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BankPlus pursues solid growth strategy

A Mississippi Business Journal interview with Billy Ray, CEO of BankPlus

William Allen “Bill” Ray has been CEO of BankPlus for the last 12 of his 15 years with the bank.

A new branch in Madison is opening up soon, and BankPlus is geared for future expansion in the metro Jackson area over the next several years.

Ray talked to the Mississippi Business Journal about the short and long-term goals of the bank that was founded in 1909 and about trends in the banking industry.

Mississippi Business Journal: Does BankPlus plan to expand its current territory to include north Mississippi?

Bill Ray: We have no plans to expand into north Mississippi. We are 22 banking offices in 16 communities in the Delta, central, east and south Mississippi. Our current focus is major expansion in the metro Jackson area. Over the next 18 months, we plan to hire up to 100 employees.

The first phase of our plan began a year ago when we made the acquisition of The Mortgage Corporation of Mississippi based in Ridgeland that now operates as the BankPlus Mortgage Center in which we also have a small banking office.

We have opened a banking office at the Depot in Madison and plan to soon open the main office on Strawberry Hill Drive. We started construction last year, and the main office should be open this fall. We plan to add another branch in Madison near the intersection of Highway 463 and Highland Colony Parkway by the end of next year.

We are in the process of acquiring properties for future branches in Ridgeland, the Reservoir and Castlewoods areas of Rankin County and Clinton for building through the year 2000.

MBJ: Why are you focusing on the metro Jackson area rather than other areas?

BR: The metro Jackson area is a natural extension of where we currently have banking offices. The current focus is a function of the changes that are occurring in the banking market and environment in metro Jackson.

The four larger banks – Deposit Guaranty, Union Planters, Trustmark and Bank of Mississippi – are all strong banks that do an outstanding job, but they are larger regional banks with a larger bank focus.

We feel there is still a niche for a true community bank, which we are. We are independently owned and we focus on serving the needs of our customers in the community.

When you look at where we`re putting branches, they`re in separate communities with their own community identity. Madison has a sense of being Madison, and the same can be said about Ridgeland, Clinton and different areas of Rankin County.

As a community bank, we are providing services to separate us from the larger regional banks that operate more out of downtown Jackson.

MBJ: BankPlus has grown quite a bit over the last several years. What`s the game plan?

BR: We`ve made six acquisitions in the last eight years. We`ve grown from a small $100 million community bank primarily in the Delta, to a $620 million community bank. We have a core team that`s been together for the last 10 or 12 years as we`ve pursued this growth and acquisition strategy. As we`ve grown, we`ve added additional expertise. In 1994, we changed the name from Citizens Bank & Trust Company to BankPlus.

At this point, we don`t have any acquisition candidates or targets we`re pursuing, so we`re looking to grow internally by branching into new markets. The focus over the next few years is metro Jackson. When we complete that part of our plan, we`ll move on to other markets that fit our overall long-term plan, which is to remain an independent, community bank and to continue to pursue growth through branching opportunities in new markets or through acquisitions.

MBJ: Is BankPlus for sale?

BR: No, that`s not part of our plan at all. At this point, being acquired has never come up; it`s never been an issue. For the last eight years, we`ve been very focused on our acquisition and growth strategy and continue to be focused on that. With independent ownership, we can control growth in a niche market.

MBJ: What makes your bank different?

BR: Small business owners and consumers come into our community banks and are greeted by people they know from that local area. People that work in our branches are people who customers go to church with, see in the grocery stores, and whose children go to the same schools. Customers appreciate the continuity of the same staff from year to year and the personal level of service that a community bank offers. That`s part of the reason people are living in communities rather than living in larger urban area.

Local officers and employees in each branch are responsible for taking care of customer loans and deposit needs so those of us in system administration can perform administrative roles without being heavily involved in local branches.

We have a president in each community who is ultimately responsible for the bank branches in that community. With that approach, we`ve been able to serve our customers well.

Danny Flowers will be the president of our Madison branch. He has spent the last 12 years in bank offices in Birmingham and Montgomery suburbs. Both cities are about the same size as Jackson, so he fits our plans very well.

MBJ: What changes, if any, do you plan to make within the organizational structure?

BR: We have been making changes over the last two years in preparation of growing in the metro Jackson market. Those changes, which are all in place, included bringing our product and service line up to speed to be competitive with larger regional banks. We accomplished that when we acquired The Mortgage Corporation of Mississippi so we now offer a full line of home mortgage products.

Also, in the last year, we added online banking and a Web site. We felt strongly that going through the Internet`s Web site was really the direction in which to head. It will be one of the major innovations moving forward and usage will continue to grow every year. We offer a Visa check card and that usage will continue to increase. When people become accustomed to using it, they`ll find it`s more convenient and easier than writing checks.

Other products we`ve developed over the last few years include two extremes on the checking account side. One is an Investment Plus Checking, a high-yield account with a $10,000 minimum balance.

The other is ValuePlus Free Checking, an account that`s completely free with no minimum balance. My children, ages 12 and 16, both have ValuePlus accounts, and they use an ATM card and go online to check their accounts. It`s an excellent financial learning tool for kids. We also have accounts in the middle of the two extremes. We tried to structure a range of products that meets specific needs of people at different points in their lives. We`ve tried to consolidate accounts and have the fewest number of products to fit needs and yet add more value.

MBJ: How have you positioned BankPlus in the marketplace?

BR: By marketing value-added products and providing personal service. For example, we were one of the first banks in the state to introduce check imaging more than five years ago. It`s been one of the most successful new services that we`ve provided our customers. With check imaging, instead of getting an envelope filled with cancelled checks that you have to try to keep up with, you get your statement and all of your checks already lined up in numerical sequence on sheets of paper that are hole-punched that you can drop into a binder for easy recordkeeping.

MBJ: What is the biggest challenge your bank faces?

BR: Non-bank competitors. They are not subject to the same regulations that community banks are subject to, and they don`t offer FDIC-insured products. Often, non-banks may mislead customers into thinking what they`re offering is safe and has less risk than it does. Also, they don`t reinvest in the local communit

About Lynne W. Jeter

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