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Real resources: At ConnectOne, merging cultures was a top priority

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Two heads are better than ConnectOne Bank would have even thought.

Kate Perlman, the bank’s human resources director, and Maria Gendelman, chief culture and experience officer, have taken what some banks combine into one role and split the responsibilities evenly.

Perlman handles all the usual HR jobs, from employee relations to recruiting and benefits, while Gendelman — a recipient of NJBIZ’s Best 50 Women in Business honor this year — takes care of aspects such as training, onboarding and culture.

Perlman and Gendelman paired up for an interview with NJBIZ about ConnectOne’s approach to HR functions and how it’s working out for them.

NJBIZ: Can you talk about the inception of your roles and how they operate?

Kate Perlman: I’ve been with the bank for almost six years. I came in as the head of HR and, at that time, we were much smaller than we are now. I was a department of one. The biggest change has been the addition of staff and the appointment of Maria, who has taken over training, onboarding, our internship program, as well as the bank’s culture. The department grew parallel to the evolution of ConnectOne Bank.

Maria Gendelman: Our CEO, Frank Sorrentino, felt very passionate about the bank’s culture, and he wanted to make sure there was a focus on it and that we wouldn’t lose any of it. His idea was to create someone who would be entirely focused on the culture and the employee experience, reporting directly to him.

Because of the growth of the organization, ConnectOne also recognized a need for a role dedicated to training. ... When we merged with another organization about two years ago, we knew that we needed to build a sort of university because our training needs became so much more intense. So, that’s what we did, and it’s a program we’re still expanding.

NJBIZ: Speaking of the merger with Union-based Center Bancorp, the deal was closed and the integration was completed within less than six months — were there a new set of expectations levied on the HR function at ConnectOne during that period?

KP: We’re taking two different sets of people that work for two different organizations and blending them into one. … It crystallized our priorities and underscored some of the biggest challenges that we face — and therefore promoted a lot of collaboration between Maria and I — seeing how important our bank’s culture is to us, we had to make sure that we were bringing people into the organization that quickly understood our culture, understood our predisposition to being client-focused.

MG: It was really important for us at that point in time to have cultural alignment between the two organizations. I think we did that really well. And it led us into other areas. We expanded things like our internship program after the merger.

NJBIZ: With mergers such as those, the bank’s physical footprint grows, but how does that come to bear on the work you do?

KP: We for a long time did not necessarily need to go outside Bergen or Hudson counties. That’s been a fun opportunity for us to get our name out to different areas, but it certainly made for some logistical challenges in being able to train people and onboard them in not just Englewood Cliffs, our headquarters, but Union, where we have an operations center. We have to stay pretty nimble to handle different employee needs in different areas.

NJBIZ: Especially with the ascendance of millennials into the workplace, how do you create a culture at a bank that you think will appeal to today’s employees in the competitive financial sector?

MG: We empower our people through our core values. We have a growth opportunity in the organization. Where we really take the lead is we value employees and their opinions. … Among other things that are being planned for as we speak, we’re rolling out tuition reimbursement for people. We’re thinking a lot about how we reward people, and how to build a more robust system for that.

Our bank has also made an effort to give back. You’re going to go an organization that you think has been giving back to those things you also think are important and that you believe in. So Kate does a good job when she’s trying to attract that type of talent.

Also, through Kate and I being so collaborative, I think we’ve made the organization collaborative as a whole.

E-mail to: brettj@njbiz.com

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