In a Nutshell: Valley Bank operates on the notion that a financial institution should make people’s lives better. That’s why it backs development opportunities in its communities that focus on home affordability, financial education, entrepreneurship, and environmental stewardship. Valley operates over 200 branches in New Jersey, New York, Florida, and Alabama, and invested more than $1 billion in community-building programs in 2018. Those comprehensive, community-strengthening strategies have earned Valley our Editor’s Choice™ Award for Community Commitment.
Along the Jersey City, New Jersey, waterfront — also known as Wall Street West — financial organizations are lining up to invest in projects for affluent borrowers. But that revitalization is taking place as the city’s overall poverty rate hovers around 20% — well above state and national averages.
Opportunities in underserved Jersey City communities are often fleeting, but one nonprofit, Rising Tide Capital, is trying to change that with programs for building strong local businesses. Among them is the Community Business Academy, a 12-week course that offers training in business planning and management, and the Plan & Pitch Competition, in which budding entrepreneurs pitch ideas to local business leaders to win development grants.
And Valley Bank helps out with both. In May 2019, more than a dozen volunteers from the bank coached 100 Academy entrepreneurs in business fundamentals. That same month, Valley also contributed expertise from its Lending and Retail Banking divisions to a Pitch Tutorial to prepare participants for the rigors of the Pitch & Plan Competition.
Multiply those initiatives in Jersey City across the Valley’s four-state service area, and you start to get an idea of the good it fosters in the communities it serves. Valley, founded in 1927 in Passaic, N.J., operates more than 200 branches across New Jersey, New York, Florida, and Alabama. Bernadette Mueller, the EVP of Corporate Social Responsibility at Valley, said that although the bank’s operational footprint is extensive, its support is targeted to have the most significant impact in helping local communities build their sustainability.
“In terms of our focus, we’re still very much a local bank,” she said. “We take a leadership role in the communities we’re involved in, and we do that by listening. We like to invest not only our money but our time, by rolling up our sleeves and working alongside civic and community leaders.”
For its local service programs and volunteer work in four states, Valley has earned our Editor’s Choice™ Award for Community Commitment.
Partnerships and Advocacy Help Broaden Access to Affordable Homes
Everything starts with Valley’s people. Much of its growth has occurred through acquisition, which has brought new talent into the company. The result is a diverse corporate culture that is dedicated to delivering superior financial services and community support at all levels and locations.
“Our associates are just as passionate, if not more passionate about what they do,” Mueller said. “It makes our job terrific. It starts at the top with our CEO, and certainly works its way throughout the company.”
With branches in several of the most expensive housing markets in the country, Valley is rightly concerned with home affordability as an essential pillar of its sustainability strategy.
“We work in collaboration, you might say, with many housing council agencies and consumer advocacy groups throughout our market area. So affordable homes are key,” Mueller said.
Depending on the context, that commitment runs the gamut. The bank offers special financing for the construction of multifamily and single-family residences, contributes volunteer time and resources to organizations like Habitat for Humanity, and participates in programs that promote affordable access to capital for acquiring homes, among many other services.
In April 2019, Valley helped celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, a statewide association supporting the creation of affordable homes, economic opportunities, and healthy communities. The Network has been a strong supporter of New Jersey’s Neighborhood Revitalization Tax Credit Program.
Valley has contributed more than $4 million to member organizations of the Network through the State’s program which provides an 80% match to offset state tax liability.
Promoting Growth Through Financial Literacy and Workforce Development Programs
Another piece of the community sustainability puzzle is economic development and job creation. So Valley focuses heavily on financial literacy and workforce development, as they are drivers of economic growth.
Bank associates teach basic money and savings skills and deliver resources to preschool and elementary-age kids, and talk with high schoolers and young adults about saving, investing, and budgeting. Associates also work with first-time homebuyers to put them in the best position to succeed over the long term.
“We even reach out to seniors,” Mueller said. “We’re very active with our seniors here at Valley to ensure they understand how to prevent financial exploitation and identity theft.”
One financial literacy partnership that recurs across the bank’s service area is with Junior Achievement, which delivers programs that promote work readiness, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy to students of all ages.
For several years, the bank has participated in JA’s Career Success Workshop based at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, located in the underserved city of Newark.
“It provides insight into the global economy for young students and adults through real-world relationships,” Mueller said. “They bring in government officials and education and business partners like ourselves, and, to us, that’s essential to having a shared success.”
Valley volunteers also serve as mentors for more than 100 Newark high school students, partners with many workforce development nonprofits, and is even looking to build direct relationships with companies.
“We try to partner with organizations that have needs that match the skills that our people have,” Mueller said.
Plans to Develop Sustainability in Underserved Communities
Part of Valley’s commitment to the individual communities it serves is maintaining a community advisory board in each of the four states where it operates. That multilevel managerial and administrative structure ensures the bank works effectively toward goals.
“I’m extraordinarily proud of what we’ve put together,” Mueller said. “Our community advisory boards are really the cornerstone that helped build our program, which, I would say, is a stellar program right now.”
In Florida and Alabama, as well as in the Northeast, Valley targets the low- and moderate-income areas to provide additional services. According to Mueller, providing education and more services to those groups helps people help themselves and promotes sustainability.
For example, in Alexander City, Alabama, the bank has pursued another pillar in its strategy — support for entrepreneurship and small business development. That’s why it donated a building to house a business incubator that provides training, services, and resources to area startups.
“Our Alabama staff was so phenomenal and took leadership roles in that,” Mueller said. “Not only does it provide space and support, but it also provides broadband. When you’re in a rural area in Alabama, you can’t take that for granted.”
The renewal that Valley has fostered in Alexander City is just part of a broad strategy of support that accomplishes so much more. In 2018 alone, the bank committed more than $1 billion in resources through affordable mortgages, community development loans, investments, and more financial education resources.
“We contributed more than 12,000 volunteer hours in 2018, served over 22,000 people and small businesses,” Mueller said. “We also invested $187 million in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. And we processed more than 1,400 low- and moderate-income residential loans at a time when many banks aren’t even making loans. And things keep trending positive,” Mueller said. “So, we’re happy.”