By Karen Kroll
At first glance—actually, maybe even at second or third glance—pollinator gardens appear to have little to do with banking. However, they’re one reason First Community Bank is succeeding. Based in Batesville, Arkansas, First Community Bank continues to blend the basics, like its focus on local communities, with programs not typically found in financial institutions. One is its Bloom With Us initiative, in which the bank is installing pollinator gardens at about 20 locations.
These efforts have helped propel the bank from $3.5 million in assets at its launch in 1997 to about $1.7 billion today. In August, First Community also earned top honors on Forbes’ Best-in-State Banks and Credit Unions list.
Doing it differently
When Dale Cole, chairman and CEO, raised capital from 153 investors used to start the bank, he told them, “I’m going to do it differently. I’m going to build a bank based on relationships, not transactions,” he says. To that end, First Community has long invested in its communities. “Where you find strong communities, you’ll find strong banks. And where you find strong banks, you’ll find strong communities,” he adds.
The bank since its founding has supported local civic and charitable groups, such as its recent donation of $5,000 and more than 1,000 N-95 masks to White River Health Systems.
As the demographic makeup of the region changes, the bank is shifting focus, as well. Some areas in which First Community operates, and especially those with large agricultural operations, have seen large increases in Hispanic residents. But “nobody was really putting effort into the Hispanic market,” says Bill Oliva, AVP and loan officer. Recent data from the FDIC shows that 12.2 percent of Hispanic households are unbanked—nearly five times the share of white households.
Oliva and several colleagues are working to change this. The bank translated marketing materials into Spanish, and Oliva converses in Spanish with many customers for whom English is a second language. Oliva says that in addition to providing product information, he looks for opportunities to focus on, for instance, the value of a strong credit score.
Several products have helped an increasing number of Hispanic customers shift from unbanked to banked at First Community. Customers can use individual taxpayer identification numbers instead of Social Security numbers to access some banking products, such as auto loans. Indeed, First Community offers auto loans to ITIN customers at an interest rate that’s often half that offered by auto dealers, Oliva says. A secured credit card that enables new customers to establish their credit histories has also been popular.
Word of mouth has helped the outreach program snowball. Oliva estimates these efforts have led to the opening of about 150 accounts in the last year. “We hit the ground running and we’re growing extremely fast,” he says.
To be sure, Frst Community must navigate the same challenges facing many other financial institutions. As the pandemic took its toll, it participated in the Paycheck Protection Program, ultimately funding about $69.5 million for businesses employing about 11,000 employees. First Community also allowed 90-day moratoriums on about 1,200 commercial and consumer borrowers, whose loans totaled about $265 million, says First Community’s Laura Cornett.
And with the banking environment becoming more automated and regulated, First Community has shifted as well, Cole notes. In late 2019, it launched Plinquit, a mobile savings app that also helps users boost their financial literacy. And in September 2020, the bank announced its launch of P2P payments solution Zelle.
The pollinator gardens are another way the bank boosts its communities. An outgrowth of the bank’s partnership with P. Allen Smith, a conservationist, author and television host, the gardens attract butterflies, bees, ladybugs and other pollinators. They also offer learning, fellowship and interaction, Cole says. For local schools, the bank purchased coloring books that help explain the importance of bees to food and vegetation. “We spend money on landscaping anyway,” Cole says. “We can spend a little bit more on the pollinator gardens.”
Pollinator gardens aren’t all that’s growing at First Community. Cole estimates the bank could hit about $2 billion in assets in four years, and perhaps $2.5 to $3 billion a few years after that, particularly if it makes acquisitions. Even as First Community grows, however, Cole says he and his team will continue to manage it as, well, a community bank.
Karen M. Kroll is a business and financial services writer and content marketer based in Minnesota. Email: [email protected].