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January 2008
Banking On Old Fashioned Values
By Casey Jacobus

     When you first enter, you can’t help notice that it doesn’t quite look like the usual bank. Instead of the gleaming metal surfaces and cold marble flooring one finds in the typical bank headquarters, there is something different about the new Carolina Premier Bank on Blakeney Park Drive in south Charlotte.

     Perhaps it’s the fireplace with its welcome warmth or the coffee bar with its fresh baked goods or the children’s play area with its bright toys and books. Maybe it’s the community room, designed as a place for community groups and professional organizations to coalesce, as well as for bank-sponsored seminars open to the general public. Or, maybe it’s the Think Tank, a resource library for small business owners. Or again, it might be the bank officer who greets you (often by name) with a warm handshake.

     The design for the 5,000-square-foot facility, created by local architectural firm Lusk and Harken and built by Tyler 2 Construction, is intended to reflect the differences in culture between Carolina Premier Bank and its more traditional rivals. The employees, stockholders and board of directors of the new bank share a vision which harkens back to the values of the past: a time when familiarity, respect and reliability were part of the culture of banking.

      “We’re not just another Charlotte bank,” says President John S. Kreighbaum. “We’re a new bank that embraces the old-fashioned values of an era gone by in banking. Rather than following the leader and replicating what banks are already doing here, we’ve created a different business model that marries the personal relationship of the past with today’s most sophisticated banking technology.”

      Kreighbaum calls it “hometown” banking. Carolina Premier Bank’s hometown is a geographic area that centers on the growing Blakeney, Ballantyne and Piper Glen areas of Charlotte and stretches down the highway into South Carolina. Their goal is to be identified as the local community bank in south Charlotte with an initial focus on small business. They plan to offer the people in the community a professional and innovative approach to banking based upon traditional values.

 

Building Credit

     Kreighbaum brings over 25 years of banking experience to his post of president and CEO of Carolina Premier Bank. He was a bank president by the time he was 29 years old; yet, surprisingly, banking was not his first choice for a profession.

     Kreighbaum’s banking career began in the Midwest with a highly respected major bank. He went to college in Kansas on an athletic scholarship and hoped to combine a career in teaching with coaching. However, two weeks before the start of his senior year, he lost his student loan due to changes in his bank’s policies. He walked down the street and into another bank where he happened upon a bank president who listened sympathetically to his story.

     Before he knew it, he was back in school taking some new courses in finance and economics. When he graduated, he entered an executive bank training program. Through his years of success in the banking world, he has never lost sight of the importance of building personal relationships with customers. Now, he has the chance to build a new bank based on the old-fashioned value of customer service.

     “Our vision and passion is to establish the type of financial institution that has all but disappeared with today’s mega-sized banks,” says Kreighbaum. “We plan to redefine the role of a community bank by renewing old-fashioned, no appointment needed, customer service.”

     Joining the executive ranks in the operation of the new bank is Rob Thomas, executive vice president and COO. Thomas has over 26 years of banking experience in the Charlotte area. As a Charlotte native, he shares the passion and vision of the new bank. He has worked in the community bank environment for the majority of his career and played a major role in the architecture of products and services.

     “Carolina Premier Bank defines its customer service as ‘Premier Service.’ It incorporates key values of person-to-person relationships, respect and mutual understanding, timely local independent decision-making, passion for creating real value for customers, and recognition that every customer is different and so are their personal goals and financial needs”, says Thomas.

     Premier Service includes concierge banking for business customers, plus free courier and notary services, as well as no-fee ATM access anywhere in the United States. However, the most important form of communication is personal contact, and the entire staff of Carolina Premier Bank is focused on responding to customers in person, via telephone or by e-mail.

     “We have an awesome responsibility as bankers to help our customers,” says Tripp Gabriel, senior vice president and senior loan officer. “We can have an impact beyond the numbers on peoples’ lives.”

     Gabriel is a Charlotte native with 23 years of banking experience. He knows the community as well as the local banking industry.

     Gabriel says Carolina Premier Bank will look at all aspects of any loan request with an eye to building a long-term business relationship. Gabriel says bankers won’t be concerned with making arbitrary goals, as much as with finding solutions that match the customer’s needs.

     “Our last resort is to turn down a loan,” he says. “We’ll work hard to come up with an alternative.”

      Customer service at Carolina Premier Bank means the tellers are free to move out from behind the counter to interact with customers. It means telephone callers don’t have to go through an alphabetical maze to reach someone to talk with. It means simplifying the loan process and eliminating pages of “add on fees” to every interaction. It means one community checking account, instead of sixteen separate brochures. It means customizing the banking operation to fit the customer.

     “You will never hear ‘It’s against our policy,’” says Kreighbaum. “We won’t hide behind general policy statements. We have zero tolerance for anything less than superior customer service.”

 

Creating Value

     Carolina Premier Bank held its grand opening in December. Prior to that, the board of directors was busy compiling a team of employees, designing and building a facility and creating the products and policies of the new bank. A major task was to raise the necessary capital. From the first subscription of $2,500, 475 shareholders have subscribed over $18 million.

     The board of directors includes business owners and leaders in the Charlotte area who possess the highest level of integrity and share a commitment to the success of Carolina Premier Bank.

     “Our board members are entrepreneurs sensitive to how businesses operate today,” says Krieghbaum. “Most of them live or work in south Charlotte. They have accepted the moral and fiduciary responsibility to make the community a better place to call home.” Kreighbaum maintains that they did not open the bank’s doors with a vision of success based on major growth. They have accepted that growth is not the only measure of success.

     “We’re not looking for aggressive growth or many loans,” says Kreighbaum. “We’re taking a balanced approach. The board will make sure we are well managed with a sound foundation and a technologically advanced operating system. We will provide a solid platform to grow from. Then we hope the community will support us and we will grow competitively.”

 

Investing in the Future

     Kreighbaum knows that the bank’s success is not dependent solely upon him or even the board of directors. Rather, it depends on the staff members who interact every day with the bank’s customers. Consequently he has assembled an outstanding team of seasoned, experienced bankers and loan officers, people like Caryn Johnson, senior vice president of operations. Johnson began her banking career over 28 years ago and has extensive experience in various bank operations, including deposit operations and compliance as well as bank administration, which she overseas at Carolina Premier Bank.

    “Caryn brings empathy, sensitivity and creativity to the team,” says Kreighbaum.

     Kreighbaum has looked for people with aptitude, values and integrity to add to his team.   
     He chose Amy Macari, a personable young mother, to supervise key elements of operating infrastructure, investor relations and communications. Although Amy has no prior banking experience, Krieghbaum says she is “extremely intelligent, talented and focused on the values of relationship dynamics and customer sensitivity.”

     Speaking of his employees, Kreighbaum says, “Success is not in my hands. All I can do is set the vision, monitor and coach; they’ll take it from there.”

     Staff members appear to find pleasure working in the culture of Carolina Premier Bank. Macarri says it’s fun to be in on the beginning of something new.

     “You help nurture it, like a child,” she says. “I’ve focused on the customer piece and probably interacted with every one of the 475 shareholders.”

      Johnson, too, emphasizes the pleasure of working with small business owners where “the personal connection is so incredibly important.” And, she likes working at a small bank where “if you have an idea, you can make it a reality.”

       In fact, Johnson was responsible for one idea that has already grown into a product at the new bank. The Tree Frog Club is a program that engages children up to age 12, teaching them to save money by offering a reward system for saving and lots of fun activities.

      “At a young age, children need to understand how to save and how to spend prudently,” says Johnson.

      The Tree Frog Club feeds into a program for teens, which offers a checking account with access to an ATM card, as well as financial seminars and a local teen board for the bank. These programs for youngsters are part of the bank’s outreach to the broader community, which includes special attention for senior citizens and free workshops and seminars open to the general public.

      For the first fifteen months, these public seminars will focus on the small business owner and cover topics like Web site design, marketing and “What makes a business stronger?”

      “We often go beyond our role as bankers,” says Kreighbaum. “We understand that part of our mandate is to know the community and make it a better place to live and work.”

 

Looking Ahead

     It’s a brand new bank with old- fashioned values. How can one measure its success? Kreighbaum says it isn’t necessary to wait one year or five years to judge whether or not Carolina Premier Bank is successful.

      “At the end of every day, you ask what happened that day,” says Kreighbaum. ‘What didn’t we do that we could have done? We’ve set in place all the warning device elements that tell you how you’re doing. We aren’t going to wake up a year from now and realize we have a pot full of problem loans.”

     By hiring experienced people with integrity, installing the most up-to-date technology, and creating a strong infrastructure, Kreighbaum is certain the bank will fulfill its mission to become the community bank for the South Charlotte area.

     Meanwhile, “It’s a journey; it’s a pleasure and an honor to come into this bank every day,” says Kreighbaum.
Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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