Most Powerful Women to Watch: No. 19, Reading Cooperative's Julieann Thurlow

October 5, 2022 : American Banker, by Matthew Blake

Julieann Thurlow is working to ensure that smaller institutions don't get left behind as the megabanks make better use of new technology. 

"I think our biggest challenge is what is happening in the technology space and how consumer behaviors are changing," said Thurlow, who has served as president and CEO of Reading Cooperative Bank in Massachusetts since 2006. 

Last December, Reading premiered Chuck, an open peer-to-peer payment network. The project was developed in conjunction with Alloy Labs, a group of like-minded community banks, and Payrailz, a digital payments company that partners with banks. 

For consumers sending money to others, Chuck is similar to Zelle or Venmo. Where Chuck is unique is that the recipient doesn't need to be a member of the network to get paid. Instead, they send a link – it could be to a Venmo account, a checking account or debit card – for depositing the cash. 

"As far as utilization, we have seen steady adoption with both the number and dollars more than doubling every month," said Thurlow, who is also a board member of Massachusetts Fintech Hub, a public-private partnership that helps fintech companies get started.  

On an institutional level, Thurlow is leading Reading through a significant change. In 2021, the $722 million-asset bank made its first acquisition in its 135-year history by purchasing two branches in Essex County, Massachusetts, from Coastal Heritage Bank. The deal added $95 million in deposits and $45 million in loans to Reading's balance sheet. But it also expanded Reading Cooperative's footprint into Essex County, including Lawrence, a city 35 miles north of Boston with a population that's 80% Hispanic. 

Reading's traditional footprint has been mostly middle-class suburbs of Boston where the population is largely white. 

"When I got here, we were two branches in the middle-class suburbs of Boston," Thurlow said. "Everybody had their one acre of land and 2.5 kids and a dog." 

Many of the customers the bank now works with in Essex County are working class immigrants, Thurlow said. She believes that although Reading Cooperative's new customers may have bank accounts, historically not all of their credit and saving needs have been addressed. Reading Cooperative is hoping to change that. 

"Everybody celebrates the fact that the number of the unbanked keeps diminishing," she said. "But they do not discuss the underbanked, who might have access to bank products but not have clarity as to how those bank products help you." 

To make the transition smooth, Thurlow has taken steps, such as hiring Spanish speaking financial counselors, to better serve these consumers. Thurlow also approached the deal as more than just hammering out an expansion. She has been proactive, meeting with customers and assuring them that the bank would not face constant upheaval.

Meanwhile, Thurlow has growing visibility as a local and national leader in the industry. In the past year, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker named her to the Board of Mass Development. And she is currently serving as vice chair of the American Bankers Association.