Once Illinois’ smallest bank, farmers state experiences growth spurt

Once Illinois’ smallest bank, farmers state experiences growth spurt

Olmsted, Monte

Just four years ago, Farmers State Bank was a quaint $3.5 million institution in Alto Pass, a southern Illinois hamlet a mere 12 miles from Kentucky. As the state’s smallest bank, Farmers State never grew much since its 1910 beginnings, surviving in an industry where much larger banks were the norm.

Today, all that has changed, except for Farmers State Bank’s old-fashioned banking tradition where handshakes, smiles and congeniality prevail. Since new owners took over in 1994, Farmers State Bank has achieved an explosive growth, having climbed to $62.5 million and opened two branches.

“The FDIC told us that we enjoyed the highest percentage of growth they’d seen in a long time,” said Ed Williams, the bank’s president and CEO who bought a stake in the bank in 1996.

Along with Williams, Farmers State Bank’s other three ownersTom Franks, Joe Pearson and Blase Pignotti-have forged a new trail for the bank in its expansion turnaround. The bank is now based in Harrisburg, where an office was opened in 1995. The trio of Williams, Franks and Pearson reside in Harrisburg.

When discussions took place for opening a third office, the vibrant city of Marion was the unanimous choice, Williams said. The bank opened the Marion branch more than a month ago on Christmas Eve in the 15,000resident city known as a southeastern Illinois retail hub on Interstate Hwy. 57.

Williams said Marion residents were itching for a community bank as they watched larger, out-of-state companies take over their financial institutions. For example, the city’s Charter Bank was bought by St. Louis-based Magna Bank, soon taken over by Memphis-based Union Planters Corp. Central Bank of Marion was purchased by St. Louis-based Mercantile Bank, and King City Federal Savings and Loan was bought by Citizens Bank in Evansville, Ind.

“In our view, the city of Marion and county of Williamson were not being served by a true community bank,” said Williams. “We saw people in Marion thirsty for a good, strong community bank, and that’s a niche we’re fulfilling.”

Competition with the “big boys” would be no obstacle in Marion, since Farmers State Bank has taken a different approach than the larger institutions, said Williams, whose bank relies on a mixed portfolio of commercial, real estate and consumer loans.

“We advertise ‘handshake loans’ and that we are “high-touch, not high-tech,”‘ said Williams. “We’ve tried to take banking back to the days when you walked in and knew who you dealt with. We promote banking the old-fashioned way.” Construction of the 4,200-squarefoot Marion branch began in July, and the facility includes three drive-up lanes and an automated teller machine.

The building, the bank’s board decided, had to have a warm, open and pleasant appeal to its customers so it was built in Florida’s Key Weststyle with plenty of windows and plantation shutters. Avoiding the “typical cold institution building,” the bank and its cream-colored branch with gray metal roof and plenty of windows gives off the right home-feel and glow, Williams said.

“We built a Key West building. The only thing we didn’t know how to figure out was growing palm trees in Southem Illinois. So we have them inside,” said Williams, who also serves as president of the bank’s parent, Farmers State Holding Corp.

The Marion branch was designed by the architecture firm of Wayne Seufert & Associates, the same Ferdinand, Ind., group responsible for the Harrisburg bank. Williams noted that Farmers State Bank’s Harrisburg office was designed as a replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home in Virginia.

Leading the full-service Marion branch and its eight employees will be Kevin Wilson, who will serve as community president. Wilson previously was senior lending officer at The Bank of Marion.

Of the bank’s four owners, only Williams is involved in the bank’s day-to-day operations. Franks and Pearson are owners of Harrisburgbased Arclar Coal Co. and Pignotti is a St. Louis physician.

Williams has been in banking for 29 years and is best remembered for his stint as chairman and CEO of Peoples National Bank in Lawrenceville, Ill., where he worked from 1978 to 1994. During 1990-91, Williams served as president of the Community Bankers Association of Illinois.

For now, the bank and its 22 company-wide employees aren’t looking for immediate expansion, but will concentrate on the success of the Marion branch, Williams said. “Heck, yes, we’re excited about Marion.”

Copyright NFR Communications Inc Feb 6, 1999

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