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Community Bank Celebrates 105-Year Anniversary | Customer Success Story

In an unpredictable banking climate with a dwindling number of community banks, longevity is something to celebrate. Community Bank in Parkersburg, Wet Virginia, has survived two world wars, the Great Depression, the Great Recession, two pandemics, and more. This year, they celebrate 105 years in business. To celebrate with them, we had a conversation with our friend and customer, President and CEO Susan Barber, and Mary Laughery, about the anniversary, technology, customer service, employee retention, and what sets them apart.

Madison Caplinger: So, you guys have just celebrated your hundred-and-five-year anniversary. Is that correct?

Susan Barber: Correct.

MC: That’s awesome. So, Susan, how long have you been a part of a Community Bank?

SB: It’ll be four years in January. So, I’m a relative newbie.

MC: Have you been president and CEO that whole time? Or did you hold some other roles?

SB: I was hired in as president and CEO. Prior to that, I worked in public accounting and I audited financial institutions.

MC: What drew you to Community Bank?

SB: They were actually one of my clients, and I just formed a relationship, and when they were talking special plans, they started talking to me. I had been in public accounting for 20 years and I wanted to try industry.

MC: That’s really cool that you had a relationship with the bank prior to joining it. So, is there something specific that drew you to the community banking industry?

SB: When you start in public accounting, they put you on audits in all different industries, then allow you, as you gain experience, to specialize. The majority of our banks are located in West Virginia and the surrounding states. So, I had 20 years of working with Community Bank, working with all aspects– external audit, internal audit, doing differing engagement. Even as an auditor going in and out of the bank, you still get to see what an impact community banks have on their communities. I got to witness their involvement in the community, and all the things community banks across the state did to bend over backwards to help their communities.

MC: Yeah, I’ve found that to be true working on the correspondent side. Some of the things that these Banks do for their communities are just incredible, and you don’t see that with other types of Institutions. So, tell me a little bit about your bank’s, customer base, and the surrounding community of Parkersburg.

SB: We are north of Huntington, West Virginia by about 2 hours, along the Ohio River. We service mostly Wood County in West Virginia, and Washington County, Ohio, which is Marietta, Belpre, and surrounding areas. Parkersburg is the biggest city in Wood County. We have business in all neighboring counties but the majority of our business is in West Virginia and Washington County, Ohio. If you look at this area, historically, the biggest employers have been the chemical industry. We have DuPont, and Chemours, and some others. And then another major employer in our area is a federal government agency, and they employ about 3,000 people.

MC: I’m somewhat familiar with that area, so I can see how important an institution like Community Bank would be for its growth and the small business community.

SB: We started out as a savings and loan, and then switched to a bank charter. But we’re unlike some other community banks because most of our activity is still in consumer-based lending. We still generate in-house and keep all of our wonderful family mortgages. We do commercial lending, but we’re more of a consumer lending institution by far.

MC: Yeah, that’s pretty rare for a community bank, now, isn’t it?

SB: Yes, it is. We do realize that we need to grow our commercial portfolio, and we have been doing that, but if you look at the mix on our call report, you’ll see that we’re primarily a consumer-based lender.

MC: So, is that kind of an intentional focus or does that come from the needs of the community around you?

SB: To be honest, I think that’s how we started, and we stayed that way due to the needs. We’re located in Parkersburg, which used to be the headquarters of United Bank. We also have several other big banks in our market: Truist, Huntington, WesBanco. Their mortgages are commercial based. But the community likes to know that they can come here for their mortgage, and that their mortgage is going to stay here, and it’s not going to be sold. We’re one of the few lenders in the area that does construction loans. We’re one of the few—and by few, I mean less than one or two in the area– that will still do bridge loans on housing. We’re one of the few, actually, that will give you a 30-year fixed loan on your mortgage without selling it. There’s still a need for those more traditional banking products. Like the construction and bridge, we do a lot of that because there’s hardly any banks in town that are willing to do those types of loans.

MC: I know that you have only been there for about 4 years but tell me a little bit about the history of Community Bank. 105 years would be 1917. Is that right?

SB: Right, and that’s why I wanted Mary Ann to join. She has been doing a lot of history and fact-finding since we had our 100th anniversary.

Mary Laughery: We started primarily making loans for small appliances and that sort of thing when we started in 1917. We were very much a blue-collar bank. Over the years we’ve evolved as far as taking on different types of loans. Our focus then was consumer and meeting the needs of our community and we’ve just continued to do that throughout the years. We’re in the same location, so we have 4 locations. Our main location is in downtown Parkersburg, and we’re actually now three buildings combined into one. One of those three buildings was the original location we formed in,  in 1917. Since that time, we’ve opened three locations.

MC: Wow, that’s really cool that you guys have stayed in the same building. Not a lot of Institutions can say that that their building is original and has been there that long.

SB: We actually had a repairman in yesterday trying to fix an exhaust vent. But it was a wild goose chase, because they were trying to figure out which panel related to which exhaust vent. Our building is that a bit of a hodgepodge mystery

MC: It just gives it character though, right? Surviving 105 years is quite a feat for a community bank or any business. I mean if you think about it, that’s what two pandemics, the Great Depression, and a Great Recession all happened in that time. So, what do you think has helped Community Bank survive?

SB: I think it’s cliché to say, and a lot of banks will say it, but it’s just customer service. It is staying attuned to what our customers want and trying to fill those nice gaps where they are. There is still a lot to be said about being able to call the bank and getting a question answered locally. When you call, you can get things addressed right then and there by someone who is in the same town as you. If you need to come in, it can be addressed by a person sitting across the table from you. We have a credit card portfolio, and I will tell you, we have an individual named Donna that takes care of the credit card, and all of our customers know, “if I need a hold on my card, I’m going to call Donna.” “If I have what I suspect is a fraudulent transaction, I’m going to call Donna.” “If I need to increase my credit limit, I’m going to call Donna.” I hate to just use Donna as an example, but I think that’s a good example of, “if I have an issue, this is the person that I’m going to call. I know their name and I recognize their voice.”

ML: We’ve been blessed to have employees here who genuinely care, and they live in the communities where we’re located. So, they care about people in the community, and they want that to improve. We’ve been blessed to have dedicated people over the years.

MC: It’s amazing what a difference that customer service makes, and just that personal touch. It sounds like you’ve been able to retain a dedicated core customer service staff, which not a lot of Institutions can say right now.

SB: We have long-tenured individuals, and unfortunately some of them are coming of the age of retirement. But historically, this institution has been somewhere that people come to work and then retire from. And I think that speaks a lot too, is having consistent customer service. The people that believe in our mission so much, that they want to stay and retire.

MC: Yeah, that’s so rare, especially now. So, do you think that there’s some secret or some reason for that? Is there something that you guys have been able to do differently to retain your staff for so long, when so many businesses and so many banks have such high turnover, especially now, post-pandemic?

SB: It’s the family atmosphere. I think that everyone is just welcoming. I just had a conversation with our director of human resources, who is retiring in January, and we hired her replacement. She started yesterday, and they’re going to work side by side and train. She just caught me coming out of a meeting, and said, “I know this is only my second day, but everyone has been so welcoming and kind, and this such a great atmosphere, that I feel like I’ve been here months instead of 12 hours.”

MC: Wow, I think that speaks volumes. That retention not only makes a difference for not only your organization and your bottom line, but for your customers, since they get to know and build trust with your staff.

I noticed in learning a little about Community Bank that you seem to have a lot of digital banking options. I’ve also noticed that staying up to date technologically seems to be a challenge for a lot of community banks with more limited resources. So, how have you been able to keep up with rapidly changing technology without losing the personal touch you described earlier? Do you think those things are necessarily mutually exclusive?

SB: The digital items have become more relevant in the last 3 or 4 years. We have put a lot of focus, and will continue to put a lot of focus, on getting those sorts of things up and running. Our mindset is that we want to be able to serve the customer how they want to be served. We do realize that we’ve got an again population, and if they want to come in the bank, we will gladly serve them that way and will continue to serve that way. But we also know that we have customers that are Millennial and younger that want to be served a different way. A lot of people in those age groups have never set foot in the bank. It’s trying to weigh the balance of serving customers how they want to be served, whether that’s digitally or in person, or a mixture of both. And then with that aging population, we have people moving away. We often heard, “I have been a loyal customer for 30 years. I still want you to be my bank, but I’m moving to South Carolina or Florida, so sorry but we have to break up.” We were like “no, we don’t want to lose you. You’ve been a wonderful customer for 30 years.” So, implementing the technology allows even those customers to still bank with us if they’re 500 miles away. It’s just trying to balance all those things and give people options on how they want to bank.

MC: I like the focus on options, and it sounds like you guys are doing a great job of that. In talking to other bankers, it seems like there’s a little bit of fear that with all the digitization you lose a relational aspect of banking. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for you guys.

SB: Even with our digital products, such as our mobile banking, there are chat features. So, they may not be coming in here, and they might want to ask a question via chat, but they know that they’re chatting with someone in Parkersburg, not a robo-chat based out of India or somewhere abroad. So, it’s digital products with a hometown feel.

MC: Do you have advice for the bank that’s trying to implement some digitization and serve younger customers who desire that, but don’t want to lose the hometown feel on how to go about implementing some of these things in their community bank?

SB: I think it just boils down to listening to and knowing your customers and know their demographics. We realize that a good majority of our customers are over the age of 55. We realize that they like that personal touch. We also know that if we want younger customers to replace those older customers as they pass away or move along, we have to have features that are attractive to them as well. It’s respecting what you have while trying to be innovative for those that are either open to change or those that expect Community Bank to have the same type of features as a Chase or as a Bank of America. We realize that we can’t give them all the features; money and technology are a bit of a barrier. But we at least want to give them the important features.

MC: I think that that attitude will serve you guys well.

So, you guys are a customer of ICBB, right?

SB: Yeah.

MC: So how, how long have you guys been our customer? Or does that predate your time at Community Bank, Susan?

ML: That predates my time here, and I’ve been here almost 10 years.

SB: Even for as long as I audited, Community Bank has been a customer of ICBB.

MC: It’s amazing. It seems like every banker I talk to says that their bank’s relationship with ICBB predates their time there. So, would you recommend partnering with ICBB to other Community Banks? And if so, why?

SB: I would definitely recommend it. I think that ICBB has some of the same values that we do, with community service and developing relationships with the customer. I know that if we have issues on a wire, or any kind of issues with anything that we’re able to call, we know the person that we need to talk to. We’ve formed those relationships. ICBB works hand in hand with us, and I think it’s just a great partnership. I think that even though ICBB is a correspondent bank, they’re a community correspondent bank. So, they have the same ideals we do.

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