Music City’s community bankers sound off

Anne Sams and Sergio Ora of Citizens Savings Bank and Trust Co. in downtown Nashville.
Photo: Abigail Bobo

In this year’s ICBA LIVE host city, booming growth is music to community bankers’ ears.

By Margaret Littman

There’s a number everyone in Nashville knows. No, not the new area code (that’s 629). No, not the address of the cheapest parking when headed downtown (2 Victory Ave.). Word around the city has it that, on average, 100 people move to town every day.

Whether it’s an exact number or not, it underscores the fast growth that Nashville and the middle Tennessee area it sits in have seen in recent years. Folks joke that the new state bird is the crane—the construction crane, that is. The local public radio station even put the “bird” on a fundraising premium.

And with growth comes opportunity. There’s lending galore, with new commercial and residential building projects, entrepreneurs hanging out shingles and corporations expanding. But with opportunity comes challenges, too. As Nashville’s national profile rises, more banks have—understandably—wanted to be part of that growth. National banks have entered the market, many by acquisition. In January 2018, JPMorgan Chase announced it was expanding into 400 high-growth markets. Music City is one of them.

And community banks are working to leverage their strengths and thrive in the face of that new competition.

“About 15 to 20 years ago, all the talk was about Nashville. Now it is all about the region, embracing the region, and that feels more sustainable,” says John McDearman, president of $2.5 billion-asset Wilson Bank and Trust. “For a growing city, we’ve held on to the sense of community, and the region is embracing small entrepreneurship.”

“For a growing city, we’ve held on to the sense of community, and the region is embracing small entrepreneurship.”
—John McDearman, Wilson Bank and Trust

Not just names in lights

Community banks have the advantage of being staffed by locals who know the market. The entertainment, music and sports sectors aren’t the main focus at Landmark Community Bank, but they are some of the industries the $934.6 million-asset community bank serves. “A lot of banks come in [from other cities] and try to do that, but they just don’t understand it,” says Amy Delk, senior vice president and Williamson County executive for Landmark Community Bank.

“We’re one of the few banks on Music Row anymore,” agrees Landmark Community Bank senior vice president and city executive John Morrissey, speaking of the streets that have traditionally housed the offices of major record labels and recording studios. Landmark is headquartered in Memphis, Tenn., and now has branches in three towns in Williamson County, as well as on Music Row in Nashville. “It gives us some credibility,” Morrissey says. He has lived his entire life in the region, which gives him some perspective on its changes.

Jim Rieniets, president and CEO of $500 million-asset InsBank, echoes the sentiments of his community banking peers. “We want to participate in the prosperity in our community in a prudent way,” he says. “There’s now a bank on every corner of Nashville. But a lot of them are out-of-town banks and a lot of larger banks, and there aren’t a whole lot of banks that can provide access to a decision maker.

“Out-of-town banks make competitive pricing hard, but all things being equal, people would rather deal with decision makers.”

A diverse economy

Rieniets, who attended Nashville-based Vanderbilt University and has worked in the city for the majority of his career, sees Nashville’s diverse economy, not just the entertainment scene that gets the headlines, as one of its biggest opportunities. That includes tourism, logistics, health care, auto manufacturing, printing and much more. But the infrastructure that is struggling to keep pace with the current and expected growth is a challenge, he adds.

Thomas E. Bates, Jr., president and CEO of $485 million-asset Legends Bank in Clarksville, Tenn., agrees, citing Nissan’s Clarksville plant and HCA Healthcare as some of the drivers of his local economy.

“We do a lot of traditional community-style lending,” Bates says. “Our good old bread and butter are dry cleaners and convenience stores, mechanics shops—the businesses that the big banks don’t look at anymore.”

“There are a tremendous number of people, and they get more bang for the buck outside of downtown.”
—William S. Stuard, Jr., F&M Bank

As Bates and others have seen, the development in Nashville has benefited surrounding communities, too. “We see great growth,” says William S. Stuard, Jr., chairman, president and CEO of $1.1 billion-asset F&M Bank. “There are a tremendous number of people, and they get more bang for the buck outside of downtown. The cost of living is lower in the surrounding markets. In Wilson and Sumner counties, and others that we serve, we see a lot of opportunity.”

It is not just newcomers to the region providing that opportunity. Because Stuard has been in banking in the region for his entire career, he’s now lending to the grandkids of his customers from 40 years ago. The biggest struggle, he says, is hiring to fill vacant positions to keep up with demand. And community bankers are not alone on that front. The region’s unemployment rates are among the lowest in the country.

“It is a strain to find banking talent. It is so scarce. But we generally do not hire people who have not had experience in Nashville.”
—Wade Peery, FirstBank

“It is a lot of pressure,” agrees Wade Peery, chief administrative officer at $5 billion-asset FirstBank. “It is a strain to find banking talent. It is so scarce. But we generally do not hire people who have not had experience in Nashville.”

He notes that there’s no substitute for personal connections and on-the-ground knowledge in community banking. “It is really tough for someone coming from the outside.”

Much of the growth in the region is being fueled by young professionals, and that’s likely to continue as Wall Street money manager AllianceBernstein (1,050 jobs), Amazon (5,000 jobs) and Ernst & Young (600 jobs) all expand in Nashville in 2019. Those young potential customers will need mortgages for first homes and will have high expectations of technology. Richard Herrington, chairman and CEO of $4.17 billion-asset Franklin Synergy Bank, says it’s crucial for community banks to find ways to meet those technology demands while still offering the kind of personalized attention that is the crux of community banking.

Outside the city limits

Herrington, who has owned and managed two different banks in Williamson County, says Franklin Synergy was an early adopter of remote deposit capabilities, and is constantly adding features to its mobile banking app to attract and retain those customers. One feature (SafeCard) allows customers to turn their debit and credit cards off or on to prevent fraud during certain time periods, technology that typically appeals to millennials.

Wilson Bank’s McDearman, who was born and raised in the region, thinks that makes sense. “Part of being a good banker means being a good listener,” he says. Wilson Bank has been open to lending to nontraditional projects, including a residential development being built with shipping containers.

Adds Rieniets: “A locally run bank is a good thing for the community. The community does not want to wake up one day and have all of the banking from out of town.”

“A locally run bank is a good thing for the community. The community does not want to wake up one day and have all of the banking from out of town.”
—Jim Rieniets, InsBank

Gold records line a wall at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Photo: Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp

Faith and lending

Sergio Ora came out of retirement for his current gig. Ora joined $101.3 million-asset Citizens Savings Bank and Trust Co. in April 2018, and in June, became president and CEO, with a goal of turning around the troubled institution. He’d worked at First Tennessee Bank and BBVA Compass Bank before retirement, so while he describes himself as a relative “newcomer” to community banking, Citizens and the Nashville market, he’s a financial services pro.

Citizens Savings officials believe it is the oldest continuously operating minority-owned bank in the country, and Ora, with his team of CFO Anne Sams and CCO Corey Hammonds, plan to keep the 115-year-old community bank going for the next century.

Hammonds started as a bookkeeper at Citizens Savings in 2003 and has worked his way up. He left to become one of the youngest African-American general certified appraisers in the area, and returned with plentiful real estate expertise. Additionally, Ora and Sams bring in experience from a wide cross-section of businesses and banks.

“I was naïve,” admits Ora, who took the helm after the bank closed out 2017 with a $2.8 million loss. “I thought it would be easier at a smaller bank, but in a lot of ways, it is more challenging. It is an entirely different environment and culture, but it has created a lot of excitement on my part. We have 26 employees, and we’re able to get to know everyone and their personalities and work to meet our goals.”

Citizens Savings is heavily focused on faith-based lending, with a large percentage of its portfolio devoted to commercial real estate lending to churches. Once the bank is on sound financial footing, the team will be confident about the future.

“One of the challenges is how do you compete with the big boys; it is a matter of differentiation,” Ora says. “That’s the good thing about Citizens, its distinctiveness. We have a sense of urgency here to create a solid financial foundation and live up to our mission.”

Sergio Ora of Citizens Savings Bank and Trust Co. eyes Broadway from Acme Feed and Seed. Photo: Abigail Bobo

Free time in Music City

Your free time at ICBA LIVE 2019 is no time to be checking email. Music City is a city that never sleeps (New York has nothing on this honky-tonkin’, whiskey-drinkin’ town). And much of the fun stuff is in walking distance of Music City Center, the space where the convention will take place. We asked local bankers for their favorites.

Music and magic

As you walk toward Broadway, the city’s main drag of honky-tonk bars, restaurants and shops, you may be overwhelmed by the bright lights and enthusiastic crowds. Wade Peery, chief administrative officer of FirstBank, suggests starting on one end (either 1st or 6th Avenue). Walk down one side of the street to the end and walk back up the other, stopping wherever you hear music that gets your toes tapping, such as Robert’s Western World and Tootsies World Famous Orchid Lounge. Most honky-tonks don’t charge a cover, but you are expected to put money in when the band passes the hat.

For more offbeat entertainment, Jim Rieniets, president and CEO of InsBank, recommends Skull’s Rainbow Room, a historic speakeasy with live jazz music and burlesque dancers. House of Cards, which offers dinner and a magic show—not in that kids’ birthday party way—is the pick of Rieniets, senior vice president and city executive John Morrissey of Landmark Community Bank and several others. Plan to wear the dress code: coat, no tie and lots of wide-eyed reactions to the magicians performing.

Food and drink

Amy Delk, senior vice president and Williamson County executive for Landmark Community Bank, loves to check out the kitchens and suggests The Mockingbird and Lockeland Table for high-end Southern and comfort foods, City House for James Beard Award-winning Italian food and newcomer Lyra for innovative Middle Eastern eats.

Corey Hammonds, Citizens Savings Bank and Trust Co.

Legends Bank’s CEO and president Thomas E. Bates, Jr., thinks ICBA LIVE attendees would be remiss not to eat and drink at the Fairlane, a renovated hotel that used to be a bank (the Region’s Bank local headquarters) and kept that aesthetic. Across the street, he likes the bar at the Bobby Hotel that features a bus on the rooftop in summer and heated igloos in winter.

Corey Hammonds, chief credit officer at Citizens Savings Bank and Trust Co., urges you to try some of that famous Nashville barbecue. He recommends Jack’s Bar-B-Que, which is rumored to have spearheaded lower Broadway’s revitalization. Not to mention, Edley’s Bar-B-Que is perfect if you’re looking to indulge in some of that classic Southern cuisine.


Chairman and CEO Richard Herrington of Franklin Synergy Bank loves suburban Franklin because it is home to rich history (and many community banks). Carter House and Carnton are two places that tell the story of the bloody Battle of Franklin well.

Nashville banking through the years

Nashville’s banking scene has had so many ups and downs it could be, well, a country song. Here’s a look at some of the highlights.

1883: American National Bank launches. It eventually becomes First American National Bank.

The home of First American National Bank, shown here in 1973, was built in 1926 to the personal tastes of James E. Caldwell, once a president of the bank.

1920s: After World War I, Nashville is known as the Wall Street of the South, a title that may now be worn by Charlotte, N.C., or Atlanta.

1975: First American becomes the first Nashville bank to exceed $1 billion in deposits. First American, First National and Commerce Union are considered the big three of Nashville banking in the 1960s and 1970s.

1985: The Nashville Business Journal estimates that 70–80 percent of deposits are controlled by banks in the city.

1999: It’s consolidation fever in Nashville. First American Corp., the holding company for First American National Bank, the last locally based major bank in Nashville, is acquired by AmSouth Bancorp.

2007: Avenue Bank launches just months before the recession hits.

Franklin Synergy Bank made its public market debut at the New York Stock Exchange.

2015: Franklin Synergy Banks’ parent company, Franklin Financial Network, goes public.

2018: Studio Bank becomes the first locally formed bank since 2008; 85 percent of investors are from middle Tennessee. Its focus is on the creative community. Meanwhile, Pinnacle Financial Partners becomes the city’s biggest bank.

Margaret Littman is a writer in Nashville.