By Manya Holter
In mid-May, Grand Rapids State Bank employees planted a Centennial Forest, consisting of 1,914 trees, at the Forest History Center in Grand Rapids. Earlier that month employees volunteered their time to clean up litter and debris on the shores of the Mississippi River. These activities are only part of the bank’s year-long celebration of its 100th anniversary, which will peak on its customer appreciation day June 18.
The number of trees commemorates the year it all started: In 1914, the original Warba State Bank was chartered on June 12. Its only employee was Claude C. Wilcox, who was later joined by his wife, Cecilia Westurn. Together they purchased the bank in 1920 and moved it to the Itasca County seat, Grand Rapids, in 1936. With that move came the name change to Grand Rapids State Bank.
In the mid-1940s their son, Clair C. Wilcox, joined the bank and expanded the main facility at 523 NW First Ave. in 1969-70. Another office, at the intersection of Pokegama Avenue and Golf Course Road, was initiated by Clair’s sons, Steven and Craig, who joined the bank in the early 1970s and under whose leadership the bank’s total assets grew to over $200 million. A financial service center was added to the bank in 1994, followed by an expansion that included brokerage and card services among other new functions in 2001.
Now, the Grand Rapids State Bank is family owned and operated by a fourth generation, with Steve’s eldest son, Noah W. Wilcox, assuming the role of president and CEO in 2007. Noah Wilcox had been part of the bank’s senior management since 1999.
Family ownership and decision-making continue to be points of pride.
“Unlike a decade ago when one was able to just choose to be family-owned, we now make the decision during our strategic meetings to manage to that independence,” said Noah Wilcox. “We would like to remain independently and locally owned; locally managed. We have a very flat organization, little bureaucracy. We’re not sending decisions that need to be made out to California and as a result we believe we deliver a service experience to our customers that does not happen in most banking organizations.”
The bank strives toward superior customer service and has implemented a number of recent initiatives to that end: online banking in 2000, electronic statements in 2004 and remote deposits in 2007. The current CEO views technology as “a driving force for banks that are competitively successful in the future” and he continues to make “extensive investments in next generation Internet banking platforms, online account origination and very robust mobile banking offerings.“
During Noah Wilcox’s tenure, the Grand Rapids State Bank also weathered the ubiquitous financial crisis. “We came into 2007, 2008 very well capitalized and very well managed. We run a fairly tight ship and embrace a culture of compliance,” said the CEO, who also testified multiple times before Congress as a member of the Executive Committee of the Independent Community Bankers of America.
While community banking is a long-standing tradition here, that’s not the case in much of the rest of the country.
In its 2012 Community Bank Study, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation stated that, “in the past 25 years, the number of banks has declined sharply. Between 1984 and 2011, the total number of federally insured bank and thrift charters (the majority of them being community banks) declined by 59 percent, from 17,901 to 7,357.”
Wilcox attributes the trend to landmark financial regulations from Washington D.C. “that came about because the largest banks in the country were seemingly abusive to consumers and weren’t transparent enough for regulators and the bigger banks were getting too big for the regulatory structures of the early 19th century.”
In his view, there are two tiers of banking: “The traditional, relationship-focused community banking model and the transactional, high-volume throughput, ‘you’re just a number’ model.” Wilcox believes there should be separate regulatory schemes for each one of those and “if the industry continues to strive for them, community banking will be prolonged indefinitely.”
For his bank’s future, Wilcox sees promising growth in the small business sector, where decision makers are moving on from the past decade’s uncertainties. He also is working on recognizing the shifting customer demographics, namely the millennials, with their higher spending power and different banking preferences and aims to meet them with the “right products, services and delivery methods.”
As for the tree planting and river cleanup, Wilcox said employee volunteerism is part and parcel of Grand Rapids State Bank’s business model.
“We try to hire the brightest and best minds that we can, we invest heavily in our staff in terms of education and it is incumbent on me as the owner to be sure if we have the best talent in town that we’re giving this talent back to the community,” he said. “For many years, have we measured how many employees donate their time to community organizations and I am proud to say it was 100 percent.”