The juicy story behind First Citrus Bank

Jack Barrett
Jack Barrett is one of several First Citrus Bank founders who are still with the community bank.

Established 21 years ago, First Citrus Bank’s strategic planning is now bearing fruit. At the core of the Tampa, Fla., community bank is a set of fundamental values that define how its associates achieve success for themselves and for their customers.

By Eric Best

Name: First Citrus Bank
Assets: $428 million
Location: Tampa, Fla.

First Citrus Bank in Tampa, Fla., recently hit a milestone. In 2019, the $428 million-asset community bank turned 20. And while Florida banking has been a rollercoaster for those two decades, one thing has been consistent: its founding members.

“We were all in our early 30s when we started our company, and for the past 20 years, the same people are still here,” says Jack Barrett, First Citrus Bank’s president and CEO and a Tampa native with about 32 years of banking experience in the area. “Now, we’re in our early or mid-50s. It’s the longest-tenured management team in the market, period.”

They’re seeing their years of dedication pay off. This past year has been a breakout one for First Citrus Bank, Barrett says. It was named 2019 Small Business of the Year by the Tampa Bay Chamber. It surpassed $1 billion in loans. And while many banks struggled in Tampa and statewide during and after the Great Recession, First Citrus Bank has increased its market share and seen consistent growth in recent years.

In fact, the community bank recently opened a new loan office in downtown St. Petersburg, Fla.—the first new First Citrus Bank location in a decade—that it plans to turn into a full-service branch this year.

So, what’s the secret sauce to First Citrus Bank’s success?

First, Barrett points back to its beginning. First Citrus Bank was established with 500-plus shareholders who invested less than $10,000 on average. Instead of relying on high-profile names, the community bank’s working-class backbone brought board members with “high-caliber knowledge” and shared values to its boardroom.

“What’s unique about us is our equity structure,” Barrett says. “Many institutions have large concentrations of ownership. We were very intentional to avoid that. Our philosophy is we want to be able to champion the underdog.”

Holding on to the good ones

First Citrus Bank has also worked hard to keep talented people at the community bank. Because of the leadership team’s lengthy tenure, First Citrus Bank has been able to dedicate hundreds of hours of staff time to what Barrett calls “mapping success.”

This has resulted in one-page road maps that define what individual success looks like and how senior management can be a resource for employees at all levels, from business bankers to branch managers.

“When you establish roots, you can be a lot more dynamic in taking care of people and your associates—I’m not fond of the word employee,” Barrett says. “They, in turn, can do a great job taking care of customers.”

In fact, Barrett says First Citrus Bank has an upside-down org chart where he’s on the bottom. It’s part of the “First Citrus Way” that senior management is a resource for associates.

“We empower our people, and it’s not lip service. We encourage them to make mistakes, and we’ll celebrate their mistakes,” he says. “We know that’s how you go and grow.” The second piece behind First Citrus Bank’s success is its credo. Formed by community bank leadership a year after they established the bank, the credo—a brief summation of the bank’s vision, values and staff etiquette—is designed to guide associates to live as better community bankers.

The community bank recently doubled down on the concept, investing hundreds of hours of planning time to revise the credo and create Credo 2.0. The process has so far resulted in a set of 28 easy-to-follow fundamentals, which serve as adages for how First Citrus Bank associates should conduct themselves. It includes a ritual to start any meeting of two or more First Citrus Bank associates with a brief discussion on the fundamental of the week.

Barrett says the bank is embedding these “timeless” values into day-to-day work life.

“We wanted to chisel out what our core values were,” he says. “These are all non-industry-specific behaviors that help us elevate our game internally as professional bankers in creating those [positive] experiences for clients.”

Take, for example, Fundamental No. 25: “Practice face-to-face problem-solving.” Why? Because trying to defuse an issue over email creates room for misunderstandings, Barrett believes. “It seems like a little thing, but [talking face to face] is a big, big thing in real life that’s totally undervalued, in my opinion,” he adds.

Fundamental No. 1 is “Do the right thing always.” According to Barrett, this emphasis on ethics has been the backbone of First Citrus Bank from the beginning.

“We’re bringing in more heart and spirit and passion and correct values in conjunction with our upside-down org chart,” Barrett says. “That’s the secret sauce.”

3 First Citrus Bank fundamentals

Associates at First Citrus Bank in Tampa, Fla., try to follow 28 edicts that are central to the community bank’s identity. Here are a few to follow:

#3 Listen generously to understand.
Listening is more than simply not speaking. Be present and engaged. Quiet the noise in your mind and let go of the need to immediately respond. Create space for others to express themselves without judgment. Listen with care and empathy. Above all, listen to understand.

#14 Take pride in your work and our company.
Being a community banker is not just a job, it’s a calling. Embrace the honor to serve and positively impact associates, clients and our community. Your passion and can-do attitude will be contagious. Walk it, talk it, live it!

#28 Always be green and growing.
Self-development is driven by you. Go for it, and enjoy the journey.

Eric Best is deputy editor of Independent Banker.