By BECKY GILLETTESmall banks are somewhat of an endangered species in the U.S. in an era of mergers and acquisitions. That trend is particularly of concern in small rural areas where a bank closing can be devastating to the local economy.
A bank bucking the trend is the Bank of Kilmichael, formed in 1904 by Bertram Spivey Kent and eight others with a total investment of $16,744.18. The bank has been in the hands of the same family for four generations, and is the kind of Southern hospitality bank where the employees know their customers by name, and take time to ask how they are doing.
The bank’s theme, “Friendly goes a long way,” was instilled in the bank by World War II veteran Lagrone Mortimer, Bertram Spivey Kent’s son-in-law, who joined the bank in 1946 and managed it for about 50 years.
“The bank’s employees have remained loyal to that friendly customer service and it is one of the things you will always hear customers talking about that sets the Bank of Kilmichael apart from our competition,” said Buddy Mortimer, president and CEO of the bank. He is the youngest son of Lagrone Mortimer and joined the bank after returning to Kilmichael in 1997. Lagrone’s oldest son, Rodney Mortimer, who joined the bank in 1975 is now chairman of the bank. In 2010, Rodney Mortimer’s son, Kent, joined the bank.
“In that same year, the bank expanded by opening branches in both Winona and Mathiston,” Buddy Mortimer said
“The bank continues to grow and will open a fourth branch in Eupora in August 2015. Basically, we serve the counties along Highway 82 between Greenwood and Starkville. The bank currently has total assets of over $142 million.”
Mortimer said the advantages of local ownership including local decision making which allows them to move faster and be more flexible in how they serve their customers.
“Our customers like knowing that when they come in to discuss a loan, they’re talking to the decision makers,” he said.
“On almost all consumer loan requests, we can give a same day answer. This is our home … we have been a part of the communities that we serve for over a century. Also, we enjoy being part of a small business (we have 36 employees) and that gives us the flexibility to quickly respond to our customers’ needs. That’s something a mega-bank has difficulty doing.”
Mortimer said the Bank of Kilmichael added the branches in 2010 in order to grow and make banking easier for their existing customers in those areas.
“We have always stayed up-to-date with the ever increasing technology and the products and services we provide to our customers,” he said.
“We can provide all of the same services — Internet and mobile banking for example — that a mega-bank can, except that we do it with 36 employees who most often know your name.”
The Bank of Kilmichael is the only bank in Kilmichael and Mathiston. It also serves as the local bank in other small towns in its market area like French Camp, Stewart and Maben. Winona and Eupora have other banks, but mostly large regional banks.
Like other small, community banks, banking reforms put in after the housing bubble in the U.S. burst in 2007 have been a major challenge.
“The implementation of the Dodd-Frank law and other regulations certainly make it tougher to serve customers in some circumstances,” Mortimer said. “Everyone has to play by the same rules, which is actually the problem. It doesn’t make sense to force the Bank of Kilmichael follow the same regulations as the large mega-banks, but with certain products we have to. So far, we’ve managed to comply with the regulations and still compete well in our market.”
As is natural in the Delta where agriculture is the economic engine, agricultural lending has always been a part of the Bank of Kilmichael’s product offerings. However, Mortimer said an increasing majority of the bank’s lending has gone to the small business market and real estate markets.
The Bank of Kilmichael is a Community Development Financial Institution. Being a CDFI simply means that more than half of the markets served are “economically distressed” areas as defined by the U.S. Department of Treasury.
“Of course, a lot of markets in rural Mississippi meet this definition,” Mortimer said. “As a certified CDFI, we have demonstrated a track record of effectively serving these un-banked areas with loan and deposit services. As mentioned above, we are the only bank in many of the communities we serve. Some examples of the larger CDFI projects we’ve financed include a local clinic, a drug store, a retirement home, and a hardwood sawmill. All of these entities are still in business and employing folks. There are some huge advantages to being a CDFI, including being exempt from some of the more troublesome mortgage lending regulations.”
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