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BankPlus: 100 years old and still growing

It perhaps was not headline news March 12, 1909, when a small bank in the tiny Delta city of Belzoni opened for business. However, 100 years later that financial institution, now called BankPlus, gets plenty of ink as it continues to thrive and grow.

“We are proud to reach this anniversary, marking 100 years of service to the people of Mississippi, a milestone made more meaningful given the current economic climate,” said Bill Ray, BankPlus president and CEO. “The success and strength of BankPlus can be attributed to our high-performance employees that have an unwavering commitment to customer care and the communities we serve. BankPlus looks forward to building on our tradition of excellence in our next 100 years.”

BankPlus’ history is perhaps made more remarkable considering that the bank took decades to begin its impressive growth. Originally called Citizens Bank & Trust Company (CB&T), the bank stayed a one-town financial institution until 1960. CB&T opened branches in Holly Bluff and Isola in the Delta that year, and it would be more than a decade later before it opened its next offices (Yazoo City in 1973 and Canton in 1977).

To illustrate just how small BankPlus was, when Ray came on board in 1983, he worked out of a storage closet in the Yazoo City bus station, lugging his massive “desktop” computer in and out every day.

The bank had faced floods, the Great Depression, world wars and myriad of other challenges in its early history, but its most serious threat came in the 1980s when the agriculture industry went into a tailspin. The future looked bleak, and the bank was forced to recapitalize to survive. But, it found investors who pumped in needed capital, and that indirectly led to one of BankPlus’ biggest victories.

One of those investors announced that when he had recouped his investment, he wanted to offer his shares to the bank’s employees. The program proved lucrative, and many BankPlus workers retired with seven-digit nest eggs.

Investing in workers has since become a hallmark of BankPlus. A good example is its WellnessPlus program, an initiative to keep the bank’s staff healthy and happy. That and other employee-focused efforts, including its Employee Stock Option Program, led to BankPlus earning the Best Places to Work in Mississippi award three consecutive years.

“At the very core of our success is our employees,” Ray said emphatically. “They have made the difference.”

In the 1990s, the bank experienced exponential growth, and took on the name and character of the financial institution as it is known today. After making its first acquisitions in 1990 and 1993, the bank purchased Southeast Mississippi Bank, extending the bank’s presence for the first time outside the Delta.

In the mid-1990s, BankPlus embraced computers, and it pioneered in that area. Online banking is key component of its current business model.

With the Southeast Mississippi Bank acquisition, CB&T became BankPlus and began operating as a network of community banks. This community involvement has been another coup. The bank has launched innovative products and services such as its affordable housing program, designed to assist first-time homebuyers. It has awarded grants totaling some $4.25 million to nearly 250 families.

Another program is CreditPlus, aimed at getting people out of the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle. It combines a financial literacy program with a low-interest loan offering. Graduates are awarded loans of $500 to $1,000, half of which goes into a savings account and the other half goes toward paying down debt. A program generated in house, it has graduated more than 2,000 people.

BankPlus really hit its stride in the late 1990s when it made the momentous decision to enter the greater Jackson market. From 1998-1999, it opened more than a dozen locations in the area.

This positioned BankPlus well when Nissan decided to build its manufacturing plant in Canton. BankPlus competed against banking heavyweights to earn Nissan’s business, and was named the winner in 2002.

By 2008, BankPlus counted 65 offices serving 34 communities. All of these offices are located in Mississippi, a unique characteristic among the state’s largest banks.

Ray said BankPlus’ formula has worked, and it is not looking to change. There are plenty of areas in Mississippi that are yet untapped, Ray said, and while the bank’s first priority is to the communities it currently serves, future growth is a certainty.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at wally.northway@msbusiness.com.


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