Originally created 08/16/98

Small bank poised for new market



First National Bank & Trust, based in rural Jefferson County, is the quintessential community bank with the down-home feel.

Its customers, many of whom are farmers, prefer personal service to automated phone systems and ATMs.

And as one of the biggest agricultural lenders in the state, its 10 branches (from Sandersville to Statesboro) are staffed with ex-farmers and foresters.

But First National is no small potatoes.

The bank that started with one branch in Louisville in 1902 now has $200 million in assets and is poised to enter the Augusta market.

"We're going from a little bank to one that's not quite so little," said bank President William F. Easterlin III, the fourth generation to preside over the family-owned bank.

In April, First National opened its mortgage and commercial lending office in Augusta, at 2918 Professional Parkway.

Office Manager Edward Dorr said the four-person office is the bank's first foray into a major market and is a leap toward opening a full-service branch.

"This is a test market for us," said Mr. Dorr. "We're still testing the waters, but everything has been going great."

Unlike many banks whose decisions are made by far-removed loan officers, the Augusta loan officers make all mortgage and commercial loan decisions on-site.

Mr. Dorr said he has even visited customers at their homes and offices to make them feel more comfortable.

First National's emphasis on customer service and its ultra-personal touch stems from years of doing business with plain folks in rural counties for more than 90 years.

The bank already has 10 full-service branches in six mostly rural counties skirting the metro area and is about to start construction on two additional branches in Thomson and Swainsboro.

Its success is based on its strategy of keeping skilled personnel in their respective home towns and making decisions based as much on character as number-crunching.

"We're looking for a relationship, not just a transaction," Mr. Easterlin said. "That entails getting to know the customer as well as their family and credit history. We've got customers whose families have banked here for four generations."

It's something their longtime customers, such as Brian Lewis, owner of Lewis Steel Works in Wrens, have come to appreciate.

"At another bank, I would just be a number on a sheet of paper," said Mr. Lewis, whose father first started banking with Mr. Easterlin's grandfather 60 years ago.

Unlike big banks, which transfer experienced bankers from smaller markets to larger ones, First National staffs each of its offices primarily with local residents.

Although the bank recently shut down its three-machine ATM network (it discovered its biggest users were noncustomers), the bank is experimenting with Internet banking, a fairly inexpensive venture, Mr. Easterlin said.

Now in its fourth generation of family ownership, First National still has a close-knit senior management and board of directors.

Mr. Easterlin's father, 72-year-old W. Frank Easterlin Jr., presides over the bank's holding company while its chief financial officer, Phil Polhill, is a childhood friend.

Mr. Easterlin is on a first-name basis with just about every one of his 125 employees since most were born and raised in the area.

"Some of 'em I even dated at one time," he jokes.

Although the bank is casual with customers and employees, there's nothing lackadaisical about its growth since the 44-year-old Mr. Easterlin joined the bank's holding company, The Queensborough Co., in 1983 upon receiving his Master of Business Administration degree from Emory University.

Named for the 18th-century Scottish township that once occupied portions of Jefferson and Burke counties, The Queensborough Co. has spent the past decade growing across east Georgia.

Among community banks in the area, First National (with more than $200 million in assets and $180 million in deposits), is second in size only to Augusta-based Georgia Bank & Trust Co.

In keeping with its personal-service credo, the company says it will not open a full-service Augusta branch until it finds enough local residents to staff it, said Mr. Dorr, an Augusta native.

But that could happen sooner rather than later as word of the bank's Augusta lending office has spread like wildfire without any advertising, Mr. Dorr said.

"Business has been going up steadily every month. People are responding to our style of personal banking," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if we started construction a year from now."