By listening, encouraging and sparking ideas, Jeff Oody transformed a Florida community bank and its future
By Ellen Ryan
At a Tuesday morning staff meeting in October 2015, the guest at Community State Bank was Barry Warren, assistant police chief for Starke, Fla. Warren described the Shop With a Cop nonprofit program that helps underprivileged kids buy holiday presents, and he told the staff, “I’d like you to raise $5,000.”
That’s an OK goal, responded President and CEO Jeff Oody, but he challenged his colleagues to double the stakes. If they met the higher goal, he promised to dye his hair red, dress as an elf and spend the busiest day before Christmas offering candy to people outside.
Not to be outdone, Warren pledged he would do the same. All 28 employees plunged in, and in the end personal pledges plus fundraising totaled $10,248—which allowed seven-dozen grateful children to purchase clothing and gifts in December.
Oody’s red hair lingered “a good two weeks,” he says with a laugh.
ICBA’s 2016 National Community Banker of the Year goes all out to boost his community—and his community bank. Coaxed four years ago to lead the then-struggling $40 million-asset Community State Bank—“I love challenges”—Oody and his team have added more than a dozen products and services, rebranded the institution, improved its technology, swelled employee morale and local involvement, and pushed total assets up to $91 million.
Given the shadow looming over Community State Bank at the time, staffers figured the new boss’s first move would be to clean house. Instead, Oody interviewed each of them individually. What did they do? What were they good at? What did they expect of the bank, of him?
What he learned: With employees averaging a tenure of 18 years, they were dedicated but had never had the opportunity to try for more.
“If an employee is doing a really good job, Jeff … makes the employee feel very appreciated,” says Carolyn Reddish, the bank’s senior vice president. “He motivates and encourages the people who work for him.”
“I found the bank could be used as a catalyst to improve the community as a whole.”
—Jeff Oody, Community State Bank
For example, Kristen Paz, then a lending assistant, followed Oody from his previous post and is now a loan officer. Oody once suggested that she would “make a great president.” When she protested, he replied, “I was 27 when I became a president. Don’t ever let your age hold you back. You can be anything you set your mind to.”
“That really opened my eyes,” Paz says now. “I realized he saw potential I didn’t see in myself.”
As Mary Powell, an administrative assistant for Community State who has worked with Oody for more than two decades, says in a refrain spoken by many, “Jeff will help anyone in need because he likes to see people succeed.”
Remaking a community bank
Oody similarly saw potential in Community State Bank, and he wanted northern Florida to see it, too. With the launch of a rebranding effort, he inspired all 28 employees to submit ideas for the new logo.
Next, the bank brought in Kasasa, a customer loyalty and incentive program, to perk up personal savings and checking accounts. Then the bank debuted home equity lines of credit. It partnered with ICBA Bancard and TCM Bank to offer its first credit card. It added payroll and merchant services, business credit cards and Small Business Administration lending. It also dropped the time from loan application to closing—for personal loans from three days to three hours; for business loans from four weeks to two weeks or less.
At least every other week, Oody was driving his Ford F-350 pickup 15 miles to check on the bank’s Lake Butler location, though more often he would meet a customer or attend an event that way. (On weekends, he, his children and the pickup can be found on camping, hunting or fishing trips.) For Tuesday staff meetings, the two locations are linked by speakerphone. The employees are more in sync than before, insiders say.
All these changes and new energy got customers’ attention. “I moved my banking over there since Jeff’s been on,” offers Warren, the assistant police chief. “He actually brought [the bank] all up to current times on rates and service and online access.”
Taking over a faltering institution was a chance to test lessons Oody learned when his previous employer, the regional Capital City Bank, sent him to the Stonier Graduate School of Banking in 2008–2010. Though many job offers had followed his education stint, he wondered how often he would get a chance not just to lead a branch or two but to rebuild a whole institution—and without uprooting his family.
“You’re a banker 24/7.”
—Jeff Oody, Community State Bank
That’s why Oody chose the considerable challenge and opportunity of heading Community State. “Without a change in leadership, we would have been irrelevant,” says James Eison, the bank’s assistant vice president, recalling the circumstances Oody stepped into.
Oody extended his ears-wide-open approach beyond the bank. While the powerful undercurrents of the Great Recession were still dragging down economic indicators, he started an informal group of senior community bank leaders in the region to share their expertise and ideas. “It’s good to have a noncompetitive conversation,” he says.
Good ideas can come from another CEO, a teller, a technician, a fellow Winn-Dixie shopper at 9 p.m. (“You’re a banker 24/7,” he says wryly.)
“I don’t manage with a hierarchy,” he concludes. Open doors and minds “give everyone the ability to be part of something.”
Integrating community service
A lot of what the staff is part of is community service. By all accounts, Community State previously kept to itself. “I found the bank could be used as a catalyst to improve the community as a whole,” Oody recalls.
The usual way to measure that is with dollar figures, and the bank’s recent fundraising and donations dwarf what they were in 2012. But staff participation in volunteer civic activities is up also, to 100 percent. “Jeff has used the term ‘return on community,’” Eison explains. “People want to have a relationship with people they feel care about them.”
Community State’s fresh logo is everywhere now: charity walkathons and bikeathons, municipal festivals and fairs, regional Chamber and service-club roasts, school foundation fundraisers. The bank added three mobile ATMs for community events, as Reddish puts it, “to cement the fact that wherever you need your money, we’re there.”
The staff pours time, money and enthusiasm into Shop With a Cop, the American Cancer Society Relay for Life and more. Despite that—or because of it?—Oody tries to get everyone home, including himself, by 5 to 5:30—“though afterward I usually have an event, which is encouraged.” The former sports coach—whose family took in a homeless teen for a few years—serves on boards from Santa Fe College to Starke’s Police Pension Board.
Work/life balance is important, Oody says after a weekend visit to upstate New York (his eldest child is a plebe at West Point), because you can’t be effective with a singular focus. Avoid burnout and take all your vacation, he urges staff.
Oody hands out these messages every day, even when not in costume or sporting red hair. Says Reddish, “He treats everyone like they are his equal, he never talks down to anyone, and he doesn’t say anything that isn’t positive.”
Meet Jeff Oody
- Family: Single father of three children
- Birthplace: Knoxville, Tenn.
- Birthday: June 1969
- Education: Associate of Arts in business, bachelor’s degrees in finance and real estate, post-graduate doctorate studies, Stonier Graduate School of Banking graduate with honors
- Best career advice: Work hard, play hard. No glass ceilings. Be all you can be. “Can’t” doesn’t belong in the dictionary. Be the best you can be.
- Personal interests: High school and college football, camping and hunting, listening to music, playing drums, being with family and friends
- Favorite quote: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” —Winston Churchill
- Unusual facts: Voted most eligible bachelor in North Florida for a fundraising event. He is one-quarter Cherokee.
- Something in his office: Picture of his dream car—a powder blue 1957 Chevy Belair
- First job: Bagging groceries/butcher
- First car: 1965 Volkswagen Baja Bug
Ellen Ryan is a writer in Maryland.
As the exclusive sponsor of the ICBA Community Banker of the Year Awards, SHAZAM is proud to recognize this year’s winners for their passion for community banking and commitment to truly making a difference in the markets they serve.
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