By TED CARTER
Halley’s Comet occurs more frequently than do mergers at Columbus-based BankFirst.
It took the lure of a 5-Star Bauer rated bank for BankFirst Capital Corp. to do its first merger since 1904, announcing last week that it had struck a deal to acquire Newton County Bancorp, a $162 million bank headquartered in the city of Newton.
Neither of the privately held banks would detail terms of the deal, which must still be approved by Newton County Bancorp’s shareholders.
Newton County is bordered by Lauderdale County to the east and Neshoba County to the north. The 40-employee Newton County Bank also has operations in Scott and Jasper counties.
BankFirst’s new territory is diverse economically, with a pair of Lazy Boy furniture plants, a hatchery for Tyson Foods, an Esco Corp. steel foundry, a Mississippi Department of Transportation regional headquarters and East Central Mississippi Community College.
The acquisition will give BankFirst a presence in East Mississippi after going south to open a bank in Hattiesburg earlier this year. It started an operation in Tuscaloosa, an hour’s drive from its Columbus headquarters, in 2014.
With the Newton County Bank acquisition, BankFirst will grow its total assets from $741 million to $875 million and increase its branches to 18 across 10 Mississippi counties.
BankFirst will add to its metro Jackson presence with next month’s opening of a branch at 4400 Old Canton Road, near Highland Village.
Its move into Central Mississippi began in 2002 and has led to the opening of locations in Flowood and Madison, in addition to Jackson. About 40 percent of the bank’s business comes from metro Jackson.
The acquisition will also make BankFirst the 11th largest Mississippi-based banking company and will give it a top 10 share of the Mississippi-wide deposit market.
Part of the growth plan is to go where Mississippi’s larger regional banks are unlikely to go, said Moak Griffin, president & CEO. “We have a theory that a lot of these larger regionals aren’t going to be interested in rural markets or cities like Hattiesburg and Meridian.”
Newton County Bank presents “a great opportunity to grow a bank in Mississippi,” he added.
BankFirst, founded in Macon as The Merchants and Farmers Bank in 1888, is closing in on $1 billion in assets, a milestone that will place it in some exclusive company, at least for Mississippi. “A billion sounds like a big number,” Griffin said. “But you can definitely operate a community bank at that size.”
BankFirst moved its headquarters from Macon to Columbus in mid 2013 and today is the leader in overall lending in the Golden Triangle, according to Griffin.
BankFirst reported loans and leases of $573 million at the close of the second quarter, according to the FDIC.
Griffin said BankFirst’s residential mortgage lending is a combination of loans that go onto the secondary market quarters and non-traditional loans that stay on the bank’s books until either paid off or refinanced into a traditional mortgage.
Griffin took over leadership of BankFirst from Jerry Wilson, who retired in 2011 after a couple of decades at the bank but soon after was called into service by Gov. Phil Bryant to take over as Mississippi banking commissioner. Wilson has since retired as commissioner.
Under the leadership of Wilson and Griffin, BankFirst spent the national banking crisis years of 2008-2009 focused on improving processes and procedures and building up capital. The turmoil of that time left many banks with a choice of either acquiring other banks or getting acquired. BankFirst held back on both choices, Griffin said, deciding it would set its future path once it became fully sure of its own footing.
Today’s path is growth both organically and through acquisition, with an eye out for opportunities in rural markets similar to Macon and Newton, Griffin said. Griffin said Major Gen. Bill Freeman, president & CEO of New County Bank and former commander of the Mississippi National Guard, will serve as Newton County Community Bank president after the two banks combine their operations in early 2016 and will also join the BankFirst Board of Directors.
Freeman said in a press statement the merger will make Newton County Bank part of a larger, high-performing bank “with a culture and customer focus very similar to ours.”
Added Freeman: “This partnership will benefit our customers, our community, and our employees, immediately and over the long term.”
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