From teller to CEO: Theresa Phalon's 36-year career at NCSB
Outgoing President and CEO Theresa Phalon describes the start of her 36-year career with North Country Savings Bank (NCSB) as “a very humble beginning.”
It all began in 1987, shortly after walking into what is now NCSB’s Canton branch with her husband to apply for a mortgage to build a home. She walked away with an appointment for a job interview.
Born and raised in Canton, Phalon studied engineering at Clarkson University as an undergraduate. Apparently, her mathematical savvy shone through during her loan application process—so much so that the lender suggested she return to the bank that day to interview for a teller position.
“As the ‘lender’ who suggested she return to the bank that day to interview,” says Dave Swanson, who served as the bank’s CEO for 26 years, preceding Phalon, “little did I know at the time that I was finding my own successor.”
At that time, the bank was known as Canton Federal Savings and Loan Association. It later merged with NCSB. Phalon worked as a teller for six months, back in the days when tellers balanced out their bank drawers at the end of the day by hand, not digitally. She moved on to work in every bank department associated with lending, with her longest-held position being chief lending officer for more than 20 years.
“Watching Terry successfully navigate through a number of positions, I may have concluded before she did, that she should be on the short-list of candidates for that CEO position,” says Swanson. “The bank could not have done better in selecting her as President & CEO, and her leadership, both during and before her tenure as CEO, has been pivotal in the success of the bank.”
In 2005 Phalon moved to the Potsdam lending office so that she could pursue her master’s in business administration (MBA) at Clarkson University all the while still working full time as chief lending officer for the bank and raising a family. June of 2007 proved to be a banner month for the Phalon household with three graduates: her youngest son, Tom, graduating high school, her oldest son, Mark, graduating college, and “Mom” graduating from her MBA program.
When she looks back at that very busy chapter in life, Phalon’s response is indicative of both her character and her leadership style. No complaints. No boasting. Simply, “I was so thankful that the bank allowed me to do that,” says Phalon.
Shattering Glass Ceilings
Phalon was a pioneer at NCSB. She was the first employee to earn an MBA. She was the first woman to land in a top management position at the bank. And, in 2016, she was the first woman to serve as President and CEO for the bank.
She was never bent on anything more than excelling at her work and moving forward into a new position when offered.
“Quite often you see executives that knew from the beginning that they wanted to be the CEO and the leader,” explains Phalon. “I didn't. I viewed each job as an opportunity to learn and grow in the business…I made it my mission to serve the bank to the best of my ability. As I now reflect back, that mindset allowed me to respect and embrace each position that I held.”
In what she describes as a “short stint” as President and CEO, Phalon admits her seven years in the job could be lonely and not without challenges. “I viewed myself as a temporary caretaker of this fine institution,” says Phalon. And in that position she often had to make difficult decisions based on “what was best for the strength and stability of the bank.”
A Legacy in Lending
During her leadership tenure, NCSB expanded its lending services throughout the North Country, opening lending offices in Saranac Lake, Plattsburgh, Tupper Lake, and Malone (now a full-service branch). Consistent with her modest leadership style, she’s quick to note, “I can’t take credit for a lot of that. There were many people involved in it.”
Yet lending has been Phalon’s longtime specialty, and she takes pride in how The North Country Savings Bank has served the community by providing mortgages and loans to individuals and businesses that larger, big banks may not have approved. As a mutual savings bank, NCSB is not owned by shareholders seeking to profit from the bank’s operations. The bank is there “to serve the community,” says Phalon. The majority of the profits made are lent out in the form of residential mortgages.
NCSB manually underwrites and looks at all aspects of each loan applicant individually, while many traditional and larger banks rely on automated review of applicants using algorithms when considering loan requests.
“There are all kinds of different reasons why people experience credit challenges,” says Phalon. “We make every effort to look at the whole picture.”
Admittedly, it is getting increasingly difficult for small banks like NCSB to operate as state and federal regulations have become more rigid in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.
“The small community bank is facing more and more challenges because we have to comply with many of the regulations and business challenges of a big bank,” says Phalon.
When asked what she’s excited about in the coming future, Phalon immediately jumps to not just the institution to which she has been dedicated for the past 36 years, but the people that make it all happen.
“We have a very capable and talented staff. Everyone is so good at what they do. I’m excited for the opportunities for them to progress and learn and teach one another,” says Phalon.
Stepping into the position as NCSB’s president and CEO will be Brian Coakley, a 20-plus-year employee and current senior vice president at the bank. Phalon will maintain a role of supporting the bank and staff in the near future by continuing to serve on the Board of Trustees of NCSB.
“We on the Board, can’t express enough of our gratitude to Terry for all of her hard work and dedication. She expertly led the bank through a most difficult period during the Covid crisis, keeping everyone’s safety paramount, while never missing a stride in keeping the bank on a successful path,” comments Dr. JC Palermo, an NCSB trustee, who describes her as “one of the hardest working, dedicated people that I know.”
Looking beyond, Phalon is most excited about making up for lost time with her family and enjoying time with her two grandchildren. She and her husband look forward to enjoying winters in Florida, summers in the North Country, swimming almost year-round and golfing a bit.
Showing her North Country roots, her bucket list item is a National Hockey League (NHL) tour—seeing games at each NHL rink around the United States and Canada as well as following the University of Niagara’s hockey team, of which her oldest son is a coach. Hockey has played a central theme in the course of Phalon’s life.
You might say her love for her hometown and hockey proved to be pivotal to her career at NCSB. Phalon recalls her interview in 1987 culminating with one key question that went something like this:
Q: “Okay we see that you grew up in Canton. But you went to Clarkson (University). So when there’s a St. Lawrence-Clarkson hockey game, who do you root for?”
Phalon’s answer: “Of course, St. Lawrence, after all... I grew up in Canton.”
As Phalon steps down from her leadership role at NCSB, well, she shouldn’t have to tell us who she’ll root for when Niagara plays against SLU. She has done her job. She has filled big shoes. It’s her time to kick them off, put up her feet, and root for whoever she pleases.