Citizens National Bank Bluffton
On a strong & steady course
Business View North America interviews Eric Faulkner, President of Citizens National Bank Bluffton, for our focus on Community Banking in Ohio
When Citizens National Bank (CNB) opened its first branch in Bluffton, Ohio on January 31, 1920, it had four employees and $50,000 in capital. Each new customer was given an apple, as a show of appreciation. 101 years later, the bank still finds ways to show gratitude to their customers, never losing sight of the idea that relationships are key to the success of the community bank. Today, Citizens National Bank focuses on small to midsized businesses and agricultural clients throughout their nine locations in northwestern Ohio, also offering personal banking services for those in the 11 counties they serve.
Eric Faulkner, current President, is the fifth president in the century that Citizens National Bank has been in operation. He was looking forward to celebrating the bank’s 100th anniversary in 2020. Of course, when COVID arrived, plans had to be scaled back, although Faulkner is still proud of what CNB has achieved as it reached this milestone. He shares, “We expanded slowly, but surely. We have never been a bank that’s gone out and acquired any organizations. We’ve done it organically, through relationships with our local customers and markets, trying to stay as home based as we possibly can. We have expanded to nine different markets in the northwest quadrant of the State of Ohio. Right now, we are just under a billion dollars in assets, and we started back in 1920 with $50,000 in capital. So, we have come quite a long way.”
Each of the bank’s 154 employees were instrumental in keeping things running during COVID – adapting to a changing way of doing business, while navigating the uncertainty. “First and foremost,” says Faulkner, “these past 18 months I’ve seen the strength and resilience of our employees, in the way they were able to battle through this pandemic, not only professionally, in helping our customers and clients, but personally too. We had to remember as we dealt with this, that our employees have their own personal lives and they were impacted as well.”
As soon as the pandemic was declared by the World Health Organization, CNB created a COVID team to help organize the changing situation for the bank. Splitting staff, by having 50 percent of employees work remotely was one strategy that was used to keep everyone safe and keep things running. Faulkner admits, “There was quite a bit of scrambling from our IT team who did a tremendous job getting technology to the people that needed it, as well as our managers who really helped their employees figure out how they could continue to do their day-to-day jobs.”
With the introduction of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) through the federal government at the start of the pandemic, CNB was able to aid more than 1,700 businesses, with a total loan amount of close to $150 million. This ensured that thousands of employees would continue to receive a paycheck, and kept businesses from closing their doors. “As you can imagine, the whole strength of our bank is dependent on those small businesses and how they succeed; we want them to succeed,” declares Faulkner. As the bank offered this assistance to businesses, they gained new customers, who Faulkner hopes will come to them for future banking needs. This has also created a marketing opportunity for CNB – by using social media to share the personal success stories of their clients.
Faulkner explains, “We have a fitness organization that needed to redesign their entire facility, and keep things running, even though they had COVID restrictions where they were really limited in capacity. We helped them with that, and with their PPP loan. As a result, we did a video for them and we use that in tandem with the CBAO (Community Bankers Association of Ohio), as an example of someone who really needed assistance during COVID, and how we were able to help them out.”
Working remotely and keeping the operations of the bank running during COVID has meant technology upgrades. DocuSign is a product that allows customers to add their signature to documents from the comfort of their homes. Increasing access to this product was extremely beneficial when processing more than 1,700 PPP loans during a time when people were told to stay home.
“In the future, I would see us continuing to use that, although we certainly want people to come in the office, so we can shake hands and meet them for the first time,” says Faulkner. “But for ongoing customers, I really think that we’re going to use that product quite a bit.” Citizen National Bank also upgraded their online offerings last year, making it easier for clients to open certain accounts online, and enhancing online security alerts. Additional training was provided for staff on new processes, so they could confidently provide the quality of service that customers are accustomed to. On the retail side, the bank has added Zelle, a program which makes it easy to send and receive money person to person, an option which is secure, convenient, and easy for customers.
As a community bank, Citizens National Bank supports the neighborhoods it serves. Last year, the bank contributed to over 240 local events and organizations. Giving back is an important part of the company culture, where the staff collects pop tabs to donate to Ronald McDonald House of Northwest Ohio, sends valentines to local nursing homes, and donates warm clothing to local shelters. An internal program called 212 is something all staff participate in yearly and adds to the community mindedness of the organization. As Faulkner shares, “Basically the gist of the program is that water is hot at 211 but it boils at 212 degrees – one extra degree of effort can make all the difference. Even though it is an internal training program for our staff, a part of that is always about: How do you give back? How do you build relationships? How do you help people who need help?”
Relying less on traditional marketing techniques such as radio and newspaper, the marketing team uses social media to reach out to existing and potential customers. Using Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube videos of local business success stories is one way the bank shares with their audience, promoting both CNB and the small businesses they serve. Faulkner acknowledges, “When we make these videos, sometimes customers get emotional. That’s an amazing feeling. These people are so thrilled with what we’ve been able to do. I think a common misconception is that a community bank won’t have everything that is needed to run a business. I’m here to tell you, we’ve got all the bells and whistles those larger regional banks and even the largest banks in the country have.”
Short videos are also made by staff about a variety of subjects, and shared via social media, as a way of providing specific information, and staying connected to the community. With most employees having been with CNB for many years, their collective knowledge and passion for banking is valuable in creating trust with customers. Although the bank is always looking to bring in new talent, a thoughtful approach is taken.
“We never really jump into a new market,” says Faulkner. “What we like to do is to build it one person, one employee at a time. The best character trait that I want out of anyone is trust, I want to be able to trust you. You might not know anything about banking, but guess what? I can teach you banking. If I trust you, that’s what’s really going to make you drive up this organization. The people we can trust, that have that community bank feel to them, who really value the relationships, those are the caliber of people we are looking for at the bank. Yes, we are picky but picky on purpose.”
Another 101 years of successful banking is a part of the plan for Citizens National Bank, taking the same steady approach into the future. “We have a model in which our growth is calculated,” says Faulkner, “It’s moderate to slow, but it is valuable. We have no big plans to start picking off banks and acquiring them; getting so large, so quickly that we get out of touch with our customers. Strategically, we know that we need to continue to grow.”
However, slow growth does not mean falling behind. Faulkner adds, “It’s getting more and more difficult to keep up with technology. We are looking at FinTech opportunities, and partnership opportunities. We want to stay on top of what’s going on technology-wise because that is going to rule the world of banking, just like relationships do. If you don’t have those technology pieces, and you’re not growing on that front, I think you’re only falling behind more and more.”
Relationships, technology, and steady planning are the keys to success for Citizens National Bank, who have another century of prosperity to look forward to.
AT A GLANCE
Citizens National Bank Bluffton
WHAT: A century old community bank
WHERE: City of Bluffton in northwestern Ohio
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