BY HARLAN LEVY
ROCKY HILL — Connecticut’s community banking sector is very strong, with good balance sheets, a pick-up in competition over the last 12 months, and a jump in lending in the last three months, First Niagara New England Region President David Ring said this week.
Ring spoke at Thursday’s annual “Connecticut Economy” conference at the Rocky Hill Marriott, sponsored by the Connectiuct Business & Industry Association and accounting and consulting firm BlumShapiro.
Buffalo-based First Niagara Financial Group, which operates 346 bank branches across upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, completed a $1.5 billion buyout of NewAlliance Bank in April. NewAlliance was created in 2004 when the former New Haven Savings Bank took over Savings Bank of Manchester and Tolland Bank.
“We’re seeing a lot of activity when there’s a business opportunity,” Ring said. “A lot of competition among the banks has clearly picked up over the last 12 months.”
As for lending, Ring said, “Demand is lower. Usage of our lines of credit is lower, and overall demand is lower, but we’ve just seen a tick-up in pipelines over the last three months. That’s a good indicator that companies are starting to invest in new equipment again and maybe generate higher levels of activity.”
As for hiring levels, Ring said, “What would drive it is that companies have kept employment at such low levels over the last several years that any tick-up in business will trigger some hiring.”
In Connecticut, Ring said, “We see the manufacturing sector doing a lot more hiring, and the business service sector.”
After First Niagara entered Connecticut, the bank laid off 126 New Haven employees and 93 in Manchester. However, a bank official said on Thursday that First Niagara has finished with layoffs.
“The notifications have already been sent out in the spring,” said the official, who did not want to be identified. “We don’t anticipate any other layoffs having to do with the merger.”
In fact, First Niagara is hiring, she said.
Connecticut is a good market, Ring said. “We’re optimistic about our opportunities here in Connecticut, because we’re new, and we’re building the business here from the foundation that New Alliance brought,” he said. “We’re bringing a lot more products and services to our client base, and we think we’re going to be an attractive option to companies.”
Since April, Ring said, “We’re starting to get some very nice traction. We’re doing a lot of lending. We did over $250 million in the first quarter. Our second quarter numbers aren’t out yet, but our pipelines are picking up, and our lending is picking up.”
However, he said, “There’s still a lack of demand that we’ve been used to having over the last several years.”