When the Lawrence Partnership hands out its top award at its annual meeting on Tuesday, the economic development nonprofit won’t be honoring someone local, from the Merrimack Valley.
No, the honor will go to a prominent executive from Boston: Eastern Bank chief executive Bob Rivers.
Bob Rivers? What’s he done up in Lawrence?
Apparently, an awful lot. Yes, Rivers remains a ubiquitous presence and a familiar face in Boston civic affairs, with his lengthy list of board responsibilities and charitable obligations. He launched an initiative to foster minority-owned businesses in Boston and rallied the city’s corporate community to stop an anti-transgender ballot question last year. He’s now focused on early childhood education.
Less known about Rivers: He also stays busy making connections and doing deals in Gateway Cities — the smaller, less fortunate cities on the fringe of Greater Boston. Think Lowell, Lynn, Brockton. And, of course, Lawrence, once the poorest of them all.
Much has been said about the need to help these cities, to spread more of Boston’s economic success out to the hinterlands. Rivers believes in this cause, but also believes it is good business. The story of how Rivers ended up heralded as a hero of sorts in the Valley underscores the potential these cities offer.
Eastern bucked the trend when it opened a branch in Lawrence in 2011, but that was the point. Not long after Rivers joined the bank in 2006, he decided he wanted the Boston-based company to grow in places that other banks avoided. The struggling city of Lawrence certainly fit the bill. A full-service bank branch hadn’t opened there in more than 20 years.
Rivers said a group of entrepreneurs tried to launch a bank there, in the Great Recession’s aftermath, in particular to serve the city’s Latino population. (Nearly 75 percent of the city’s population identified as Hispanic or Latino in the 2010 census.) But federal regulators were not eager to approve startup banks at the time, not after so many others had failed elsewhere.
Senator Barry Finegold, who represents the city, wasn’t about to give up on the idea of bringing a new bank to the city. He phoned a Rolodex’s worth of bank executives, pleading with them to set up in Lawrence. Only one agreed.
Finegold showed Rivers around, introducing him to many of the city’s players. It turns out Rivers already had Lawrence in his sights.
Unemployment was high, around 15 percent. The city’s finances were in trouble, the school system struggling.
But Rivers saw an opportunity: an underbanked population and business community. (It helps that Eastern is a mutual bank owned by its depositors, not a publicly traded one whose shareholders might be less inclined to support such an expansion.)
The bank branch was just the start. Rivers worked with Lane Glenn, president of Northern Essex Community College, to launch the Lawrence Partnership in 2013. This public-private partnership distributed capital to downtown businesses that needed it, through a venture fund seeded with money from several local banks.
It also embarked on other economic initiatives: workforce training, mentorship, and the like.
Rivers borrowed ideas he had learned from working with a similar group, the Lowell Plan. Most of the people involved were local, but having Rivers on board gave the Partnership credibility, from the start.
Other banks noticed the city’s potential, too. Enterprise Bank has since opened a branch in Lawrence, and Reading Cooperative Bank is working on doing so.
Flash-forward eight years, and Lawrence is a different city. The jobless rate was down to 4.5 percent in October — still higher than the statewide average but a meaningful victory nonetheless. The number of Lawrence residents with jobs has grown by about 4,000 people since Eastern opened its doors there.
The credit for this resurgence can be shared by many people. Several names come up repeatedly: Rivers, Finegold, Glenn, Mayor Dan Rivera, pizza king and developer Sal Lupoli. Of those, Rivers stands out because he doesn’t actually work there.
Rivers views his Gateway Cities outreach to be part of the bank’s DNA, considering Eastern’s origins in Lynn and Salem. However, this work in Lawrence isn’t just a community service, or a nostalgia trip. There are deposits to be gained and loans to be made. Rivers says the bank has benefited in other ways, including a deeper understanding of the Latino community and its needs.
Rivers expects to cover some of this ground in his speech Tuesday at the Partnership. He spends less time in Lawrence now that the seeds have been planted. But the success of the Lawrence Partnership inspired him to launch something similar in Brockton, and he’s working on a venture fund for small businesses in Lynn.
Sometimes, the best business opportunities can be found where few others are looking.