Sunday, May 19, 2024

The First National Bank of Ipswich is expanding rapidly. It has 12 branches, having opened one in Beverly this month, less than two months after opening its sole Cambridge branch here in Galvin Square. Next up is Portsmouth, N.H.

How is this possible, if the people running the bank — and handling calls at its flagship in Ipswich — are irredeemable idiots?

The Cambridge site replaced a branch of the Atlantic Bank of New York, which obviously failed to get much traction here. While Ipswich at least is in the same state, it is hard to see how it will gain any more traction by creating outposts 25.13 miles from the nearest related bank without being part of a larger automated teller network. Surely anyone seeking a new bank will be put off by the notion that all their transactions must take place at one site without incurring surcharges of up to $2.50 anywhere else. Giants such as Bank of America attract customers by scattering around thousands of their own automated tellers — in some areas, one every couple of blocks — that can be used for free. Smaller banks have grouped together in the SUM Program, agreeing to forgo surcharges for each other to compete with giant closed networks such as Bank of America’s.

Ipswich, though, is going it alone, which is fine for anyone living and banking on the North Shore, since Ipswich, Beverly, Essex, Gloucester, Newburyport, Rowley and Topsfield are fairly close together, and anyone running out of money at 2 a.m. is likely to be within easy driving distance of a free recharge. But a Bank of Ipswich customer in the Cambridge area is going to be within easy walking or driving distance only of a $1 surcharge from Cambridge Savings Bank or $1.50 or more elsewhere; SUM doesn’t cut any breaks for nonmembers.

One wonders what Ipswich offers to make up for this lack and stand out from the other small banks in the area, including Cambridge Savings Bank, Cambridge Trust Co., East Savings Bank and Wainwright Bank & Trust, even Citizen’s — in fact, 14 financial institutions speckling this 6.4-square mile land mass with SUM Program automated tellers.

I called Ipswich’s home office to have someone explain it. To establish a groundwork for the question, I first asked the woman who answered the phone whether Ipswich was a SUM Program member (as is even its competitor, the Ipswich Cooperative Bank).

She didn’t know what the program was, so I explained it. She cut me off to tell me she wasn’t authorized to deal with salesmen. I told her I wasn’t a salesman. She told me to wait while she asked another worker how to answer my question.

I heard her speak to someone briefly, then come back on the line.

“I don’t have that information, and I can’t put your call through,” she said.

And she hung up.