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Championing Equal Opportunity for All

A Conversation with Eastern Bank Chair and CEO Robert F. Rivers

TBF News Winter 2019

Bob Rivers is Chair and CEO of Eastern Bank, the largest and oldest mutual bank in the United States with assets of $11 billion. Raised in Stoughton, he is a 37-year community banker who started his career as a teller. Here he speaks about the bank’s advocacy on behalf of some of the most fundamental social and economic justice issues of our time. In 2018, Eastern Bank celebrated its 200th anniversary. That same year, the Eastern Bank Charitable Foundation contributed $2 million to the Business Equity Fund at the Boston Foundation to provide access to growth capital for qualified enterprises of color.

Bob Rivers and Eastern Bank team
Eastern Bank leaders (from left): Bob Rivers, Chair and CEO; Nancy Huntington Stager, Executive Vice President; and Quincy Miller, Vice Chair and President

Join Us for Good is an unusual message for a bank. What does it represent to you?

I never considered myself to be particularly advantaged, but over time in my banking career, I became aware that as a white male I was very advantaged, and that opportunities were available to me that weren’t available to others, sometimes quite overtly. And, while they benefitted me, I became increasingly uncomfortable and then later motivated to address this inequity in some way. So, when I came to Eastern Bank, I realized I had an opportunity and responsibility to leverage my leadership role to help make the case to other business leaders, most of whom look like me, that championing equal opportunity for all is not only the right thing to do but the smart thing to do because it’s good for business. To that point, we launched our Join Us for Good campaign in 2017 and since then, we’ve had our strongest, most organic growth ever, which has allowed us to make greater investments in philanthropy and provide more resources for community service. Through all of this, we have proven that advocacy on behalf of people who are being denied their rights is a very virtuous circle. It’s not only good for business, it’s good for the health of our community—as well as our customers and our employees—on which we all depend.

The causes you have championed, such as your support of transgender rights, must not sit well with some of your customers.

I’m concerned that if we don’t have any pushback we’re not pushing hard enough. We’re not seeking to upset anyone, but we do want to make people uncomfortable if we believe they need to think more deeply about an issue. Certainly, we’ve had a number of occasions where customers have written to me to say they’re closing out their accounts because they disagree with one of our viewpoints. I always say to them, “I appreciate your business and I’m sorry that we can’t agree,” and let them go. But it’s also true that when I go out to speak at events, time after time people come up to me and say, “I appreciate what you said, I didn’t know that about Eastern, and I’m going to move my accounts to your bank.” And they do.

When we launched the Join Us for Good campaign, it was the spring of 2017, so most people thought it was a response to Trump being elected. But we had developed it in 2015 knowing that our 200th anniversary was coming up in 2018, and we thought it would be a great time to make a statement about why we were founded and what we stand for. In fact, I often say that Trump is the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to Join us for Good, because people are increasingly active, emboldened, aware, and mobilized around defending the values of this country.

In fact, the roots of our advocacy go back to the bank’s origins in Salem. Our founders didn’t think it was right that most people had no safe space to save or borrow money. It was a time in which only wealthy businessmen had access to banks. So, they said to the community, “We are going to offer two products: a 5 percent passbook savings account and access to a fairly-priced home loan.” All of the first customers actually volunteered at the bank, so we are, at our core, a nonprofit. In fact, we were legally a nonprofit until 1952 when all mutual banks were legislated as profit-making entities. But in our DNA, we are still a nonprofit.

What are some of the issues you’re focused on now?

In addition to transgender rights and the rights of the entire LGBTQ community, we are deeply engaged in advancing women, which also goes back to our founding, and this year we are focused upon supporting organizations working toward enriching early childhood development. As we started to dig into our history for the bicentennial, we learned that 75 percent of our first customers were women. In fact, in 1818, women couldn’t open accounts themselves; that had to be done by a husband, a relative or a male attorney. We’re proud of how we’ve diversified our organization to respect our roots and also mirror the diversity of the communities we serve, realizing there is still work to do. Today, more than half our board is comprised of women, people of color, and/or members of the LGBTQ community.

When we take something on, first and foremost, we’ve got to believe it’s the right thing to do and make a business case for it, because that’s our advocacy lever. Helping businesses owned by people of color through our Foundation for Business Equity, the Business Equity Initiative and the Business Equity Fund at the Boston Foundation, is something we are deeply invested in. We want to do what we can to create wealth in our communities, particularly in black and Latino communities where the disparities are the greatest.

Why did you choose the Boston Foundation as a partner in the Business Equity Fund?

We were attracted by the Boston Foundation’s credibility, its brand, its reach and its role as our city’s community foundation. I knew that the Foundation had the capacity to build this important fund and the sophistication and access to investors to understand its importance. The Business Equity Fund has already invested in two growing businesses and we’re just getting started.