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Professionally and personally, how community banking careers can make all the difference

By Beth Mattson-Teig

Community bankers and big-bank bankers alike often face the age-old question: Is the grass greener on the other side?

Community bankers who have worked at the largest banks agree that choosing a community banking position certainly put their career on the best track, and they’re not looking back.

“If you want to go to work every day and know that you can move the needle on the bank’s performance and directly influence the policies and the direction of the bank, then a [community] bank like ours is the place for you to be,” says Robert Bond, executive vice president and chief credit officer at the $700 million-asset Business First Bank in Baton Rouge, La., who previously worked for JPMorgan Chase.

Among the career benefits that resonate with those who have made career moves to a community bank are greater learning opportunities, an ability to have a voice and influence in operations, a more amiable work environment, and closer connections with their community and customers.

After spending the majority of his 28-year career at JPMorgan Chase, Bond made a career change to work for Business First after growing tired of the rigid, one-track bureaucracy of an extremely large bank. “It fit my skill set really well, because my background is in all things revolving around commercial credit,” he says.

These days, Bond is right where he wants to be and is excited about the opportunities ahead, including participating in his first bank acquisition as Business First moves ahead with long-term expansion plans. “I have found that in the five years that I have been here, what keeps me feeling young, if nothing else, is learning and having new experiences,” he says.

Ready for a change

The stark contrasts in the fundamentally different business models and corporate cultures of community banks and big banks are the biggest factors that have drawn so many professionals, both those starting out as well as industry veterans, to community banking careers. Justin Campbell joined the $190 million-asset Riddell National Bank in Brazil, Ind., three years ago as a business development officer.

“I love it here,” Campbell offers. “It is a tremendous change in the philosophy and how banking is done and how customers are treated.”

As a former branch manager for a giant bank headquartered in central Indiana, an unrelenting focus there was continually on sell, sell, sell, he says. If a customer sat down in front of you with $20 in a checking account, there was significant pressure to sell that person a savings account, even though that might not be what he or she wanted or needed, he adds. “It was all about a [sales-volume] number.”

Campbell says Riddell National Bank operates on a completely different philosophy where the emphasis is on serving the customer. “We don’t push. Our mortgage officers aren’t promoted by commission,” he says.

At Riddell National, Campbell also likes the ability to get to know his customers thoroughly as well as the opportunity to engage in the various community and civic activities in which a community bank widely participates in. Even though his job is as a business development officer, he also handles installment loans, mortgages, commercial loans and even some marketing projects.

Community bankers wear a lot of different hats, Campbell points out. “With that, you get a lot of training and a lot of experience.”

Chase Kostichka was not looking for a new job when he was contacted last summer by a recruiter for First Business Bank in Milwaukee. Kostichka had spent nearly seven years at regional BMO Harris Bank in Chicago working his way up from teller to a portfolio manager in correspondent banking. He liked his job and his co-workers, yet he also recognized an opportunity to join another very well-respected community financial institution.

What helped to tip the scales in favor of working for First Business was the flexible community banking environment that would help Kostichka more fully balance his career and family life. First Business is closer to where Kostichka lives, where the 30-year-old and his wife have a young son and another child on the way.

In his previous job, Kostichka was commuting 45 minutes each way, whereas his new position as assistant vice president of business development at First Business is less than 15 minutes from his home. “That definitely played a huge part … you are not having to spend nights or weeks out of state on business trips,” he adds.

Advice for peers

Making a job change in any industry can be a daunting move, but those who have deliberately chosen community banking careers encourage others to consider the many special advantages of working for community banks. “Most of my peers who are still in very large banks, and who by and large are very unhappy, are reluctant to make the change from a big bank world to a community bank world because they are in a certain comfort zone,” Bond says.

Because jobs at community banks are often less rigidly structured than the big corporate banks, community bankers need to be more self-motivated, Bond adds. “When you come to work for a $700 million-asset bank like ours, you have to be prepared to be more versatile, because we are asked to do different things,” he says.

For example, in the five years that Bond has been at Business First, twice he has been on the production side of the bank or business development end and twice he has been on the credit side. “So, you have to be able to move back and forth.”

One misperception is that big banks provide more long-term career opportunities than community banks, these community bankers say. Just the opposite, they say, is often true: A career at a community bank can be far more stable, rewarding and interesting than one at any giant bank.

“Along with opportunities [at a big bank] comes an ease of replaceability,” Campbell points out. “It is so much easier for them to replace you with somebody else who is going to go in and tell someone that they need to open up a savings account.

“With a community bank, they really foster a family atmosphere so you don’t feel like you are easily replaceable.”


Beth Mattson-Teig is a writer in Minnesota.

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