Brad Bolton’s journey to banking

Community Spirit Bank still has its old vault, but Brad Bolton’s approach to community banking is decidedly modern. Photo by Scotty Kennedy Photography

Brad Bolton, president and CEO of Community Spirit Bank, is taking the reins as chairman of ICBA for 2022/23. He tells us why he believes independent community banks are so important and how he aims to ensure his bank’s longevity.

By Kelly Pike

Brad Bolton was eating dinner after touring Mississippi State University with his oldest daughter when his phone rang.

Bolton and wife Julie Bolton visit customer Bostick Farms in Nov. 2021.

A longtime bank customer was in distress. His manufacturing plant was on fire, and it was looking like a complete loss. If the customer couldn’t find a new building and get back into production quickly, 40 employees would be out of a job and the business would risk losing its largest contract.

Bolton, president and CEO of $175 million-asset Community Spirit Bank in Red Bay, Ala., sprang into action. Once his customer identified a new location, Bolton made a deal for $300,000 over the phone, staking the community bank’s reputation on the promise that if the building owner let the business in to begin producing right away, the deal would close soon after. On Bolton’s word, the customer’s company was back in production within a week.

Bolton being voted Best Boss in Franklin County, Alabama, summer 2021.

“He had the confidence to pick up the phone and know we’ll answer and go to work immediately to solve that problem,” says Bolton, who posts his cell phone number on the bank website for just this reason. “It’s taking ownership and knowing that’s how I’d want to be treated.”

Interactions like these are life-changing for customers, but they aren’t unique to Community Spirit Bank. They are the lifeblood of independent community banks across the country, Bolton says, and the reason he’s taking on the role of ICBA chairman for 2022/23.

“Community banks step up in a moment of crisis,” he says. “They are truly there for their customers in good times or bad.” In particular, he notes the instrumental role community banks like his played in helping customers through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

But there are also challenges. Top of mind for Bolton is ensuring bank boards develop the next generation of community bank leaders so that communities can continue to flourish. It’s more than succession planning; it’s “community continuation,” he says, noting that the best way locally owned community banks can protect the communities they serve is by remaining independent.

The banker from Red Bay

Bolton isn’t the first banker from Red Bay, a rural town of 3,000, to recognize that no one understands the needs of a community better than the people who work at independent community banks. Community Spirit Bank was founded in 1908 when 14 townspeople pooled $15,000 to start it. By the 1950s, Dr. Z.L. Weatherford had a controlling interest in the bank, and left instructions for Bolton’s father, Billy M. Bolton, and another senior vice president to ensure the bank remained independent.

Bolton with Emily Mays, vice president/chief administrative officer at Community Spirit Bank, at the grand opening of the bank’s second in-school financial literacy center in 2019

Bolton with Mays and Red Bay High School teachers presenting masks for students in 2020

Billy Bolton used Weatherford’s shares to develop a holding company owned and controlled by an employee stock ownership program (ESOP). Today, the ESOP owns 58% of the bank (and serves as a valuable employee retention tool), and Billy Bolton is still the bank’s chairman, having also served as president and CEO during his 57-year career with the bank.

Despite his father’s prominent role at Community Spirit Bank, Brad Bolton didn’t plan to become a community banker. During summer breaks from high school, he spent lots of time at the bank mowing the lawn and working as a teller—a task he handed down to his son just two years ago—but he didn’t really understand the role the bank served until he began taking economics and business classes in college, and talking to his father about it.

“The more I learned about it, the more I wanted to be a part of it,” he says of the ag bank that today has five branches that serve four counties in Alabama and neighboring Mississippi.

His lessons soon became more practical when Community Spirit went through turbulent times in the late 1990s and early 2000s while facing loan quality issues. Bolton put his college degree on hold for the time being and got to work.

“If it could go wrong, it did,” he recalls. “I felt like I had to focus my energy on helping. It really made me a better community banker, because I saw bad loans, charge-offs and the regulatory reaction to going through hard times.”

Acquiring knowledge

Bolton with his wife, Julie Bolton

Hunting with son Brady and daughter Bailey in 2020

This experience led Bolton to want to learn everything he could about the community bank’s capital adequacy, asset quality, management, earnings, liquidity and sensitivity (CAMELS) so he’d understand what he needed to do to make sure the bank was on as sound a footing as possible. He attended his state association’s community banking association school and then Barret Graduate School of Banking in Memphis, Tenn., but then he decided he needed to finish his undergraduate degree to be the best banker he could.

“Finishing my degree was the hardest two-and-a-half years, because I was working full-time while being married with three young kids,” says Bolton, who succeeded his father as CEO in 2011.

Today, he is motivated to find and educate the next generation of “community continuators.” He sends at least two or three of Community Spirit Bank’s rising stars to banking programs not just so they can train but so they can befriend, support and learn from other young community bankers.

Bolton also encourages young bankers to focus on CAMELS, because it includes everything that affects the bank.

Just as important, he challenges them to live up to the community bank’s mission to be accessible, responsible and accountable. “I always tell staff to look at two things,” he says. “How many leaders are they growing in their ranks and developing to do their job better, and how many referrals are they getting from existing customers? If you’re not getting at least one or two customers a month, look at how you’re treating the customers.”

Tradition meets technology

Bolton with John Ramage of Troy Bank & Trust Company, left, and outgoing ICBA chairman Bob Fisher at ICBA’s fall 2021 meeting

Bolton with Fisher, ICBA past chairman Noah Wilcox and past ICBA chairman Preston Kennedy

Technology plays a key role in customer care, too. Community Spirit Bank has been a market leader when adopting new technologies, from mobile check deposits and deposit-taking ATMs to peer-to-peer payments and business payments on the bank’s mobile app. It’s essential for a bank that serves a broad range of customers with varied needs—everything from one to four family residential mortgages (30% of Community Spirit’s loan portfolio) to lending to poultry producers and the logging industry.

“That’s what community bankers in rural America have to be,” says Bolton. “They may be making a home loan decision, and then 30 minutes later they’re with a small business that sells tractors, and the next with a small business that wants to expand and needs a commercial real estate loan. We focus on the commercial and the consumer.”

Community Spirit has also leveraged technology to retain customers who move out of the area while still providing personal banking touches. Not long ago, a customer who moved to North Carolina for work had his mobile deposit rejected and emailed Bolton to ask why. Bolton promptly asked the CFO and responded personally at 7 p.m. on a Thursday, explaining the man had forgotten to put his account number on the back of the check.

“We want to protect our heritage as an old bank but also make sure people don’t perceive us as an old bank,” says Bolton. “There’s not a service offered at any of the largest banks that we can’t provide for our customers.”

To keep pace, Community Spirit Bank is currently undergoing a core conversion, replacing a core system that was put in place when Bolton was six years old. The goal is to become more efficient and serve customers better, even if it means a few growing pains along the way.

“It’s going to unfortunately disrupt customers somewhat and affect every aspect of their banking relationship, but we’re trying to make it as easy as possible,” he says. “We’re taking ownership and making ourselves available extra hours. We’ll all benefit when we’re on the other side of it.”

Looking out for everyone

Bolton knows his staff is up to the challenge, having already demonstrated tenacity, patience and an above-and-beyond dedication to customer service when implementing the PPP program.

Community Spirit Bank funded 250 PPP loans worth $10.7 million, saving more than 1,600 jobs. It also modified more than 150 loans worth $4.5 million, deferring payments for plants that had to shut down and for single-family mortgages the bank keeps on its books.

Brad with wife Julie, Bob and Beth Fisher, and Kennedy with wife Charel.

Yet Bolton felt it wasn’t enough. He was troubled that self-employed people, including farmers, were left out of the first two rounds of PPP funding, and is convinced that community bankers made the difference in reaching out to Congress to advocate for the inclusion of Schedule C and F borrowers in the third round of PPP funding.

“What we do truly matters to the customers we serve,” says Bolton. “So many people are counting on us that it’s worth the sacrifices to advocate for our industry, because there are so many people with no voice counting on us to be there.”

It’s a message he plans to spread to community bankers across the country as ICBA chairman. Bolton is a natural leader who has served on Red Bay City Council since 2008, is an appointed member of the Franklin County Community Development Commission and just completed a six-year term on the Atlanta Federal Reserve Board’s Community Depository Institution Advisory Council. He therefore understands the importance of working together to be heard and achieve a goal for the greater good. He also knows there is plenty of work to be done to protect Main Street and the community banks that serve it.

“The fights are never over,” he says. “There are always arrows coming from a new direction at our industry and our franchise.”

Yet Bolton remains optimistic about the future and about community bankers’ ability to successfully advocate with the help of ICBA.

“ICBA is that lone voice in Washington, D.C., dedicated solely to my community bank’s success and other community banks’ success,” he says, “and I hope I can inspire executives and community bankers across the country to value that independent, unique voice that is community banking and do whatever they can to protect it. It’s not enough for a few of us. It takes all of us.”

Love at first convention

Illustration by Tony Healey

Brad Bolton caught the advocacy bug in 2011 shortly after taking over as CEO of Community Spirit Bank. Attending ICBA LIVE in San Diego, his first ICBA convention as an adult, he was blown away by session after session and the way community bankers came together.

“I left with ICBA providing for me what I try to provide for my customers: that wow moment,” he recalls. “The atmosphere, the content, the general sessions—I was just blown away.”

He soon found himself paying more attention to advocacy at the state level, speaking out about the importance of community banks retaining their own independent voice when his two state associations merged. His work caught the notice of other community bankers, who invited him to serve on an ICBA committee.

“I didn’t even know they had committees,” he says. “I just wanted to serve.”

Since then, Bolton has been a fixture on ICBA’s committees and boards, including Policy Development, Nominating, Safety and Soundness, Bank Operations and Payments, and Bank Education, among others. He’s also chairman of the Federal Delegate Board, an ex-officio member of the ICBA Reinsurance board of directors and a former member of the Mutual Bank Council.

A banking family

Bolton with his father, Billy M. Bolton, and oldest daughter Brooklyn

Ask a historian about banking families and they might tell you about the Medicis or the Morgans, but the real banking families that matter today are community bankers like the Boltons.

Incoming ICBA chairman Brad Bolton has been with Community Spirit Bank going on 26 years—not counting the years he spent visiting his dad or doing homework at the branch as a child.

He took over as president and CEO in 2011, succeeding his father Billy M. Bolton, who retains his role as chairman, coming into work each day—even after 57 years at the bank.

Bolton’s oldest sister, Tammy Montgomery, has been at the bank 37 years, serving as chief operating officer, while middle sister Karla Wright is a cashier and has been with Community Spirit Bank 25 years. Montgomery’s husband, Mike, a 27-year bank employee, runs the bank’s Belmont, Miss., branch.

Now the third generation is coming aboard. Bolton’s niece, Kalee, and his oldest daughter, Brooklyn, work full-time at the bank, while his middle daughter, Bailey, is a part-time employee who will soon be studying at college to become an educator like her mom.

Bolton doesn’t know if his high schooler, Brady, plans to follow in his family’s footsteps, but he knows his wife, Julie, will always have his back. She left her job as a teacher to support Bolton as he crisscrosses the country this year to speak out for community banks like theirs. “You hear some stories of families not getting along, but it’s truly a blessing that we all get this opportunity to work with each other, respect each other and carry on what Dad established for us,” Bolton says.

Kelly Pike is a writer in Virginia.