“He’s like the typical old-fashioned banker: he’s willing to do business on a handshake,” said Michael Pugliese of David Eldridge, who, at only 39, is vice-president of commercial lending at Machias Savings Bank. Pugliese, a fish market owner from Stonington, Connecticut, who met Eldridge when he financed a lobster pound in Steuben, Maine, said he was impressed with the way Eldridge did business. “He didn’t know me from Adam,” he said. “I just think he’s a guy who’s willing to give a guy a chance if he believes in him. He’s in everybody’s corner.”

It’s that attitude of judging the man rather than just what’s on paper that has drawn fisherman after fisherman to Eldridge for loan after loan on truck, boat, and house, and that has led to his success. Although lobstermen Alfred Haycock, Derek Feeney, Kristan Porter, Patrick Taylor, and Thad Dolley all spoke highly of their dealings with Eldridge, Harry Jordan, of Milbridge, summed up why fishermen choose to do their banking through him by saying, “A lot of times when you go to a bank, they give you the feeling like you’re begging and they’re doing you such a massive favor. With [Eldridge], you’re doing business, and he’s very helpful. You can walk out with your head high.” Jordan echoed what Pugliese said about Eldridge spending as much time getting to know him as studying his finances, saying, “He’s not just looking at paper.” Jordan added that Eldridge “has a good feel for a fisherman’s needs” and that “he knows the breed.”

Curtis Haycock said, “I’ve switched over pretty much everything through Machias Savings. Dave’s been real good to work with. He has a real good understanding of what the price of everything is … and of what we do. It makes it easier for us.”

But the Cutler native didn’t set out to be a banker. He dug clams while in high school and college, and during summer vacations, he dug double tides and raked blueberries. He said, “Digging double tides [two low tides] clams [per day] is like a full day of raking blueberries except it’s compressed into three and a half hours because there’s only so much time to dig, and you’re in mud.”

Originally Eldridge majored in accounting at the University of Maine, Machias, but switched to business administration. He took a year off to work as a meat cutter at Shop `n’ Save, cutting up the various parts of butchered animals, then returned finish and graduate. He assumed he’d work at Shop `n’ Save until his former fifth grade teacher stopped him in the parking lot to ask if he would like to work at Machias Savings.

“There were not a lot of jobs in the early nineties,” he recalled. “Machias Savings was looking to expand its commercial loan department.” The bank president was looking for someone with a bachelor’s degree who was willing to stay in the area, and Eldridge wanted to do just that.

Eldridge has developed specialties in loans for commercial fishing and high-end bed & breakfasts. He tells fishermen, “You must be willing to work, you must be willing to pay your bills, and you must be able to show you’re able to make good financial decisions.” Part of those good financial decisions include wanting to see clients putting money back into their businesses and having a financial plan.

“I ask what they gross,” he said, adding that he’s not as interested in what they net. “If they’re young, I ask for a reference.” This could be an older fisherman, the person he or she works for, on someone at the wharf. He also needs a copy of the person’s tax return.

Boat loans make up what Eldridge calls, “The crux of the whole thing.” When he started fifteen years ago, because boats were mostly wooden and hard to insure, the bank didn’t make commercial boat loans. The bank, therefore, financed fishermen with Home Equity Loans, which limited the type of boat a fisherman could own because the loan had to be based on how much his house was worth.

“When they switched over to fiberglass, suddenly [boats] were insurable,” Eldridge said, “Now, [a fisherman] had something [he] could invest in because fiberglass boats also held their value.” Fifteen years ago, a large lobsterboat was about 32 feet long and cost from $35,000 to $50,000 for a top-of-the-line boat with a gas engine. Once fishermen switched over to fiberglass, they also switched to the more expensive diesel engines. And along with those diesel engines, horsepower started to go up as well. “Now,” he said, “the average new boat that we would finance is probably in the $175,000 to $200,000 range; most of the new boats are 38 to 50 feet [long]; and we finance boats in excess of $300,000.”

Most high school age fishermen, because of the limited number of traps they can haul, buy 18- to 24-foot boats. When they graduate to a larger, true lobsterboat, it’s usually a used boat. “That’s what it is now,” Eldridge said, “a continual graduation.” Because fiberglass holds up so well, young fishermen can get a used, smaller lobsterboat for what he calls “a reasonable price of from $30,000 to $50,000.

Because he was born and raised in Cutler, Eldridge says he jokes, `Usually when I’m financing a new boat in Cutler, that means I’m financing three boats because the person buying the new boat for, say, $250,000 usually has one to sell for $150,000. So then this person in the harbor who is buying the $150,000 boat, has a boat to sell as well for $75,000.”

In 2003, Eldridge won the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Financial Services Advocate of the Year award for Maine and New England. After 9/11 all airplanes stopped flying and, literally, thousands of pounds of lobsters waiting to be shipped by air died on the ground. People were afraid to fly. Tourism stopped. Trade shows were cancelled. Nobody bought lobster though pounds were full and fishermen kept trapping product. The price dropped. People went out of business. With the help of Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins in Washington, SBA District Director Mary McAleney said, “Eldridge got the SBA to make available low interest disaster loans to help businesses get back on track. He then pounded the docks on the Maine waterfront, explaining the availability of these loans to lobstermen, poundkeepers, and co-op managers.” Because of Eldridge’s efforts, McAleney said, “many coastal businesses were able to use these loans, and he was awarded for his leadership. He was the star,” she said. “He’s a great guy.”