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Steering two Maine banks with serious longevity through a merger is just the latest accomplishment for Jeanne Hulit, the former leader of the Small Business Administration.

From working for the Obama administration to becoming the third woman to lead a Maine-based community bank, Jeanne Hulit’s career has been a case study of taking opportunities as they come.

Jeanne Hulit, 61, has been a member of the Obama administration and is only the third woman to be the chief executive officer of a Maine bank. Photo by Heidi Kirn

“Maine is the biggest small town,” says the Falmouth resident. “You work hard, you get to know people and you’re given an opportunity to get to the next level. You keep following the opportunities that present themselves. Say yes when you’re asked to do something even if you don’t know you can do it. Do your best, and you’ll never know where it’s going to take you. I didn’t move to Maine thinking I was going to be president of a bank.”

As president and chief executive officer of Maine Community Bancorp, Hulit, 61, has spent the last 16 months overseeing the alignment of two banks that each have over 150 years of history in the state, Auburn-based Mechanic Savings and Biddeford Savings. They officially merged on the first day of 2020, becoming Maine Community Bancorp.

Banking wasn’t on the agenda when Hulit moved to Maine in 1983, a newlywed with a bachelor’s degree in international studies from American University. She planned to establish residency and then go to law school. Meanwhile, she got a job as a cocktail waitress at DiMillo’s in Portland. Then life took a different turn. “I got pregnant within three months,” Hulit says. “And I ended up working in Maine, having a career and raising our children, Katherine and David, here.”

She worked with what was then called the Portland Community Chamber, starting the Eggs & Issues breakfast program that continues today. She was a public affairs manager for Time Warner Cable during federal deregulation of the cable television industry. She got into international trade, then international banking, then commercial lending. During the Obama administration, she was a leader (and for a little while, the leader) at the Small Business Administration.

That “say yes and go” spirit, Hulit says, comes from her parents, who raised her and her sister Susan at foreign service posts all over the world (her father, Donald Anderson, was a diplomat). She went to elementary school in China, middle school in India and high school in France and Japan. “Our parents took risks, they worked hard and they did it with so much grace,” Hulit says. Anderson’s many postings included serving as Consul General in Hong Kong.

That international background led Hulit, in 1988, to work at the newly created international division of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. Hulit also represented the Governor’s Office for Foreign Investment, the precursor to the Maine International Trade Center, which she helped establish. “To me, the ultimate public service is to help create jobs,” she says.

Her foray into the banking industry came in 1992 when KeyBank, intrigued by her international trade work, hired her to set up and run an international banking division. “Capital is what makes all things move,” she says. “And as a banker you provide capital where you’re going to have the most success. I made the case that if you want to bank with companies that are going to succeed, you want to bank with companies that are exporting.”

Biddeford Savings Bank, which as of the first of this month, merged with Auburn-based Mechanic Savings to form Maine Community Bancorp. Hulit has spent the last 16 months overseeing the alignment of two banks that each have over 150 years of history in the state. Photo by Heidi Kirn

After a decade as a vice president with KeyBank, Hulit moved into commercial lending, spending seven years as a senior vice president with Citizens Bank. In 2008, she made a bid for the state Senate in District 11 as a Democrat. Her candidacy was unsuccessful, but it was a factor in her being tapped by the Obama administration as the New England Regional Administrator of the SBA. “The banking industry was in a world of hurt in 2009,” Hulit says. “So when I got asked to consider joining the administration, I thought it was the right time to help other banks utilize the SBA Loan Guarantee Program to keep capital flowing to small businesses.” During the two years Hulit was leading regionally, New England participation in the SBA loan program increased by 89 percent. Another Mainer, Karen Mills, the head of the Small Business Administration nationally, was impressed. “We persuaded her to commute (to D.C.) and lead one of the most visible aspects of the SBA, the Office of Capital Access,” Mills says.

For two years, Hulit managed that office, which guarantees more than $100 billion in loans. Now divorced, she moved to Washington in 2011, but returned to Maine as often as she could.

“It was helpful for Jeanne to be coming back to Maine and seeing the impact of the financial crisis on small businesses here, because this was happening across the United States,” Mills says. “She has a deep appreciation for small business and the role community banks play in America, especially rural America, and the need to create public policy to be sure small businesses in rural communities like Maine are not forgotten in Washington.”

“She was very much admired and revered by the White House and President Obama.”

In the summer of 2013, Hulit accepted a job in Lewiston as president of Northeast Bank’s Community Banking Division and gave her notice at the SBA. Around that same time, Mills resigned to accept a position at Harvard. The White House turned to Hulit to fill in as acting administrator while they searched for Mill’s replacement.

“The day before my goodbye party, I got a call,” Hulit says. “Since I’d already accepted a job back in Maine, I had to tell my employer, ‘I may not be able to start because I’d been asked to stay and serve on the president’s cabinet; is that OK?’”

It was. Northeast Bank held the position for her for six months while she traveled with President Obama as he delivered speeches about the impact of the government shutdown, including the financial impacts on the SBA and small businesses nationwide.

“She was very much admired and revered by the White House and President Obama,” Mills says. “It is unusual to find somebody with the leadership qualities, the banking experience and the intellectual acumen to see what kind of change is necessary and bring it about.”

In 2017, Hulit went from Northeast Bank to being president of Village Candle Inc. in Wells, focusing on the company’s growth strategy. But she wanted to get back to her sweet spot, banking, and that brought her to the two merging community banks.

The buck stops here at the newly merged community bank led by Jeanne Hulit, left, and Chief Financial Officer Carri Brown, Maine Community Bancorp. Photo by Heidi Kirn

“Jeanne throws herself into new challenges 100 percent,” says longtime friend Mary Herman, wife of Maine’s U.S. Sen. Angus King. “But there are two sides of Jeanne—the serious banker and SBA administrator, and the music lover and dancer.”

In March 2019, after more than a decade together, Hulit married Bill Umbel, owner of the music venue and restaurant Lenny’s Pub at Hawkes Plaza in Westbrook. Her father was ailing then after a stroke, and her sister had been caring for him. Her sister’s experience “made me aware that if this ever happened to Bill that I’d want to be there for him and for him to know I was there,” Hulit says.

They buried her father this Veterans Day. “He taught us to be worldly, intellectually curious and to be diplomatic,” she says. “He showed us that by having aspirations and by working hard you can be and do anything. But, most importantly, he and Mom taught us to take care of each other.”

For the new president and CEO of Maine Community Bancorp, community banking is the ultimate economic development job, the kind that allows her to care for her fellow Mainers.

“You get to know a company, and when you lend them money you’re believing in them,” Hulit says. “Similarly, you get to know a family, and when you lend them money for a mortgage you’re believing in their ability to repay that debt. Money helps people realize opportunities.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer, so she doesn’t have any money. She lives in Scarborough.