December 22, 2017
FIVE TO WATCH IN 2018

Ciulla has 'big shoes' to fill as Webster Bank's new CEO

John R. Ciulla is the incoming CEO of Waterbury-based Webster Bank and Webster Financial Corp.

Each year HBJ highlights five business, government, nonprofit or higher-education leaders to watch in coming year because of their likelihood to be in the spotlight. Here's a look at our 2018 choices.

Once John R. Ciulla formally takes on his duties New Year's Day as chief executive officer of Webster Financial Inc. and its flagship bank, not much will change in focus and regimen running the $29 billion-asset regional lender.

"It's really continued execution on our state strategies,'' said Ciulla, a 13-year Webster executive who's been president since 2015. He will succeed retiring CEO James C. Smith, becoming only the third CEO in the bank's 82-year history and the first outside the family of founder Harold Webster Smith.

Those strategies include, Ciulla said, growing Webster's HSA Bank unit, a leading U.S. fiduciary for more than $6 billion deposited by Americans to cover their out-of-pocket medical expenses.

Webster Bank, too, will continue to expand its depositor-borrower products and services, aligning them with more of its offerings for building customer wealth, Ciulla said.

"You'll continue to see us execute at a high level in those strategies," he said. "People will see consistency in strategy.''

Mark T. Fitzgibbon, principal and research director for New York bank-industry analyst Sandler O'Neill + Partners, said Ciulla faces the challenge of "filling the big shoes'' of Smith, including "finding ways to keep Webster nimble and responsive to customers.''

Ciulla said he feels no pressure stepping into the role held by his predecessor who was more like a mentor than a boss.

"I feel like it's the exact opposite,'' he said in an interview with Smith at his side, "because of the legacy Webster and Jim Smith created … actually provides a competitive advantage for a new CEO. Rather than creating pressures to live up to the previous CEO … I feel like I got a chance to learn from the best.''

Outside Webster, Ciulla said he will continue spending time talking to Webster's customers and his bankers "to hear what they need and want.''

Successfully accomplishing those aims, he said, provide Webster with the best opportunity to expand the bank organically and provide outsized returns to Webster Financial's stockholders.

Ciulla started in banking in Connecticut in 1987 as a loan officer at former Connecticut National Bank in downtown Hartford. He later worked at a predecessor of People's United Bank before going to New York City's Fordham University to earn his law degree.

After working at several New York law firms, he resumed banking in 1997. Seven years later, he joined Webster's commercial-loan unit. He commutes daily to Webster's Waterbury headquarters and Stamford office from his Westchester County, N.Y., home.

Ciulla ended in December a one-year term as chair of the state's leading business lobby, the Connecticut Business & Industry Association.

He offers a measured tone about the state's ongoing budget woes and its slow economic growth.

"We are cautiously optimistic that we're seeing better dialogue and approaches to Connecticut's structural problems,'' Ciulla said of CBIA's discussions with state policymakers.

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