Big dreams sometimes need a bit of help. Here, four enterprising business owners share how their community banks have guided them through thick and thin—building deep, lasting relationships along the way.
By Roshan McArthur
A bigger piece of the pie
Amanda Wilbanks, Southern Baked Pie Company, Gainesville, Ga.
Amanda Wilbanks founded what is now the Southern Baked Pie Company in Gainesville, Ga., in 2012. She started by bringing sweet and savory pie recipes to life using a family recipe for all-butter pie dough. Today, she operates out of four locations statewide, ships her creations nationwide and is the author of her own pie cookbook, Southern Baked: Celebrating Life with Pie.
“I started out of my house, just baking for my family,” Wilbanks says. “I thought I would take the pies that I was baking to my neighbors, but then we would end up eating a pie before we ever made it to a neighbor’s house. My husband came in one day and said, ‘I think you need to start selling these.’ He said that on a Tuesday, and, by Thursday, I had started selling pies at local festivals here in Gainesville, and it just grew from there.”
Her bank of choice for this extraordinary journey has been $13.1 billion-asset United Community Bank in Blairsville, Ga.—and her banker of choice is Dawn Justus, its vice president and relationship manager for the greater Atlanta area.
“I would say that a big draw to United Community Bank was her,” Wilbanks says, “because I think women root for other women. When I started the business, I think she thought, ‘This is never going to work, but I’m not going to tell this poor girl that!’ She rooted for me. As a small business owner, when you start out and you only have $400 that you want to put in an account, most people would laugh at you. She didn’t, and that meant a lot to me. She still believes in me to this day, and now we’re a multimillion-dollar company.”
“As a small business owner, when you start out and you only have $400 that you want to put in an account, most people would laugh at you. She didn’t, and that meant a lot to me.”
Wilbanks’ main challenge was finding people to fund her fledgling business, and United Community Bank came through with a line of credit that started at $50,000. “It was just nice because they knew us personally,” she says. “They knew the company, and most of the bankers shop with us here in Gainesville, so I think they believed in it and they wanted to see it grow.”
That line of credit allowed Wilbanks to invest in equipment to build out a production facility and, more recently, to expand the business to a new location in Vinings, Ga. “I don’t know that I would have had as good an experience with a large bank, because they don’t necessarily know you as well,” she says. “My kids play ball with Dawn’s kids. It’s nice to have that community feeling.”
When the COVID-19 crisis hit, Wilbanks and Justus were calling and texting outside of office hours. “We just have that kind of a relationship,” Wilbanks says. “You need it at a time like this more than ever. This is the first crisis that we’ve ever been through. We called Dawn the day after President Trump made his first speech and said we need to start figuring out what we need to do here. So, we talked about the line of credit. We talked about the SBA loans that she thought would come through. We started getting our game plan together at the very beginning.”
The results have exceeded expectations so far. “We have not let anyone go, and we’ve kept running,” Wilbanks says. “It’s amazing. It really is.”
Carrie Morey, Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit, Charleston, S.C.
Fifteen years ago, Carrie Morey took her mother’s biscuit recipe, added a generous helping of ambition and founded Callie’s Charleston Biscuits, which she has since rebranded. Today, she sells products in more than 1,000 stores in U.S. and Canada; has four Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit eateries in Charleston, S.C., Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta; and operates a food truck. She also wrote a cookbook, Callie’s Biscuits and Southern Traditions, and operates an incubator with baking space and mentoring opportunities for artisan food businesses. It’s been a meteoric rise.
“It’s crazy that we have gotten to this level,” Morey says. “My eldest daughter was eight months old when we started the biscuit business, and now she’s 15 and a half. That’s surreal to me.”
Morey has been working with banker Shannon Smoak for more than a decade. Five years ago, Morey moved with Smoak to $2.4 billion-asset Southern First Bank in Charleston, where Smoak serves as a team leader and senior vice president.
“For me,” Morey says, “it’s super important to have a relationship with my banker and with a small bank. I have Shannon on speed dial, and I’m positive that I would not have the opportunities that I have had—whether it’s buying property, refinancing, additional lines of credit, expansion—without this relationship. I feel very strongly that this is such an important part of being an entrepreneur.”
Seven years ago, Smoak advised Morey to buy a building instead of leasing it, which has turned out to be a great investment for Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit.
“All growth involves money, so I go to her and say, ‘Can I afford this? Should I do this? Should I do it this way?’ And she always comes up with a different perspective. She thinks of it from a different angle. She takes the emotion from it,” Morey says. “I ask a question, and it’s rare that the answer is no. If the answer’s no, it’s, ‘No, we can’t do that, but we can do this.’ It’s powerful and comforting at the same time, especially right now.”
The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been easy on Morey’s business. “I’ve had to lay off over 40 people,” she says. “We’ve shut down all four of our retail locations, I’ve laid off six salaried managers [and] about 30 hourly people. I still have about 25 on payroll because I have an online shipping and wholesale division that ships to grocery stores. They’re staying afloat, so we are able to keep part of the company open, but three-fourths of our team has been laid off. And that’s not good. At all.”
But Smoak has provided her a sense of calm. “I think it’s imperative, as a female entrepreneur, to make sure that you protect yourself and that you surround yourself with experts,” Morey says. “Coming from someone who has banked with big institutions versus small community banks, I just think it’s a no-brainer. It’s part of your armor that you need to protect yourself. That lets me sleep at night.”
“Coming from someone who has banked with big institutions versus small community banks, I just think it’s a no-brainer. It’s part of your armor that you need to protect yourself. That lets me sleep at night.”
—Carrie Morey, Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit
Through the fire
Jamie Darling, Darling Pharmacy, Newport, Ark.
When Jamie Darling was in high school, her parents opened Darling Pharmacy in Newport, Ark. It became a mainstay of the community, an independent business that survived long after the local department store and other outlets had closed. Over the years, her involvement grew, and, in 2005, they added an adjacent building for Darling’s Fine Things, a boutique selling apparel, accessories and gifts.
Three years after the pharmacy opened in 1989, her family recruited the help of $260 million-asset Merchants and Planters Bank, also in Newport, and they’ve worked together ever since. “We were with another local bank before that and, when they were bought up by an out-of-town bank, we just stayed local and moved it over to M&P,” Darling says. “The bank is really supportive, and they do a good job of promoting local. Because I have relationships with the bankers, it’s a comfort to know you can just pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this problem, and this is what I need done.’”
“The bank is really supportive … because I have relationships with the bankers, it’s a comfort to know you can just pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this problem, and this is what I need done.’”
—Jamie Darling, Darling Pharmacy
One problem came at 7 a.m. on a Friday in 2012, when an electrical fire tore through the pharmacy. Darling recalls the community bank coming to the rescue in an unexpected way. “One of my close friends worked for the bank,” she says, “and when I got to the store, it being a small town, there were lots of friends here asking how they could help. By 10:30 that morning, the fire was still going on, but she and I had already secured a temporary location for us to open in on Monday. The bank owned that building, and they were just like, ‘Hey, whatever you need, just get in there, and tell us what we can do to help.’ They were great. We were in that building for a little over a year.”
Similarly, Merchants and Planters has been there for Darling during the pandemic. “We have been lucky because the pharmacy is an essential business, so we’re still open and functioning,” she says. “We’re in a lot better shape than a lot of people. I called my banker [Randy Ramsey, vice president and loan officer] and said I need to do this PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] application. I turned it in yesterday, then I got an email this morning saying, ‘New application form. Fill this out.’ Had I been with a big bank, do you think that would have happened?”
Along with Ramsey, Merchants and Planters’ president and CEO, Jim Gowen Jr., and Joey Treadway, vice president of sales at the bank’s insurance division, have worked with Darling.
So far, Darling hasn’t had to lay any workers off due to the pandemic. “We just had to shift our gears a little bit,” she says. “Friends are making a special effort to support us. It’s been mostly my female friends who are also business owners, who are trying to pay it forward to each other, and I see a lot of that going on right now. While it’s not quite business as usual, we’ve had some really good days.”
‘Everything we do is local’
Amy Mills, 17th Street Barbecue, Murphysboro, Ill.
Amy Mills has barbecue in her blood. The daughter of Mike “The Legend” Mills, she joined the family business, 17th Street Barbecue, in 2000 and took over running it four years ago. In the process, she used her experience in advertising and public relations to propel the brand onto the national stage. Today, there are two restaurants in Murphysboro and Marion, Ill., an event and catering facility and a mail-order operation, as well as two Memphis Championship Barbecues in Las Vegas. She is also the author of James Beard award-winning Peace, Love and Barbecue and the director of a consulting firm.
Mills uses several banks but primarily $700 million-asset First Southern Bank in Marion, where she works with president and CEO John Dosier and Mike Hopkins, senior vice president of commercial lending.
“We’re very community focused,” she says. “Everything we do is local. We try to get our gas at the only locally owned gas station. We try to shop at all the locally owned businesses. Local is a theme that has reverberated from childhood on, and it’s more important than ever right now.”
Recently, Mills decided to open a barbecue sauce factory inside a former car dealership near the Murphysboro restaurant. It has been a labor of love, she says, proving to be far more challenging and expensive than expected. However, First Southern Bank has been with her every step of the way. In January, her contractor quit, and when she secured a replacement, the COVID-19 crisis hit. Luckily, construction is still considered essential work, and the business is on track for a summer opening.
“[First Southern Bank] has just been tremendous,” Mills says. “We have gone over budget, and they have been very gracious. They are keenly interested in our success, and they are interested in helping our town, so it’s a two-pronged approach. We used to be in about 50 grocery stores, and now we’re in almost 1,000. This facility will allow us to regulate our production and also to co-pack for other people. That will allow for more business from other regions to come into our town, and that will be huge for economic development.”
“[First Southern Bank] has just been tremendous. We have gone over budget, and they have been very gracious. They are keenly interested in our success, and they are interested in helping our town.”
—Amy Mills, 17th Street Barbecue
When the COVID-19 shutdown started, the first phone calls she received were from First Southern Bank. “They said, ‘What do you need? We’re here for you.’ That was so comforting. … They’ve been helpful getting all the PPP paperwork done and making sure that we were among the first to be uploaded to the system.
Mills says her company had to lay off 100 people when the restaurants closed due to the shutdown. “It’s affected everything,” she says. “It’s not only us, but it’s this concentric circle. It affects our suppliers, from the people who do our laundry and pick up our trash to the people who deliver our food—every single person with whom we do business.”
She says she hopes never to see anything like this again, but she credits key relationships—her banker, her insurance agent, her CPA and her attorney—for getting the company through this so far.
“Those are the people who have been on the phone with me saying, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do to get you through this,’” Mills says. “Those relationships are everything.”
Roshan McArthur is a writer in California.