Jul 7, 2021
James Morris didn’t take the obvious route to become regional president of Berkshire Bank. The challenges he faced early in his life and career helped prepare Morris for anything life throws at him, including the past 16 months navigating the bank’s Albany market through the pandemic.
“At the beginning of Covid, it was all about safety and fear of the unknown, and then it quickly became the logistics to make sure we don’t just survive, but we all get through as unscathed as possible and we support each other,” Morris said. “Now that we’re coming out the back end, it’s how do we thrive and how do we do it in a smarter fashion?”
Tell me about your education. I left high school a year early, but then I took six years to get my bachelor’s degree, mostly at night, due to family circumstances. I come from a very big family. I’m the oldest of 10 kids and my dad needed help supporting the kids. I worked in the day, did my degree at night for six years over at SUNY New Paltz. I spent five of the six years wondering why I needed a degree and then the sixth year it clicked.
What was your day job during that time? I got a job at the A&P supermarket and quickly realized that’s not what I wanted to do. I joined my dad, who was a residential real estate appraiser, and started working full time during the day in the Bronx, Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess, Bergen, Rockland, and Orange counties. It was very long hours and hard work. It taught me a lot.
What brought you to Albany? My wife [Deb] got a job at Channel 13 and the commute from downstate would have been tough. I looked around and I took a commercial appraisal job up here at the firm Jordan & Hafner Inc., which has since changed names. I was there for about a year and we were expecting our first child and I needed a steady paycheck, frankly. Being a commercial appraiser was tough. You only got paid for what you did.
How did you get into banking? The old Albank was advertising for a commercial lender and for a commercial appraiser. I applied for both and I got called for an interview and I went down there and it was for the lending position. I said, well, why not, but I really want that appraisal job. I got a call that evening offering me the lending job. So that’s how I got into commercial lending, the need for a steady paycheck and then being offered the job I didn’t want.
What was a turning point in your career? Having been through a few mergers and acquisitions, I can tell you those are not fun. There’s a lot of figuring out where you stand after the merger’s complete. I decided, enough banking. I joined a client of mine, Ken Raymond of Prime Cos. And one of the companies that he owned with Paul Nichols was called Paragon Prime Funding, which was a commercial brokerage.
What did you take away from that experience? I left in the fall of 2005, and by 2008, that’s where the world kind of collapsed, so it was a tough time to be a broker. I learned that as deep as I thought I was with Charter One Bank and Citizens Bank in that commercial lending arena, I only knew one sliver of that. At Prime, we were working with 75 different lender clients on everything from commercial banks, community banks, savings banks, to CMBS lenders and life companies. It’s that learning curve I was craving. So I learned how the greater commercial lending world works and I also learned the development and investment game.
What’s a lesson you’ve learned during the pandemic? Hang on to hope. Persevere. See through the other side. Not everybody is going to be in the right state of mind at the same time. There are some days where some members of the team needed to be reminded to take the long view and stick with our mission.
What are you most looking forward to as the world opens up more? More in-person meetings. I’m a big handshaker and backslapper. Zoom and Microsoft Teams have provided us the ability to do things we couldn’t do five or 10 years ago, however, it’s too two-dimensional. I think you’re missing a lot. You’re missing the ability to read a good deal of body language. So in-person meetings are probably the №1 thing I’m looking forward to.
Do you have any fun summer plans? I do have a vacation planned in July, it will be nice to get away with the family. My oldest is already off on her own, but my middle child just graduated with his master’s, and my youngest is graduating from high school. It’ll be kind of our last hurrah family vacation. We’ll get a lot of driving in. We’re starting in Atlanta and we’re going to work our way over to Texas and Oklahoma and New Mexico, visiting some states I have not seen before.
The interview has been edited and condensed
Title: Regional president of Berkshire Bank covering the Capital Region
Where he grew up: Westchester and Dutchess counties
Education: Bachelor’s degree in finance from SUNY New Paltz
Family: Wife, Deb; daughter, Sarah, and sons, Jimmy and Ryan