Retiring chairman discusses lifetime of banking

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 17, 2004

Perhaps it would be easiest to ask outgoing Concordia Bank Chairman Willie Smith what hasn’t changed in his more than 50 years in the banking industry.

After all, during that time the industry has gone from pencils and ledger books to high-speed computers and from handshake deals to complicated federal regulations, to name just a few changes.

What hasn’t changed, he noted with a smile, is the importance of good customer service.

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Cutting-edge technology plus the personal touch &045;&045; it’s a formula Smith said has worked well for Concordia Bank, causing it to grow from its Vidalia base to locations throughout the Miss-Lou, including Woodville and Natchez.

In the same way Smith, sitting in a well-pressed suit and tie in the bank’s Vidalia office, can rattle off banking facts and figures with ease &045;&045; but still seems to put visitors at ease with his smile. And judging from the longevity of his career, it seems to be a formula that has worked well for him, too.

Smith started out at Concordia Bank in 1964 after 16 years in other banking positions. On Tuesday, he will preside over his last meeting as chairman of the board and the board will choose a new leader.

At Concordia Bank, Smith went from assistant cashier to assistant vice president, from vice president to senior vice president and finally, until his retirement in 1992, chief executive officer. After that, he still continued to serve on the board.

&uot;Title do mean something,&uot; Smith, 75, said with an easy laugh. &uot;But you can’t spend them at the grocery store.&uot;

With a computer sitting to his left, Smith recalled when he started in the banking business as a proof clerk.

&uot;No computers then. No air conditioning, either. You had to sit there and separate the debits and credits, … with a spreadsheet and a pencil. Then you’d post the tickets to the proper accounts,&uot; Smith said.

&uot;You’d have to balance it to the penny, and if (that penny) was missing, you’d stay there until you found it.&uot;

Smith doubts it could be done that way now, with the tremendous growth in assets local banks have seen in the decades since then.

&uot;Of course, then you could run it with a pencil and an adding machine,&uot; Smith said. &uot;Now, you’d need a string of bookkeepers from here to Baton Rouge to keep track of all that.&uot;

In the 1970s, however, the methods banking had used for years changed rapidly. First, Concordia Bank outsourced its computer work; then, in 1986, it installed its first in-house computer system.

&uot;(Current Concordia Bank CEO) Pat Biglane and I shopped around for a year&uot; to find a reliable computer system that met the bank’s needs, Smith said. &uot;You want to mess your business up, mess someone’s account up.&uot;

To get them up to speed on the new system, employees were sent to the headquarters of Ross Perot’s computer company, EDS, in Dallas for weeks of training.

After a bit of the initial frustration that accompanies any technological change, the bank’s employees &045;&045; including Smith himself &045;&045; got used to the new system and its capabilities.

&uot;But for years I still kept a crank adding machine just in case something went wrong with the system,&uot; Smith said.

Other changes in the industry have come in the form of legislation that oversees everything from the confidentiality of customer information to the ways in which banks can expand.

Some changes took some getting used to for Smith.

&uot;Say there’s someone who’s been banking with us 40 years,&uot; Smith said. To process that person’s loan, he said, &uot;you have to have an application and two forms of ID &045;&045; and you’re sitting here looking at someone you’ve known for 40 years.&uot;

Some changes have been to the bank’s advantage, however. In recent years, with the advent of new laws regarding expansion, Concordia Bank was able to acquire a savings and loan in Woodville and, from there, establish a branch in Natchez.

&uot;Not to steal business from (Natchez) banks, but to service the customers we already had in Natchez,&uot; Smith said. &uot;A third of our customers are from across the (Mississippi) River.&uot;

And Smith said that’s what it’s all about, after all &045;&045; the customer.

&uot;Our growth is because of our attitude toward our customers,&uot; Smith said.

&uot;When you walk into a bank, you want someone to speak to you. If you go in and the person ignores you and turns and keeps talking on the phone … well, what would you think about that?&uot;

And with armed with that attitude, Smith thinks Concordia Bank is on the cutting edge once again.

&uot;Community banks are making a comeback because of their personal touch with people,&uot; Smith said. As an industry, he said, &uot;we’ve gone through an era of getting big for the sake of getting big. People want to bank with someone they know.&uot;