Up-and-coming community bankers on the rise signal a bright, dynamic future
Community banking has a great future. Just look almost anywhere in the industry and you’ll find talented and energetic young people. They’re smart forward-thinkers dedicated to the high ideals that distinguish community bankers as the most trusted and respected financial service providers.
For many years ICBA Independent Banker has spotlighted the careers of emerging industry leaders. This year, ICBA profiles seven community bankers who stand out among our industry’s best and brightest.
While their job responsibilities and experiences may differ, their individual stories together confirm that community banking has a bright and dynamic future ahead.
Mapping Out Success
Jeff Lile leverages a nonfinancial education at Indiana’s First Harrison Bank
By Ed Avis
Jeff Lile didn’t think his college major had any application to a career in community banking. Lile, who graduated from Indiana University Southeast in 2011 with a degree in geographic information science, knew that most people with his education make maps for the Army Corps of Engineers or for utility companies. But during college, Lile had worked as a part-time teller and call center staffer at First Harrison Bank in Corydon, Ind., and he felt drawn to community banking.
“I talked to the CEO [of First Harrison Bank] after I graduated and asked for a full-time job, and he suggested marketing,” Lile remembers. To his surprise, his map-making skills have helped him succeed as a marketing information analyst at the community bank, which has $450 million in assets, 150 employees and 13 branches.
“I use those skills to plot our customers on a map, so I can tell where they all live and where there are bare spots with no customers banking with us, so we can adjust our services appropriately,” Lile says, adding that he also manages the bank’s Web presence, creates videos and develops various marketing projects.
One of the projects Lile developed for the bank is the Household Products Report, which debuted in September. He spent six months creating this report using software from the bank’s core software provider.
“What we wanted was a report that would show every banking product from First Harrison that a household has at the snap of a finger,” Lile explains. “This way when a customer enters the door, we can enter their account number into the computer and the teller can immediately see every product and service in that household. From there we can see what products and services they don’t have that might be good for them.”
The Household Products Report dovetails with another project Lile helped develop called First HERO, which stands for First Harrison Employees Reaching Out. First HERO, which was launched in January 2012, is a referral tracking program that helps ensure that customer referrals are properly handled and that the referring employee is recognized.
Those projects highlight the value of technology to the future of community banking, Lile believes. The 25-year-old community banker, who says the importance of mobile banking was a key take-away from the ICBA Emerging Leaders Conference he attended this fall, feels being a member of Generation Y helps him keep First Harrison technologically in step.
“I’m lucky to be from a generation that embraces tech readily,” he says. “As it changes, we change with it.”
Despite the importance of technology to community banking’s future, Lile says the relationship-building aspect of community banking will always be essential. His favorite part of being a community banker is satisfying customers when they’re seeking loans, investment guidance or other services.
“When I see someone come in the door who’s been turned down at a big bank, and they can sit down and talk to a person rather than having a computer make the decision, that’s what I enjoy,” Lile says. “Seeing smiling faces is the best part of this job.”
Ed Avis is a writer in Illinois.
An Unexpected Start
Stephanie Petrakos takes a career turn to land at California’s Five Star Bank
By Michael Blankenheim
Establishing personal business relationships is essential to community banking success, and that’s a lesson Stephanie Petrakos of Five Star Bank in Sacramento knows quite well. It was just such a relationship that led to her work in community banking instead of another industry entirely.
Eight years ago, Petrakos, now Five Star Bank’s vice president, credit administrator, was a student at California State University in Sacramento studying for a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration with a double concentration in marketing and management. Her specific interest was corporate grocery marketing. The university has a program where students learn by helping small businesses, and Petrakos wrote a marketing plan for a small company.
In stepped Five Star Bank President and CEO James Beckwith. He approached Petrakos’ marketing professor seeking a student who would be a good fit for Five Star Bank’s management trainee program. The professor recommended Petrakos, who joined the bank as a management trainee in 2006. So instead of landing a job in the grocery business, Petrakos gained experience in community bank branch operations, loan file maintenance, commercial underwriting and business development.
She isn’t a management trainee anymore, and now as a vice president, Petrakos, 29, helps the chief credit officer administer the loan portfolio at this six-branch community bank with assets of $600 million and 50 employees. More specifically, she assists with policies and guidelines for loan structuring, examines what are acceptable levels of risk, supports new product development, and helps oversee new commercial loan originations, including some in the agricultural sector.
“The most rewarding thing about being a community banker is having the ability to make a difference in the lives of others,” Petrakos says. “Customers come to us to establish or grow their business. It’s wonderful to help them.”
Not only is community banking rewarding, she says, it is also immensely challenging. “Competition to garner new business in this sluggish economy is fierce in Sacramento, but Five Star Bank is strategically well-positioned for the challenge.”
Petrakos enjoyed attending ICBA’s Emerging Leaders Conference this past fall, and what she found most valuable there was how conference speakers geared their presentations toward preparing for the future. She also enjoyed the conference app that downloaded to her phone. With it, she could instantly view the contents of each session along with information about the speakers and their websites.
“Young bankers are tech savvy,” says Petrakos. “And as a young banker, I greatly appreciate the role of technology in the future of community banking. Banks have access to so much data (both internal and external), and with the right technology we can extract that data, organize it in a meaningful way, and use it to decrease costs, add value to customers and better connect with the communities we serve.”
Petrakos says the secret to her success in community banking is a simple one. “I have an internal drive to succeed and an excellent group of people who support me in achieving my professional goals. The rest is hard work, flexibility and communication.”
Michael Blankenheim is a writer in Maryland.
Sending the Message
Jordan Ellis balances technology and personal touch at Texas First Bank
By Beth Mattson-Teig
Jordan Ellis is a relative newcomer to community banking. With just two years under her belt, she is the first to admit she has a lot to learn about the industry. Yet she has landed right where she wants to be. As director of marketing at her hometown bank, Texas First Bank, she manages all marketing and public relations efforts for its 22 banking centers.
“Having a job where I am able to be involved in my community is really a great thing,” she says.
After earning a psychology degree from Texas A&M and a graduate degree in publishing from Pace University in New York City, Ellis went to work for a large marketing firm in Houston. She quickly realized that the job was not the right fit. She wanted to be more than just a number to management. She wanted a career where she could make an impact both on her company and her community.
So when a marketing job opened up at Texas First Bank in late 2011, Ellis jumped at the chance to make a move and joined the bank in January 2012. She now plays a hands-on role in managing everything from social media and marketing campaigns to various community events. She also has a voice on the bank’s management team.
Ellis, 25, is finding herself in a more integral position for the growing $800 million-asset community bank as the industry continues to adapt to new technologies. Marketing continues to be a bigger priority for community banks today as competition heats up for customers over myriad virtual bank alternatives. All banks have to work harder to connect with existing and potential customers, she says.
“For us, being able to communicate with our customers in an effective way and letting them know that we are here to help with all of their financial needs is the biggest thing right now.”
In addition, marketing involves a bigger balancing act today in managing the technology of social media and online and mobile banking, while still providing the personal touch that is so important to the community banking brand. For example, one key marketing campaign Ellis leads involves promoting Texas First Bank’s new TFB mobile banking app. Since it launched in December 2012, the app has drawn more than 3,500 users.
“We want to have the app, online bill pay and personal finance management online, but we also don’t want to lose what we built our business on, which is having that personal connection with our customers and the communities that we serve,” Ellis explains.
The added challenge is that community banks need to reach out to different generations across media channels, from traditional print advertising to social media. Although many community banks grapple with social media and how to use it effectively, social media is second nature to Ellis, in large part because she grew up with it. Now she is in charge of Texas First Bank’s Facebook and Twitter posts, as well as managing its LinkedIn and YouTube accounts.
Ellis also helps to coordinate the bank’s participation in numerous community events, which range from assisting fundraising drives for the local food pantries to supporting the local schools and chambers of commerce. “One of our goals has been to get us even more involved than we are today,” she says, “because it is our communities that keep us here and those community members are the heartbeat of our bank.”
Beth Mattson-Teig is a writer in Minnesota.
Bridget Jaime runs with industry change at Oklahoma’s Citizens Bank
By Marcia Lerner
Bridget Jaime loves being a community banker—and that’s why she’s full of ideas to ensure that the industry keeps up with the times. After working 10 years at Citizens Bank in Edmond, Okla., she has just become the training manager, and she can’t wait to get started.
To Jaime, training offers the opportunity to bring new employees up to speed on the thicket of banking regulations they’ll have to navigate and follow. It also gives more experienced employees a way to learn and grow. She believes that training can help employees with new regulations, lending functions, customer service—pretty much anything that banking has to throw at them.
Being head of training suits Jaime perfectly, because she’s held just about every position Citizens Bank has to offer. Starting as a part-time teller as a college student in 2003, she stayed on with the bank after graduation. She’s been a personal banker opening new accounts, a loan assistant, a manager of a retail location—she even temporarily filled in for a missing human resources department worker.
All of this has confirmed her belief that community banking is the industry for her. “I love banking,” Jaime says. “I think its future is bright, banking as a whole. Changes are happening, and they’re giving people room to grow.”
She adds with a laugh, “And I like change.”
Community banking, with its strong local flavor and immediate contact with customers, is perfect for Jaime. “Here at Citizens we have deep roots in the community, partnerships with different people,” she says. “Delivering turkeys for our Thanksgiving dinner—I love the personal one-on-one stuff.”
The truth is, she’d like to see even more of it. Jaime believes that technology offers a great opportunity to connect with customers. “We’re really willing to push the technology,” she says, and she can’t wait for vendors to come along.
Currently, Citizens Bank has interactive kiosks in its lobbies for customers. It also has a pilot interactive banker station at one of its ATMs and plans to place others throughout the city.
Jaime thinks community bankers are realizing the increasing importance and prominence of technology in the minds of customers. But she feels the industry overall has some work to do. “I believe Citizens is leading the way in providing progressive technology solutions for our customers,” she says. “Customers are demanding newer, bigger, better, faster, so we’re going to have some growing pains keeping up with that. We need to keep pace.”
Jaime believes technology is the way to increase customer engagement—an area she feels community banks are already strong in. Citizens Bank has its management offices right on the main floor, a policy she admires. “Customers should be able to come in and talk to the bank president if they want. Get with the people! Customers—well, everyone thinks they’re someone—and they are.”
Marcia Lerner is a writer in New York.
Ready for the Long Haul
Greg Niska multitasks at Minnesota’s Northern State Bank
By Karla Lant
For Greg Niska, the success of Northern State Bank is as much about the future of his hometown as the future of independent community banking. A native of Virginia, Minn., Niska may only have four years experience in community banking, but he has already played a major role in helping Northern State Bank—the city’s only locally owned and operated bank—remain an energized, purposeful presence in the industry.
Niska sees one of the most important aspects of his work as attracting a future generation of customers—not just to his community bank, but also to his hometown. “We get to know our customers; we don’t rely on an out-of-state marketing analyst to tell us what they want,” he says.
In 2010, Niska graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. While working as a part-time teller at Northern State Bank during his college summers, he developed a real love for his work, as well as a keen sense of the importance of the community banking industry. In 2011, he joined the community bank’s team full-time as operations officer.
Niska, 25, oversees all operations other than lending, including IT, the teller line, bookkeeping and customer service. These varied roles allow him to “roll up his sleeves” and even cover the teller line occasionally. Since joining Northern State Bank, he has spearheaded a variety of major changes in the bank’s software systems. He helped phase out the centralized proof machine and implemented a new back-counter scanning environment, helping the bank save about $10,000 annually on the service contract for the antiquated machine. He also led the implementation of major changes to the bank’s general ledger to more efficiently meet call reporting deadlines.
“It was a lot of work upfront, but it will pay huge dividends by slashing the time it takes to do the call report, setting us up to hopefully automate most of our call reports down the road,” he says.
For Niska, who is working on various fine-tuning projects, Northern State Bank’s success still hinges the most on its deep community involvement and personal understanding of the customer. Armed with firsthand knowledge about nearly every customer, he says, he and his coworkers are able to provide a responsive personal service that no megabank can match. He estimates that about 70 percent of the bank’s new customers say they are moving their relationships to Northern State Bank because of their dissatisfaction with big-bank experiences.
“Their biggest complaints are that they get no hometown service and too many fees,” he says. “That’s what brings them in.”
Niska says he is excited to be in the community banking industry for the long haul, and he is already in a position to offer advice to industry newcomers. “Take on one project at a time. Don’t be afraid to refine policies and procedures. Take advantage of your small size and resulting latitude. You’re a community bank!”
Karla Lant is a writer in Arizona.
Supported Along the Way
Joleen Fleming advances at Iowa’s First Citizens National Bank
By Kathryn Jackson Fallon
Ever since a business instructor introduced her to banking in high school, Joleen Fleming knew she wanted to be a community banker. Working as a part-time teller with a community bank strengthened her commitment to community banking. But Fleming also gives great credit for her success to having supportive mentors along the way, especially Marti Rodamaker, president and CEO of First Citizens National Bank.
“She encouraged me to continue my education,” Fleming says of her boss. “She mentored me and pushed me outside my comfort zone, and here I am today.”
Fleming, 46, clearly loves what she does. Eighteen when she began her career, she says she still looks forward to going to work every morning. “I believe in our products and services and in building relationships with our customers and truly helping them,” she explains.
In her current role as senior vice president and retail officer at First Citizens National Bank, a $1 billion-asset community bank headquartered in Mason City, Iowa, Fleming oversees the retail functions of the bank—personal bankers, receptionists, the teller line, the marketing department and facilities management. In addition to managing daily tasks, she works on long-term strategic projects, such as planning budgets and marketing for the year and beyond.
For Fleming, attending industry seminars and conferences is vital to sharing ideas with other bankers and learning about trends, problems and solutions for the future. “Talking to other bankers about processes and ideas is so useful, and fun at the same time,” she says.
While at one point she might have thought that technology was the most daunting challenge for community banks, Fleming no longer sees that as an issue. Not long ago the bigger banks may have had a technological edge, but community banks have leveled the competitive playing field. Other challenges remain, she says, but they’re certainly surmountable.
For First Citizens National Bank, located in a predominantly rural marketplace, one challenge is rapidly changing customer demographics and banking habits, she explains. “Our population is aging and fewer customers are returning to our lobbies. Finding ways for those customers to want to stay here is a big hurdle for us.”
Other industrywide challenges, Fleming says, including some she heard discussed at ICBA’s Emerging Leaders Conference last fall, involve the transformative influence of mobile banking. “Consumer expectations today are different from what they were 10 or even five years ago, and the smartphone just might be the most important branch of the bank,” she says.
Another challenge is fostering more knowledgeable and prepared customers in the future by developing effective financial literacy programs, she says. “As bankers we need to challenge ourselves to ‘up our game’ and enhance our programs regarding financial literacy.”
Nevertheless, Fleming’s outlook for the future of community banking is extremely positive. She says community banks, while having all the necessary products and services other financial service providers offer, have an increasingly pivotal competitive advantage. “We know and care about our customers and their future,” she says. “We are our customers’ friends and neighbors. We can make a difference.”
Kathryn Jackson Fallon is a writer in New York.
The Long-Term View
Nate Kok upholds relationship banking at Wisconsin’s Hometown Bank
By Chelan David
Nate Kok has earned his stripes in the community banking field. Fourteen years ago he began his career as a teller. From there he methodically climbed the ladder working as a vault attendant, credit analyst, commercial banking officer and then assistant vice president at Hometown Bank in Fond Du Lac, Wis.
That was all before he assumed his current position as vice president of commercial banking.
His career journey upward proved enlightening, Kok says. For example, he spent several formative years in the credit department gaining extensive knowledge about the fundamentals of financial and risk management, and of the importance of creating long-term enterprise value for Hometown Bank.
“What I saw along the way was a model that allowed employees to establish meaningful relationships with clients under a local management group and a privately held ownership structure where the clients’ long-term needs were placed first,” Kok recalls. “This allows for extreme loyalty on a mutual basis, which can often be overlooked in today’s transactional society.”
Against a backdrop of intense competition, megabanks, no longer reeling from the Wall Street meltdown they helped cause, are gunning aggressively for new loans and transactions with small businesses. Kok, 35, believes such price-based competition can tempt some businesses to neglect the tremendous value of their relationship banking, even not so long after big banks abruptly abandoned so many small businesses during the financial crisis.
To keep commercial customers focused on the long-term value of relationship banking, Kok takes the time to talk with Hometown Bank’s customers, listen to their needs, and find and offer the best solutions—sometimes customized solutions—to their financial circumstances. He also blends his relative youth with the heart of a purist.
“I consider myself a traditionalist who is extremely loyal,” Kok says. “I see that more seasoned generations, or those who have been ‘once bitten,’ understand the value in a long-term relationship and truly appreciate that approach.”
One of Hometown Bank’s recent achievements that Kok is proudest of is its full website and branding update. The bank’s new image is fresh while retaining the bank’s consistent set of values. As part of the bank’s website changes, he helped author a complete set of financial tools and calculators that can aid business clients and their employees. Those tools will help businesses assess decisions such as equipment purchases, plant expansions, new business acquisitions and ownership transitions.
“We feel this will enhance our relationships by empowering our clients and their staff,” Kok says.
In the future, Kok sees himself delivering and upholding the relationship model of community banking for future generations. After networking with other young community bankers at ICBA’s Emerging Leaders Conference, he says that many young community bankers share similar aspirations.
“My desire,” Kok says, “is to help the next generation of business owners understand what the generations before have already come to realize: that a commitment to consistency in a turbulent world is one of the most valuable assets an adviser or business partner can provide.”
Chelan David is a writer in Kansas.