Delta banker James H. Clayton began his college education thinking he’d become a petroleum engineer, but says physics changed his mind. He also had a bit of inclination to go to law school and decided against that. Engineering’s and law’s loss was definitely banking’s gain.
Clayton, 55, is chairman of the board and CEO of Indianola-based Planters Bank & Trust Company where he has worked for 31 years and served as president and CEO from 1984 to 2003. He is also the newly elected chairman of the Mississippi Bankers Association and serves on the association’s political action committee.
“Banking as a career was really not in my plans during college,” he says. “My graduate education had an emphasis on finance and marketing. A couple of my roommates were banking and finance majors. I can vividly remember telling them several times that I would never be caught working in a bank.”
That all changed with a visit to his wife Ellen’s parents’ home in Indianola in early 1975. Clayton was approached by Farmer Hamilton to work in a marketing position at Peoples Bank of Indianola.
“I took that position and have never regretted being a part of the banking profession,” he says. “I had the opportunity to learn from Mr. Hamilton, Greg Taylor, Bobby Barr and Frank Sibley, who all were or have become presidents of banks.”
After a year at Peoples Bank, a opportunity arose for Clayton at the competitor bank in town, the Indianola office of Planters Bank, when president Henry Paris invited him to join that institution.
“It was a tough decision to leave such a fine institution that gave me a start in banking, but it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” he recalls. “Sometimes in life you are in the right place at the right time, and this was it for me.”
The year was 1976 and Paris and Clayton had less than two years banking experience between them.
“We dug in and learned together and made our share of mistakes over the years,” he says. “What Henry lacked in banking knowledge was more then compensated for by his business savvy and people skills. He had been very successful in the grocery business, which served him well in the banking field.”
Clayton feels good people providing excellent service was and is the key to any successful business. Finding innovative ways to reward those people is also important.
“Our board of directors has always been supportive of initiatives to provide benefits for our employees to enhance retention,” he says. “We really have a family atmosphere at the bank, which makes it a great place to work and stay for the long haul. We currently have 13 officers who have been with the bank for over 25 years. Our human resources manager just finished her 45th year.”
He says Planters Bank has been successful over the years by focusing on personal customer service and empowering employees to provide quality service. The bank has nine locations and serves a large area that includes the Delta counties of Sunflower, Leflore, Bolivar, Washington and Humphreys. Assets are $500 million.
“The challenges of banking in the Delta are unique because the area is very dependent on agriculture. A lot of the economy and the banking business relate to agriculture,” Clayton says. “We’ve been losing population for several years and growth in banking is dependent on population.”
He adds that it’s hard to meet certain expectations with a declining population. Some Delta banks are moving outside the region to participate in growth in other areas.
“It’s hard to attract industry to the Delta, but on the positive side, we have abundant water and land,” he says. “We’re branching out to grow and we’re adding value to our agricultural economy. The future is bright.”
Clayton grew up in Meridian in a close-knit family of our. All of his grandparents, uncles and aunts lived in the area and gave him a broad support system.
“My father was a quiet, gentle man who was very caring and compassionate. My mother always encouraged me to do my very best in school,” he says. “She and my father wanted a better life for their children, which has always been a driving force for me.”
He says Meridian was a great place to grow up and seemed much bigger to him as a child. He feels he benefited from an excellent public school system and graduated from Meridian High School in 1969 in a class of 600 students. He obtained under graduate and graduate degrees from Mississippi State University.
Clayton and his wife, Ellen, met on a blind date during college. They were married in Indianola in 1973 and are celebrating their 34th anniversary this summer.
“She was a ‘W’ girl, and I spent a lot of time in Columbus during my undergraduate years,” he says.
The Claytons are the parents of two daughters and one son and have two grandchildren. When not working, Clayton likes to follow MSU athletic teams, especially basketball. He also enjoys reading and watching TV and movies. He says he doesn’t cook but makes great sandwiches. His favorite meal is homegrown tomatoes, fired okra, butterbeans and cornbread.
He says people might be surprised to learn that he has always enjoyed singing and took tap dancing lessons as a child — something that didn’t last long.
His community involvement includes service with the Indianola Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club, Delta Council, Indianola Academy and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.