Walden Mutual gets first NH charter for a mutual bank in a century

  • Interior of the office at 66 N. Main St., that is under construction. Walden Mutual Bank

Monitor staff
Published: 5/22/2022 8:02:07 PM

The first mutual bank to get a state charter in a century has started making loans as it gets one step closer to fully opening, although financial turmoil may complicate matters.

“Market conditions have obviously changed quite a bit in the last six months,” said Charley Cummings, a founder of Walden Mutual Bank, designed to serve the New York and New England agriculture market.

On Wednesday, Walden Mutual received a conditional charter from the state Banking Department, the first mutual bank to do so in a century. Cummings said it will probably open in late summer once final approval comes from the FDIC, which will make Walden Mutual the country’s first new mutual bank since 1973.

Walden Mutual has already made some loans from initial capital and in partnership with other banks. It continues to raise funds toward a $25 million goal and has “a decent amount of commitments” from members and investors, Cummings said.

Once open, probably in late summer, Walden Mutual will take consumer deposits and do commercial lending. While it will staff its office at 66 Main Street, which has just been repainted and will soon be getting a sign, business will be largely digital.

Mutual banks are similar to credit unions in that they are owned by members rather than investors, the biggest difference being that banks can offer FDIC-insured accounts.

Cummings is best known for founding Walden Local in Massachusetts in 2013 to deliver beef and other local farm products to tens of thousands of homes between New Jersey and Maine, a business that he says made him realize that the types of loans and financial help given by existing banks didn’t always serve small farms.

He said the mutual bank route was taken because it worked with Walden Mutual’s focus on the local “agriculture ecosystem,” since control by members who are themselves in the agriculture industry makes it easier to do such things as adjust loan payments to fit harvesting patterns.

Cummins pointed to a recent query from a grower about getting a mortgage to buy a piece of property to expand the farm. “Talking through his planting schedule, he was looking to connect to a buyer of heritage grain. ... We had an earlier loan to a wholesale bakery that was building a retail location; it was easy to connect one to the other.”

Cummings said Walden Mutual planned to “lend to the local food ecosystem — the entire value chain.” Not just farms but “we’ll lend to distributors, consumer brands, trade brands, companies ancillary to food like solar development that uses marginal farm land.”

In raising capital, he said Walden Mutual is “casting a wide net, asking members of communities to invest alongside us,” similar to the way the first mutual banks began in past centuries, when people pooled their savings to create capital for a local bank.

“We have about 7,500 people on the waitlist to become depositors. We’re asking them to participate in financing at a minimum of $5,000 alongside many who are writing larger checks as well,” he said.

“The process of getting a charter is certainly a long and rigorous one — as it should be — and I’ve been surprised by regulators’ excitement about the project, acknowledging that mutuals have served an important role in the community,” he said.

The lack of recent examples slowing things down. “It took a little longer than expected because we were asking some novel questions. ... But they weren’t new questions 100 years ago!”

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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