Thomas J. Shara

One year ago, when I assumed the position of Chairman of the New Jersey Bankers Association for the 2020-2021 term, our society and economy were on the brink of a period of unprecedented change and challenge. We experienced the initial phase of COVID-19 lockdowns in early 2020, and the pandemic would soon come to redefine the way we all live and work. Protests against racial injustice then ensued, and have made us acutely aware of the inequities in areas such as public safety, health care, and economic opportunity. 

What has deeply impressed me, through this turbulent year, has been the unrelenting focus of New Jersey’s banking sector—and its employees—on serving the needs of our customers, fellow team members, and communities. We owe a great debt of gratitude to everyone who took on the challenges of keeping each other safe, while continuing to deliver essential banking services and helping people at a time of great personal and financial stress. 

We can take particular pride in the pandemic response efforts of NJBankers and its members during the past year. Collectively, our members provided loan payment forbearance and other relief for borrowers facing economic hardship. Through March 7, 2021, New Jersey banking institutions have approved more than 220,000 Paycheck Protection Program loans totaling $22.6 billion for local businesses and organizations, helping to save approximately 1.9 million New Jersey jobs. 

Our Association did even more to help people save their homes and jobs and take care of their families. A charitable initiative launched by the Association, along with contributing members, raised approximately $400,000 for the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund, and millions of additional dollars were donated by NJBankers members to charitable organizations and programs that provided much needed assistance to our communities.

Even as we dealt with the disruption caused by COVID-19, NJBankers and its members also took important steps to address inequality in our society. In my inaugural letter as Chairman, I wrote, “Banks play a uniquely visible role in our society. We need to set a positive example by fostering inclusive and supportive workplaces, and increasing the representation of women and members of minority groups at the highest levels of our organizations.” 

I applaud the efforts of the NJBankers in the past year to promote diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Among the actions taken by the Association, a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council was formed with a mission to cultivate a more inclusive banking community and to promote values that achieve more equitable outcomes. A number of banks have contributed members to the Council, including Lakeland’s own Senior VP and Chief Diversity Officer, Alethea Batts. At the Council’s direction, a “Banking on DEI” webinar series was recently launched to provide insights on topics such as recruiting and retaining diverse talent. Also, the NJBankers website now has a page featuring articles, studies and other diversity resources. While there is still much to be done, I encourage you to learn more about the NJBankers DEI programs described elsewhere in this issue. 

As I complete my tenure as Chairman, I want to congratulate John McWeeney for his great leadership, especially this past year—he is one of the most effective association executives in our industry and it has been an honor to work with him. I want to thank the Board of NJBankers and the Executive Committee for their support and guidance through a year that we could never have imagined.

It has been a rewarding experience working with the entire NJBankers team—all of you have been exceptionally supportive and dedicated to serving our members and I appreciate your assistance and hard work. I also want to say a special thank you to Mike Affuso for his unwavering efforts to represent our interests in Trenton and Washington, Jenn Zorn for her valuable educational and business development programs, and Rich Siderko, Matt Cooney and their team at Bankers Cooperative Group for their assistance in providing employee benefit programs for New Jersey's banking industry. I extend best wishes to our incoming Chairman John Fitzgerald, First Vice Chairman, Chris Maher, and Second Vice Chairman, Steve Klein, as they guide our Association forward in the coming year. Finally, I am deeply grateful to Lakeland’s Board of Directors and executive team for the tremendous support that enabled me to devote time and energy to NJBankers this past year.   

It has been my privilege to work alongside all of you during the most extraordinary period of our lifetimes. I am proud to see that the commitment of our Association and our industry—to make a positive impact on our communities and to help people and organizations reach their financial goals—remains strong and sustainable.