The 50 people, places and things community bankers love

Edited by Molly Bennett Contributors: Andrea Lahouze,
Sara Schlueter, Ellen Ryan… and ICBA members

For community bankers, the operative word is “community.” You may be scattered across all 50 states, with locations in rural idylls and inner cities, but your goals are the same: to help local businesses and individuals achieve their dreams. But we wanted to dig deeper. So we asked you about your dreams—which include everything from a world without Dodd-Frank to a zippy sports car—and the community banks you admire. Here are some of your favorite things.

No. 1-5

Career wisdom

When we asked for the one piece of advice you’d give someone hoping to enter community banking leadership, you said…

No. 6-7

Winning writers: Voices for the industry

6. Steve Brown
Steve Brown is president and CEO of PCBB, which offers correspondent bank and broker-dealer services. But his real claim to fame is Banc Investment Daily (or as those in the know call it, BID), an emailed newsletter that touches on everything from M&A activity and rates news to the importance of a tech-savvy board of directors. BID’s 55,000 community banker and regulator subscribers love it for its down-to-earth take on community banking matters; you won’t find many investment newsletters beginning a discussion of BSA/AML with an anecdote about how Belgian scientists named a new planetary system after their favorite beer.

7. Cam Fine
You all get the pleasure of reading ICBA president and CEO Cam Fine’s columns each month right here in Independent Banker, but he doesn’t pull any punches on his Finer Points blog, either. Take this excerpt from a recent post about the movie Abacus: Small Enough to Jail: “When prosecutors faced the prospect of targeting the large and risky financial firms that precipitated the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression—they instead chose to pick on a community bank they thought they could push around.” If there’s one thing to know about Cam Fine, it’s that he’s got your back.

No. 8

Business bible

Good to Great
by Jim Collins

“Our bank president made Good to Great mandatory reading for the executive team, and I was really glad he did. My key takeaway from the book is the quote, ‘Good is the enemy of great.’ Community banks all offer essentially the same products and services [as] other community banks and megabanks. The only way to set ourselves apart from the competition is to take one thing we are good at and become great at it through discipline.”
—Jenn Spartz, executive VP and COO of $89 million-asset
Woodland Bank in Grand Rapids, Minn.

Ahead of the curve

“Our niche is being a relationship lender and getting our customers to do all of their business with us.”
—A.J. King, Three Rivers bank of Montana

Three rivers Bank of Montana: a small business at heart

A $140 million-asset community bank is making big waves out west. Earlier this year, the U.S. Small Business Administration named Three Rivers Bank of Montana the state’s Emerging Lender of the Year in recognition of its growing portfolio of 7(a) loans.

A.J. King, president of the Kalispell, Mont., community bank, credits this success to its employees, as well as the support it receives from ICBA. “We’ve benefited from the education ICBA offers,” he says. “They have an extensive system, which has filled in a lot of gaps.”

IB: What makes Three Rivers Bank stand out?
A.J. King

I feel that we are well-rounded. We have about a $100 million of sold residential mortgages we originated and service, and we have been successful with originating small-business loans. We really, truly are a small business, and being family-owned, we are able to relate to a lot of these other small-business people. Our niche is being a relationship lender and getting our customers to do all of their business with us.

IB: What keeps customers coming back?

Basically, treating them right. Treating them with respect, using common sense and going the extra mile for them. The big bank or credit union down the street might give them a better rate on a loan, but we have their back.

IB: What are you most proud of?
I’m really proud to be a second-generation community banker. My dad was ICBA chairman in the 1980s. I have been able to make people’s dreams come true. The biggest compliment is when customers say, “I never could have done this without you.”
—Sara Schlueter

No. 10-13

Sweet tweets
Community bankers are all about supporting the places they live, and many use social media to get the word out. Here are a few community banks that included ICBA’s #banklocally Twitter hashtag to highlight their summer events.

No. 15

The innovator

3 ways Eastern Bank stands out

Eastern promise—In March, Eastern Bank handed out $10,000 in $5 bills to morning commuters, asking them to “pay it forward” as part of its Join Us For Good brand campaign. Chairman and CEO Bob Rivers (far right) was joined by (l-r) vice chairman and president Quincy Miller; Paul Alexander, chief marketing and communications officer; and Eastern spokesman and former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie.

It invests heavily in technology. The $10 billion-asset Boston-based community bank invested $4 million each year into its Eastern Labs technology incubator, which resulted in a white-label digital commercial lending platform that can approve a $100,000 loan in five minutes. Eastern Bank via Eastern Labs incubated and launched Numerated Growth Technologies, led by former head of Eastern Labs and chief digital officer Dan O’Malley, and has now begun work on Eastern Labs 2.0.

It uses cutting-edge security. Using Nuance Communications’ voice biometrics technology, Eastern Bank’s phone banking customers can record a sample of their voice, which is then used to authenticate them the next time they call.

It lives its mission. Eastern Bank’s far-reaching Join Us For Good campaign highlights its social responsibility ethos and invites customers and others to get involved through social media.

No. 20

Can’t live without…

Apart from your core processors, you said mobile banking was the product or service your community bank can’t live without. And for good reason: Customers of all ages are increasingly demanding the ability to bank on their smartphones. Millennials, of course, are driving this change:


Use a mobile banking app for things such as check deposit and bill pay


Say it is beneficial for a bank to offer mobile banking


are completely reliant on a mobile banking app


want to receive alerts from their bank via a text message
Source: 2016 Salesforce Research Report; “What Millennials Expect from Their Banks”

Ahead of the curve

No. 21

Cattaraugus County bank: deep connections

“I live, eat and breathe community banking.”
—sal marranca, cattaraugus county bank (right), with bank president and cEO Mike Wimer (left)

Sal Marranca has built a 34-year career at $225 million-asset Cattaraugus County Bank in upstate New York. As its former president and CEO, its current board chairman and a past ICBA chairman, he has seen firsthand what makes community banks successful. “I live, eat and breathe community banking,” he says.

Current bank president and CEO Mike Wimer says CCB’s success comes down to great employees and leadership. “By helping our people develop their skills and knowledge and empowering them, they can focus on the relational parts of community banking in ways that provide mutually positive, value-added experiences for all.”

CCB offers robust compensation packages and regular employee appreciation days. It also boasts a “strong and diverse board of directors that can make the hard decisions and look at the long run and future success,” adds Marranca.

Embracing diversity is another success factor. CCB works hard to build relationships with its customer base, which ranges from the Amish to residents of the Seneca Nation of Indians. Its eight branches are located in three rural western New York counties, some in towns with no stoplight.

The bank’s 115-year-old history does not diminish its commitment to keeping up with changes in technology. “We are undergoing a total core conversion of our bank right now,” Marranca says. “Looking at the long term, this is what it is going to take to get our technology upgraded and get the millennial customers on board.” —Sara Schlueter

The best advice you ever got

No. 22

This is the mantra of Billy Bolton, a community banker celebrating 52 years at Community Spirit Bank in Red Bay, Ala., where he is chairman of the $143 million-asset community bank and its holding company. It’s also the guiding principle he instilled in his three children.

“How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.”
—George Washington Carver

Years ago, Bolton was at a ball game and returned a dropped $20 bill to a fellow fan. Five years later, the man, a banker, offered him a job. “My dad calls that story ‘honesty pays,’” says son Brad Bolton (above), who is now president and CEO of Community Spirit Bank. “It should be your goal to be compassionate with every interaction with every customer, not because it is good for business, but because it is what is right in the sight of God.”

No. 23

“The world is full of mediocre bankers and has damn few good bankers. Work hard and put yourself in the smaller group.”
—Robert W. Anderson

Thirty-five years ago, Robert W. Anderson, founder and chairman of the $220 million-asset Guaranty Bank & Trust in Delhi, La., offered Albert Christman (left) a job. While the position had great growth potential, it paid far less than Christman’s current job. He accepted the offer on one condition: that he’d be taught the banking business from top to bottom. Anderson agreed, and Christman followed his advice: “I listened, worked hard, was appointed CEO of the bank two years later and have been there ever since.”

“It doesn’t require having a development team to be on the cutting edge, or even to be a trendsetter in the industry.”
—Jill Castilla, Citizens Bank of Edmond

Ahead of the curve

No. 25

Citizens Bank of Edmond: innovation superstar

In 2009, Citizens Bank of Edmond in Edmond, Okla., was on the brink of becoming the recession’s next victim. Now, the $250 million-asset bank is a leader in industry innovation and was cited as an inspiration in our survey more than any other community bank. President and CEO Jill Castilla credits company transparency, loyal customers and resourceful staff with propelling Citizens Bank to the top.

Castilla and her team are also quick on their feet. As part of Citizens’ strategy to close or sell five of its six branches without losing customers, it planned to offer interactive tellers at their ATM machines instead. But six weeks before the branches were due to close, the vendor backed out.

Instead of accepting its fate, Citizens Bank partnered with two local companies: a technology developer for the hospitality industry and a hardware provider for the restaurant industry. Together, the group designed and built six custom ATMs, each costing $11,000. As a result, instead of losing customers along with the shuttered branches, Citizens has seen net customer growth.

“It gave us a lot of confidence to know that it doesn’t have to be overly complicated to be innovative,” Castilla says. “It doesn’t require having a development team to be on the cutting edge, or even to be a trendsetter in the industry.”

Citizens Bank’s nimbleness is also evident in its embrace of social media. It shares its story with customers on its YouTube channel and asks them to post their experiences, insights and suggestions on Facebook and Twitter.

“My accessibility is 24/7, and that engagement creates loyalty and creates advocates for you,” Castilla says. “It also pushes you to have accountability when they ask you for something.”

Case in point: Citizens is about to open its first personless branch in midtown Oklahoma City, an improvement that was first suggested by customers on Twitter. —Andrea Lahouze

No. 26-30

The experience that got you here

Sometimes, the route to community banking is short; sometimes, it’s long and weaves through a couple of other jobs. Let’s meet some of these well-traveled souls.

No. 26

Architecture and health care

“The only banking experience I’d had prior to this job was my own checking account,” says Chad King. After starting out at a building design firm, he was an account manager for a company providing nursing services to families of special-needs children.

King found himself increasingly unhappy at the large, bureaucratic health-care company. He once again tried networking in his hometown of Farmington, Mo.
The CEO of the $2 billion-asset First State Community Bank planned to bring merchant card services in house, and “they wanted someone good at networking, making these relationships—not necessarily banking knowledge,” says King, now the program’s director as well as assistant vice president. They told him, “We can teach you banking.”

No. 27

Real estate
Dan Reininga worked for Talon Zipper Company before spending time at graduate school and his family-owned real estate investment firm.

Reininga joined the $482 million-asset Lake Shore Savings Bank board in 1994. In 2010, he joined the bank as chief operating officer and is now president and CEO. Conversant in terms like “foreign-trade zone” and “REIT,” he easily advises business customers and is steeped in customer service and community leadership.

Reininga paraphrases former Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy: Talent is important, but mentality or attitude comes first. In other words, skills are great, but “we can teach you banking.” It’s why Reininga was able to shift careers—and why as a CEO, he welcomes others doing the same.

No. 28

The Air Force
At Texas A&M University on an Air Force ROTC scholarship, Ricky Leal majored in political science and minored in history. After graduating and attending business school, he headed to Cheyenne, Wyo., as a munitions and missile maintenance officer.

Next it was two years stationed in Albuquerque, N.M. Then the former Air Force captain and his wife looked around their hometown of Harlingen, Texas, and saw the three-branch First Community Bank. Leal joined as a lender/credit analyst in 2005. The bank now has nine locations and $375 million in assets.

Many skills transfer from the military, says Leal, now senior vice president, lending. He cites leadership, perseverance and “calmness in the face of constantly changing settings.”

No. 29

The law
Althea Fleeman
began in the paralegal field, first in franchise administration at Shoney’s, reviewing building plans and ad manuals.
When her father fell ill, she moved home and worked for a lawyer in real estate and domestic law. Then, Fleeman become an owner/operator of an A&W and Long John Silvers franchise—seven days a week for seven years. Then came five years backing yet another lawyer.

Fleeman found a direct transfer at $456 million-asset The Hardin County Bank in Savannah, Tenn., her mother’s employer of 44 years, where in four years she’s moved from teller to assistant vice president. “When I interviewed, the woman said, ‘I love that you can step in and do this.’”

Fleeman says even her fast-food experience transfers: “That depends on making people happy every time so you get their return business.”

No. 30

A dairy farm and a furniture store
Emily Mays’ college weekends were spent working at her parents’ dairy farm in Haleyville, Ala. and at her husband’s family’s furniture store. Her first official job was managing one of the stores, which included dabbling in advertising.

She moved on to CitiFinancial for eight years, but when the office closed in 2013, a friend recommended a teller job at Alabama’s $142 million-asset Community Spirit Bank. “Isn’t that for newbies?” she asked. “It’s a great place to work; you’ll love it,” said the friend.

Mays did. Soon, its marketing director retired, and officials saw that Mays would fit the part. A year later, the bank’s president asked her to add “executive assistant” to her title. “Everything here is about the [customer] in front of you, whereas at the big bank, it’s all about the sales goal and quota,” she says happily.
—Ellen Ryan

Ahead of the curve

No. 31

“DRB is both a bank and a fintech company, which enables us to meet the needs of a broader customer base”
—Gary Lieberman, DRB, Photo: Dan Bigelow

Darien Rowayton bank: running toward fintech
Gary Lieberman first observed the challenge of high student-loan rates during his time at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
“There were students paying too high of a rate on their student loans relative to their lower credit-risk profiles,” he says. “There was a need in the market that I hoped to help solve one day.”

Lieberman is now chairman of the board of Connecticut community bank Darien Rowayton Bank (DRB). His long-held idea for a proprietary product for recent college graduates is now a cornerstone of the bank’s offering. DRB built its own online lending platform where, according to Lieberman, customers save an average of more than $20,000 after refinancing a student loan. Tens of thousands of customers across all 50 states have refinanced with DRB since the platform launched in summer 2013.

“DRB is both a bank and a fintech company, which enables us to meet the needs of a broader customer base,” Lieberman says.
The platform’s success has also been driven in large part by its highly educated, working-professional customer base.

“Given the prime credit quality of our borrowers, our growth prospects and loan portfolio composition, other banks began approaching us expressing interest in purchasing DRB loans,” Lieberman says.

In response, DRB created the Loan Sale Program, which allows partner banks to purchase high-performing assets with national diversification. It has since sold more than $2 billion in loans and securitizations to its partners.

In keeping with customers’ personal and professional journeys, DRB’s next offering will be a proprietary online mortgage platform, which is slated for a national rollout in 2018. “We believe they see us as a partner in their journey to become more financially independent and reach their longer-term personal and professional goals,” Lieberman says.

In June, DRB rebranded its online lending division to Laurel Road to better reflect its customer base.
—Andrea Lahouze

36. Alpine Bank: harnessing every swipe
For every debit card swipe, Colorado’s $3.2 billion-asset Alpine Bank donates 10 cents to nonprofit organizations in the cardholder’s community. In 2016, this yielded donations of nearly $1 million.

37. Tompkins Financial: social media swagger
Though it was founded in 1836, Tompkins Financial Corp. is no stranger to social media. The $6.4 billion-asset financial services holding company in Ithaca, N.Y., posts quarterly contests on the Facebook pages of each of its four community banks. In each Community Minute Challenge, six nonprofit organizations submit 60-second videos about their work. The public votes, and the winner receives a donation of between $1,000 and $5,000.

38. Merchants and Planters Bank: handing the baton
Employees at $250 million-asset Merchants and Planters Bank in Newport, Ark., look forward to their annual participation in Relay for Life to raise funds for the American Cancer Society (ACS). Each year, more than 5,000 Relay for Life events take place in more than 20 countries around the world. To date, Merchants and Planters Bank employees have raised more than $30,000 for ACS.

39. The Home Savings and Loan Company of Kenton, Ohio:
champion clippers

In Ohio, community bankers at the $113 million-asset The Home Savings and Loan Company of Kenton, Ohio, share in their customers’ joys and accomplishments by scouring local newspapers for announcements of graduations, marriages, anniversaries and other milestones and sending them to the people named in the articles.

No. 40-41

Knowledge givers

No. 40

Community Spirit Bank in Red Bay, Ala., is teaching students at Red Bay High School about financial literacy in a very real way: at an in-school bank.
Launched in January 2017, the community bank’s Red Bay High School Tiger Branch operates for 50 minutes each school day, allowing students and teachers to make simple banking transactions. (Per FDIC rules and regulations, the branch is not open to the general public.)

The school’s business education teacher oversees student Tiger Tellers, who get firsthand experience in customer service and banking.
“We believe these students who run the branch will be better prepared for jobs later in life from the experience learned,” says Brad Bolton, president, CEO and senior lender at Community Spirit Bank. “Even greater, we hope that this in-school branch will get kids of all ages comfortable with financial transactions so that going to the bank is comfortable and not intimidating. If we are able to teach the next generation about financial tools and transactions, it will help them succeed in whatever path their lives take them.”

No. 41

Apex Bank in Benton County, Tenn., rewards students for their academic achievements. Through its Pay for Grades program, students at local high schools who meet academic thresholds are eligible to receive cash rewards every nine weeks. Since 2012, local students have earned more than 8,000 prizes totaling $303,050.

In training—Supervised by their Business Education teacher, student Tiger Tellers operate the in-school branch for 50 minutes each school day.

Ahead of the curve

No. 44

United Bank of union: better relationships through tech

United Bank of Union believes in technology: It counts mobile banking, instant-issuance debit cards and online bill pay among its products and services. But technology is a means to an end for the $300 million-asset community bank in Union, Mo. Relationships are what really counts—particularly when it comes to luring millennials away from the megabanks and fintechs.

Mike Elliott, president and CEO, sees huge potential in the millennial generation (“Last year, they were the top homebuyers in the US,” he says), so he’s plowing time and money into the technology and training that help his staff provide the kind of personal service twenty- and thirtysomethings respond to.

For one, Elliott brought in the High Definition Banking consultancy to teach his staff new ways of increasing sales and building customer loyalty through “conversational banking, rather than order taking,” he says.

United Bank of Union also installed 360 View’s customer relationship management (CRM) program as a way to increase efficiencies and deal with the cost of complying with Dodd-Frank, but the benefits have been far-reaching. “Everyone says small banks can’t do CRM; it’s too expensive,” Elliott says. “But it’s the best thing we did in the past five years.”

The call center is now based on the CRM module, so one person can address all of a customer’s queries, rather than transferring them from department to department. “You don’t skip a beat,” Elliott says. The module also takes care of maintenance reviews and new account setups.

The bank is looking beyond millennials, too. Among other service work, it teaches financial literacy to students in Union and the surrounding area. Leading the charge is Tommy Torch, the bank’s six-foot-tall dragon mascot, who’s become something of a local celebrity. “We’ve been through three suits,” says Elliott. “He gets lots of chocolate hugs.” And who knows? Maybe some day, those sticky fingers will be signing a loan application at United Bank of Union. —Molly Bennett

No. 45-47

Higher education

The best schools for community bankers

45. Graduate School of Banking—Madison

GSB at University of Wisconsin–Madison has trained more than 20,000 bankers since its 1945 establishment and currently awards more than $225,000 in annual scholarships. “It fills in your missing blanks, whatever they may be,” says alum Jenn Spartz, executive vice president and COO of $89 million-asset Woodland Bank in Grand Rapids, Minn. “I had a strong operations background when I attended but came out with knowledge of lending, investments and asset/liability management.”

46. Barret Graduate School of Banking

The Memphis-based nonprofit independent school has an endowment that allows a significantly lower tuition, but if our survey is anything to go by, you still get plenty of bang for your buck. A 2017 Barret graduate, Tara Salinas of $250 million-asset Merchants and Planters Bank in Newport, Ark., says the program is relevant and rigorous. “It’s designed to elevate you,” she says. “The faculty makes it fun and engaging, and there’s no doubt they are true experts. What I found truly invaluable were the relationships that I formed with other bankers. We shared our stories, learned from each other’s experiences and became good friends.”

47. The School of Hard Knocks

One-quarter of survey respondents credited life experience as their classroom of choice. Chad Johnston of $135 million-asset Community First Bank in Maywood, Neb. says, “No book is going to teach you how to be a community banker. It is something that you learn and that comes from the heart.”

Talking the talk—The Graduate School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison encourages networking.