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CNB traces start back to the 19th century

By SHEILA LIVADAS - 8/24/2012

As a leather and wool dealer in the late 19th century, Henry Hamlin often carried a large amount of cash to conduct business. Muddy roads separated the East Bloomfield resident and his horse-drawn buggy from the dozen banks then in Canandaigua.
 
When the well-heeled merchant did go to Canandaigua to bank, his neighbors often entrusted him with their checks and promissory notes, which he would tuck into his top hat's sweatband for the back-road trek.
 
With his top hat bursting at its seams, Hamlin decided to open banks in East Bloomfield and Victor. Hamlin's interest in banking then trickled down to his son, Frank Hamlin, who launched Canandaigua National Bank in 1887.
 
Celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, CNB went from acquiring its incorporation certificate to opening for business in just 65 days. The first depositor was the Ontario Orphan Asylum, which was founded in 1863 to care for children left parentless by the Civil War. Now known as the Ontario Children's Foundation, the organization remains one of the bank's customers.
 
CNB's launch in the 1880s dovetailed with a growth spurt in Canandaigua, said Edward Varno, executive director of the Ontario County Historical Society and Museum. The downtown area experienced a construction surge then, and records from the period show various established businesses, from tobacconists and tailors to watchmakers and undertakers.
 
Yet even the most bustling areas in Canandaigua had visible agrarian roots: Many residents maintained backyard barns.
 
"So a lot of times, if you needed a new wagon or you needed a horse or something of that nature, and you needed to take a loan out for it, you would," Varno said.
 
George Hamlin IV, CEO, chairman and trust officer at Canandaigua National Bank and Trust Co. and chairman and CEO of Canandaigua National Corp., said his great-grandfather Frank and the other bank directors had more than balance sheets in mind when starting the bank.
 
"Their mission was to underwrite the community ... and be in a natural collaboration that occurred in that day and time where villages and small cities had pretty much themselves to rely on for goods, services and whatever," said Hamlin, a for-mer lawyer who joined the bank as vice president in 1978. "And so there was this inherent responsibility of people kind of collecting together to improve the quality of life in the community."
 
An early 20th-century portrait of Frank wearing a wing-collared shirt gives the impression that he was "a pretty stern guy," George Hamlin said. Yet his great-grandfather's memoirs reveal a man who had a sizable soft spot for his grandchildren, he added.
 
Various challenges came CNB's way during its infancy, including a nationwide money panic in 1907 that prompted the bank to keep $10,000 over the required reserve in its vault. When the Great Depression tightened its grip in 1931 and stoked fear about the availability of cash, the bank's leadership decided to stack $1 million inside the teller cage so customers could see the greenbacks.
 
During the worst of the Depression, the bank experienced net losses largely due to bond charge-offs. But it rebounded in 1936 and had nearly $11 million in assets by 1947. As the bank entered the 1950s, it began improving its earnings by focusing more on local loans and less on low-yielding government bonds.
 
Deposit growth proved strong in the 1960s and led to a merger with Ontario County-based Hamlin National Bank of Holcomb in 1967.
 
The 1960s also ushered in major technology changes, said Robert Sheridan, who retired last year as president of CNB Mortgage Co. and an executive vice president at the bank. As a part-time teller in 1968 while on break from college, Sheridan would record cash transactions in his own handwriting on three-inch-wide paper.
 
"And you would indicate whether you gave cash out or whether they put cash in or some combination of that," he said. "We didn't have teller machines back then."
 
Throughout his 40-year tenure at the bank, Sheridan had the chance to serve customers in various capacities. One time, though, a female customer came to his aid by grabbing the bank's broom and clocking a bat that had flown out of the vault.
 
"I'm not aware that we ever had any more bat depositors after that," he said.
 
When Richard Hawks Jr., senior vice president and chief fiduciary officer in the CNB Wealth Strategies Group, started at the bank in 1972 as a co-op student from Rochester Institute of Technology, CNB had only 38 employees and roughly $38 million in assets under management.
 
During the past four decades, he has witnessed the organization's transformation from a "sleepy community bank" to a major player in Monroe and Ontario counties.
 
"I think what drew me to Canandaigua National in the beginning was its emphasis on community involvement," Hawks said.
 
As the economy zipped along in the mid-1990s, some people began asking why banks should exist when it was possible to "do an initial public offering on Monday, raise $10 million and make payroll by Friday," George Hamlin said. Those skeptics did not grasp that the banking system "is part of the DNA of society," he added.
 
The bank's decision to enter the Rochester-area market in the 1990s was a no-brainer, Hamlin said. Branch openings in Pittsford, Webster and Greece brought sizable increases in deposits and filled "a vacuum that I knew was going to develop," he said.
 
The success of CNB, which ranks fifth in the Rochester market with local deposits of $1.5 billion as of June 30, 2011, shows that the Norman Rockwell approach resonates with customers, Hamlin said.
 
"For one reason or another, the financial services industry thought 'big' and 'glitter' was where you made all your money, and that's short-term thinking," Hamlin said.

Sheila Livadas is a Rochester-area freelance writer.8/24/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.