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Merchants & Planters banks on tradition, technology

RAYMOND — It was a typical 9 a.m. in historic Raymond. Mockingbirds sang. Trees swayed. People passed greetings. And Merchants & Planters Bank opened its doors for another business day.

Merchants & Planters hasn’t been in Raymond since the city’s founding, it just seems that way. After almost a century set dead in the heart of the community, the bank is still at the same locale, a Kilby is still president and the bank remains fiercely loyal and committed to the locals.

“Merchants & Planters refused to shut its doors during the Depression because this was the community’s bank, and this bank wasn’t going to let the local people down,” said H.R. “Dick” Kilby Jr., 52, who is the third Kilby to be president of the bank. “My father told me over and over again, ‘Son, don’t forget about the local guy.’”

While the bank has kept focus on retaining that small-bank atmosphere and feel, it has grown in locations and assets, and is now offering high-tech banking right along with the bigger players.

Merchants & Planters was founded February 1906 at the site of its current main office on the town square. According to Kilby, community banks flourished then, but many didn’t survive, while Merchants & Planters today remains locally-owned.

Kilby grew up in and around the bank. He left Raymond High School and attended hometown Hinds Community College and Mississippi State University, earning a degree in finance. He said he always knew he was coming back home.

“I graduated in May 1971 on a Sunday. The next Monday morning, I was here at this office at 8 a.m.,” he said with a wry smile.

Eight years later Kilby, the bank and the community were stunned by the sudden death of H.R. Kilby Sr. The board found his replacement nearby.

“They stuck their neck out and chose me,” Kilby said. “I was only 30 years old, and I was most uneasy about my abilities to do the job. But I got a lot of support from them and others, and we’re still open.”

In fact, the bank recovered in time to open its first branch out on Mississippi 18 that same year. Kilby said the branch was the bank’s inaugural attempt to reach toward the metro Jackson area, as well as to offer other amenities, ease parking woes at the main office and provide easy access to Hinds Community College personnel.

In 1987, Merchants & Planters bought Merchants Bank of Bolton. The two banks had common shareholders, and it was decided in the name of efficiency to merge the two. So, the $3-million Bolton bank joined the Merchants & Planters family.

Kilby said by the early 1990s the bank was seeing a lot of excess capital and they looked at prospective sights in the metro Jackson area in which to enter. The bank chose Clinton, and in 1992 set up a temporary building. In 1995, it completed a brand new, permanent office. Kilby said, with the coming of MCI/WorldCom and the general exponential growth the city has experienced and continues to see, the decision to go into Clinton has proven wise.

Two years later, Merchants & Planters decided its next step outside Raymond would be global in nature. In 1997 the bank began the development of an online banking component. In 1998 www.mpbank.net was launched offering check imaging, bill payment and other features.

Last year, Merchants & Planters brought yet another product into its mix — mortgage brokerage.

Thus, today Merchants & Planters is a $53-million institution maintaining four offices in three cities using 53 full-time equivalent employees. Not only does it offer a full slate of banking products and services, it also offers Internet access and mortgage brokerage service, a truly unique mix for a small-town bank.

“A lot of the bigger banks say, ‘You have to be more efficient. You have to have so many dollars per so many employees’,” Kilby said. “But to do that, you have to fire people. Then customer service suffers. The big banks are making money by cutting customer service.

“Customer service isn’t free. Our shareholders have been willing to accept returns that were lower than they might have been, but they understood that customer service costs something. If we lose focus on the local customer, on one-on-one service, we have destroyed the foundation this bank is built upon.”

Kilby said he saw high-tech offerings and non-traditional products and services as another option for its customers, and would only be a threat if Merchants & Planters ever got too far away from its root stock.

“We make three-digit loans and we make six-digit loans,” he said. “We will continue to do that. If someone wants to borrow $500 online, great. If they want to come in and shake my hand, I’m usually always here.

“I hope the bank five or 10 years from now still looks the same. We’ll have a few more branches, a few more zeroes after the numbers. But if we’ve lost the atmosphere we have now, if somehow we lost sight of the local guy, I would be crushed.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016.

About Wally Northway

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