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Gage carries on four-generation tradition of banking

Port Gibson — As a fourth-generation banker, the financial business comes naturally to Robert Douglas Gage IV. He is chairman of the board of RiverHills Bank, which was chartered as Port Gibson Bank in 1890. The name was changed in 1999 when two branches were opened in Vicksburg and reflects two things the towns have in common.

In 1916, the current Gage’s great grandfather, Judge R.D. Gage, returned from Texas to his native Port Gibson and bought the controlling interest in the local bank. There has been a Gage at the helm ever since. The bank survived the Great Depression and has remained open all these years through good and bad times.

The bank’s predecessor closed in 1864 when Gen. U.S. Grant marched through the beautiful river town, and, like many other Southern banks, never reopened. RiverHills Bank occupies that bank’s historical building on Market Street that was constructed in 1840.

Robert Gage graduated from Ole Miss with a business degree in banking and finance then went on to graduate from the university’s law school. Going into the family business seemed the natural thing to do.

“I thought I would do it until I decided what I wanted to do and I stayed,” he recalls. “My dad got ill and I got to run an institution at an early age when my dad became chairman of the board and I became president at 28.”

Now, at age 50, he says banking has been an interesting career and that good, positive things have happened. “I’ve enjoyed banking. My dad did not pressure me to go into it,” he said “I have mixed emotions about what my son will do. I want him to do what he wants to do.”

He laughingly says that his 12-year-old son Robert Douglas (they chose not to give him a number) is already smarter than he is but at this point doesn’t know what he wants to do. He says he couldn’t get his daughter, Virginia, interested in banking. She’s a senior at Ole Miss, majoring in art and art history.

Gage finds complying with constantly changing government regulations the biggest challenge of banking today. “I think most bankers would say the amount and extent of regulations we’re under is a challenge,” he said. “The basic functions of banking have not changed, but the rules are constantly changing.”

While he acknowledges that the regulations serve a purpose, he thinks the entire financial character of the nation has become more sophisticated over the years, and that the September 11 tragedy brought in another wave of changes.

“These new threats and security are very important issues for banks,” he said.

Asked what his forbears would think of banking in today’s world, he answered, “It can’t be printed. They wouldn’t recognize it.”

Gone are the days when customers wrote down the amount they wanted to borrow on a simple piece of paper and sealed the deal with a handshake. Gage says it’s harder for smaller banks to keep up with the constant changes, but Riverhills Bank will remain a community bank. There have been overtures from large banks but he is not interested. That doesn’t mean, however, the bank won’t grow. In 1999, the bank had $65 million and today has $155 million because of the Vicksburg branches.

“I just happened to be running the bank at this time,” he says. “We have a great team of people.”

The expansion into Vicksburg came about when small banks were being bought out in the Warren County town. “We thought it was an opportunity to open there,” Gage said. “We felt people there needed a local, regional bank and we sold stock locally.”

Although there are no plans to open other branches at this time, he said RiverHills Bank will keep its options open.

“A lot of people want to bank with community banks that are not big and all over the place,” he said. “We are not the bank for everyone but some want the kind of service we provide. We’ve put together a seasoned team of employees. Personal service has always been a hallmark of our bank.”

The ability to help people — things like buying a first house and building a business — is the reward of banking for Robert Gage. “When they do well, we do well,” he said. “Banking is definitely a people business.”

RiverHills Bank has moved into the computer age by having a Web site and offering Internet banking along with traditional banking services.

Gage tells a story about a bank examiner, an old man, who came to the bank. “He was a perfect gentleman and did a good job,” he said. “He told me he had examined the bank under four generations of my family, and that was something special to me.”

Gage, a law school graduate, is a member of the state bar association but has never hung out a shingle. Still, he uses his legal education every day. “A legal education is a great basic education if you’re in business,” he said. “Knowledge of law is helpful.”

When he’s not working, Gage likes to hunt and play golf. He also likes to travel and go to Ole Miss football games with his wife, Jacquelyn. His family has been active in the Mississippi Bankers Association since the organization was started. Another special interest is his involvement with Alcorn State University as a member of the foundation for 20 years. His father, Robert Gage III, was an original member of the foundation when it was incorporated.

“It’s so rewarding to see these kids get that help they need to go to school,” he said. “Dr. Clinton Bristow has done a great job and has attracted a great caliber of students to the university.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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