of the ever-burgeoning enterprise, Country Bank.
Meeting the scions of the aforementioned Mr. Murphy, Joe Jr., and Carolyn, it soon becomes apparent that neither carries even a trace of ‘second generation’ entitlement. Theirs is a world of measured responses, meticulous research and a matter-of-fact forbearance in the face of adversity. These are the hardworking heirs of a hardworking, if highly successful, father; a generation aware of the sacrifices that preceded them, a generation cognizant of the risks involved in maintaining a business whose values are very different from those of their banking counterparts.
“We are a community bank” states Joe Jr. emphatically. “It’s the way we started, and it’s what remains our mantra.” Lost in reverie, Joe Jr. continued, “You see my father – his own Dad a teamster straight off the boat from Ireland. He grew up in Inwood in northern Manhattan, attended Good Shepherd Grammar School then Rice High School in Harlem. His mom died when he was just 16, but he persevered. He finished high school, enters Iona College on a scholarship, and a year later enlists in the Unites States Marine Corps, serving in Korea. On his return, he resumes school on the GI bill, graduating with a BBA and a major in Accounting. By then, he was the father of twins, Joe Jr. and Patricia.”
While working with real estate developers, Joe Jr. explains, his father met with representatives of the Rothschild related Belgian consortium, Groupe Bruxelles Lambert (GBL) and was hired in 1970. Knowing that they wanted to open a real estate division in the United States, Mr. Murphy formed the real estate investment division, Lambert Brussels Real Estate Corporation for GBL. Following a subsequent merger with Drexel Burnham, Mr. Murphy not only became the President of Drexel Burnham Lambert Realty for the next fifteen years but he also served on the GBL Board of Directors. In 1988, Mr. Murphy made an investment in Country Bank in Carmel, NY and joined the Board of Directors.
“Within time,” continued Joe Jr., “a major founding shareholder asked my Dad if we wanted to purchase his shares. We did, qualifying as the “controlling” shareholder of the bank by 1992. Shortly thereafter, we also decided to open a branch in New York City. Finding someone with a long history in banking, William J. Burke, we opened in Woodlawn; and pretty soon Riverdale. Then came the Scarsdale branch in Westchester where our family lives. In addition, we opened a small branch on Second Avenue and 48th Street in order to service our commercial borrowers. Lastly, opening our flagship branch on Third Avenue between 41st and 42nd Street on St. Patrick’s Day of this year, gives us the type of presence we are looking for within the business community. Since we realized our focus had gone from the rural community to commercial real estate lending, we sold our branch in Carmel by 2001 and devoted ourselves entirely to the new paradigm.”
Even with moving to New York City, the bank has kept the original Country Bank moniker – the name alluding both to the notion of a country bank – as in an informal laidback zone where clients are treated like community members – as well as to the idea of a multicultural bank where clients from any country in the world could conduct business. As Joe Jr. elucidates, “Our bank has retained its country sensibility – in both senses of the word. The hospitality factor has been there since its inception. You sense it from the moment you enter. What we offer is far beyond the icy domain of generic banking. We have a genuine relationship with our clients. We work to find solutions, delivering the capital necessary to realize one’s goals. That means personalized attention and thought. It’s not a black box where you simply input the data and get a Yes or a No. We customize, catering to individual needs and considering otherwise overlooked facets. I can’t tell you how many people came to me prior to borrowing money for real estate and other financing and the first thing I say is, ‘Where do you do you’re banking?’ and then I ask them why didn’t they go there for their loan… and they tell me because ‘there is no one there to talk to.’ Other banks may, at best, have someone to help you fill out forms before sending off the applications to be processed. That isn’t us. That’s never been us. We are about seeing the entirety of your picture. You want a relationship with us…? Fine. Bring your deposits over, open an account; let’s start to know one another… And we can proceed on that basis. We’ll be happy to work with you – as a member of our community. 70% of American businesses are family owned. And unlike all the other banks, we are family owned. That’s an essential difference. It makes us understand our clients as others can’t.”
“As for the other Country aspect,” says Joe Jr., “Like me, whose family hailed from Ireland some generations back, many New Yorkers retain traditions and values that make them distinct. You need genuine awareness and respect for all cultures to do business in that kind of environment.’”
Opening a new flagship bank between 42nd and 41st street on Third Avenue (where the executive office has been for a long time), Country Bank will be bringing its personalized style into the heart of New York City. “Visibility,” explains Murphy, “An opportunity to grow organically and amongst the very New Yorkers we do business with. If there is a five-year plan, it’s mostly to amass the scale necessary to look really attractive to investors. In that way, we can position ourselves for an initial public offering. Clearly we’re not going for the 2.5 trillion dollar Chase look… we’re simply trying to retain all our core values while simultaneously growing from our present half billion to a billion. And all this, while eschewing bureaucracy and making decisions rapidly.”
Whereas Joe Jr. focuses on asset lending and operations, Carolyn is the go-to marketing and development person. Two other sisters sit on the board, making sure the bank works closely with different charities and community needs. To understand the extent of the Murphy commitment to community one need look no further than their philanthropic endeavors. Loyal to his alma mater, Iona College, as well as to the Marines, Mr. Murphy has, respectively, donated to Iona College Murphy Science and Technology Center, the Arts Center at Iona College, on which Mrs. JoAnn Murphy, Vice Chair of the Board of Directors and major shareholder of Country Bank, is also a Trustee of Iona College. Owing to the fact that Mr. Murphy’s son died from diabetes at a young age, the family remains committed to finding a cure for Type 1 Diabetes. In so doing, they are major contributors to Columbia Presbyterian and Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center. As for Joe Jr. and Carolyn, they are heavily involved with community charities that run the gamut from helping homelessness, giving endowments to parochial education to sponsoring sporting events for different schools.
Listening to the Murphys talk about Country Bank – its origins, its present and its envisioned future – all I kept thinking about is you can take Country Bank out of the Country but you can’t take the country out of this twenty eight year old institution.
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