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Local banks flourish in competitive Laurel market

In the five months between September 1998 and January 1999, two locally-owned banks opened in Laurel, even though the city was already being served by such large banks as Trustmark, Community and AmSouth.

Both new banks, the Bank of Jones County (BJC) and the First National Bank of the Pine Belt (FNBPB), have flourished against the big-bank competition, though they’ve followed different paths and the FNBPB has changed its name to The First.

The Bank of Jones County started out with 44 original investors, according to BJC president Rodney Cockerham. In the first 9-1/2 business days, $7 million in stock was sold.

“The investors provided the seed money,” he said. “It was their money that was at risk.” Cockerham added that the bank now has 325-350 stockholders.

“During our first 26 weeks, we grew at the rate of a million dollars a week. We became profitable in our 10th month of operation and this year we’re paying a dividend for the third straight year.”

Cockerham said that, after 5 1/2 years, BJC has $121 million in assets.

When BJC opened its doors on September 21, 1998, they occupied temporary quarters while a headquarters were being built. In May, 1999, the bank moved into its new headquarters on Highway 84 West. In 2000, a branch was opened in Ellisville, seven miles south of Laurel.

“We’ve flourished because the big banks had grown cool and insensitive to customers’ needs,” Cockerham said. “We give personal attention to our customers. And if someone comes in with a need, all our decisions are local decisions, instead of being made 90 or 200 miles away.”

BJC is the only Laurel bank that is totally owned by local people, Cockerham said.

Future plans don`t, at this time, call for any expansion outside of Jones County, though branches might be opened in other county communities.

“The thrust of our charter is to take care of people`s banking needs and interests in Jones County,” Cockerham said. “We’re just delighted to be serving the local community and helping friends with financial needs.”

Before becoming president of BJC, Cockerham had served as president of Laurel`s Trustmark National Bank and before that had worked at the Laurel Federal Savings and Loan Association. In April 2004, he will have been in the banking business for 30 years, all but one of them in local banking.

The Bank of Jones County`s board of directors includes Ronnie Clark, chairman, Melvin Daniels, Wendell Gavin, Bob Sullivan, Billy Taylor, Cyndi Howard McCoy, Lowell Howell and Cockerham.

Going with The First

The First National Bank of the Pine Belt opened for business in temporary headquarters on 16th Avenue in January 1999. Since then, the name has been changed to The First and the bank now occupies a large

two-story building that is fronted by white columns.

Fifteen Laurel citizens who wanted a local bank made the original investment and put their money at risk, including Bill Renovich, who`s now the bank`s president, according to Rhonda Brooks, a vice president. She said that the bank has many stockholders.

In 2002, The First started paying dividends.

“Honestly, it`s tough to survive against the big banks, when you first start out,” according to senior vice president Danny Glenn. “You’ve got to grow to provide in-house services such as trust service and investments.”

“But, I have 30 years in the banking business in Laurel, including 17 at Trustmark,” Glenn said. “Tommy Tidwell and Rhonda Brooks each has 20-plus years of banking experience. That`s one reason we’re flourishing. We’ve each been in the banking business for so many years here.”

He said that knowing so many people when The First started out gave them a good potential customer base and many of their old customers followed them to the new bank.

“Our employees are our greatest asset,” Brooks said. “When people think of a bank, they don`t think of a building, they think of the people.”

Brooks said that a small bank such as The First was much more personalized than the big banks.

“When people come into our bank, they’re acknowledged, greeted like a neighbor,” she said. “Service has to be the number one priority in making your bank stand out. People appreciate professional but friendly attention.”

The area on 16th Avenue around the bank is currently undergoing extensive development. Renovich said that the intensive interest in the area underscores the value and importance of the location.

“We went to extremes to secure this property,” Renovich said. “This is the center of commercial activity.”

Glenn said that the bank has the best possible location, just a stone`s throw from Wal-Mart. He added that, “A lot of due diligence went into getting this location.”

In the future, Glenn sees The First doing pretty much what it`s doing today. He said that a Laurel branch is possible and that he’d like to see a drive-up ATM machine at another Laurel location.

When the First National Bank of the Pine Belt changed its name to The First, it was just a name change, according to Glenn, and nothing else changed.

“From the beginning when the Laurel investors wanted to start a local bank, they did it through First Bancshares, a holding company in Hattiesburg, which had the First National Bank of South Mississippi. That Hattiesburg bank is our sister bank and the holding company is still the same.”

Glenn said that by changing both bank`s names to The First, there would be huge savings in administration.

Hattiesburg`s The First has branches in Oak Grove and Purvis and will open a Picayune branch headed by Hoppy Cole in late April. Glenn said that Laurel`s The First`s customers can bank at any branch of The First.

The First features Internet banking, bill pay and 24-hour voice access, according to Glenn, as well as mortgages, free checking with overdraft protection and no service charge or minimum balance.

Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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