Greater Rome Bank will celebrate its 25th anniversary in February. In spite of a COVID-19 pandemic that has turned the economy on its ear, the bank is coming off another record setting year.

“We’ve had just an unbelievable year ... we’re still waiting for our final numbers,” GCB President and CEO David Lance said. “If they hold true, I think it will be our fifth or sixth year in a row with record breaking profits as we’ve progressed.”

Veteran Rome banker Tom Caldwell started the bank as Greater Rome Bank and the institution has grown to three offices in Rome, one in Calhoun, and the company added another in Cartersville in 2020.

“We’re just bullish that Northwest Georgia is going to continue to do very well,” Lance said.

Lance is currently serving as chairman of the Georgia Community Bankers Association board of directors. John McNair serves as that organization’s CEO.

“I think community banking in Georgia is alive and well,” McNair said. “We’ve actually had several several new charters start up in state.”

Three of them were in the metro Atlanta area and a fourth was in the Athens area.

Georgia ranks in the top 10% of states with more than 140 community banks chartered.

In addition to Greater Community Bank, Rome is also served by community banks at Heritage First Bank and River City Bank.

The mission statement for the Community Bankers Association is “communities are our passion, banking is our business.”

“We really haven’t seen that type of (start-up) activity in Georgia, nonetheless across the country, in years,” McNair said. “The business environment is attractive and therefore you have capital coming into these institutions.

The interest environment is certainly tough for banks, since they make their money on the spread between loan interest coming in and deposit interest going out.

“When you have a historically low interest environment it’s tough to do that, but I think people have turned to (community banks) more so than other types of institutions,” McNair said.

“We are seeing compression on our net interest margin,” Lance said. “We also are seeing other ways to do some things.”

The Greater Community Bank president said that 2020 was the best year yet for originating mortgage loans, in spite of the low inventory of housing in the area.

Greater Community Bank experienced 20%-plus growth in loans and deposits in 2020. The bank also created a special Small Business Administration-backed loan team a little over a year ago.

“We thought they might do $6 million to $7 million last year and they did $11 million-plus,” Lance said. “On the Atlanta Business Chronicle, I think we were No. 21 out of the top 25 banks for 7A (SBA) loans.

Some of the evidence of that during 2020 was the heavy use of the smaller community banks for the federal COVID-19 Paycheck Protection Program loans.

Community banks, with about 20% of deposits nationwide, did 57.5% of all the PPP loans, according to McNair.

“In Georgia, because we have more community banks than most states, we did 60% ... that equates to about 93,000 loans,” McNair said. “Those 93,000 loans equates to saving about a million jobs.”

Greater Community Bank pushed out more than 30 PPP loans during the first round, worth close to $47 million.

“The way we calculate it, we preserved or helped maintain over 8,000 jobs,” Lance said. “We felt like we had a really good response and we think we did a really good job with it.”

Lance said Greater Community Bank already has had several requests for this new second round of PPP funding approved by Congress in December. The bank is looking at upwards of $15 million in requests at this point.

“That was something we didn’t expect at all,” Lance said.

The good news for the local economy, according to Lance, is that Greater Community Bank was experiencing past due loans at only 0.2% at the end of the past year.

“We’re seeing folks with record earnings and we’re seeing folks finding trouble finding employees,” Lance said.

“Personal relationships are incredibly huge,” McNair said. “David walks into the grocery store and he probably sees three or four customers. People’s kids go to school together, they go to church together.”

Another factor in the growth of community banks, according to McNair, is that the small community banks have embraced changing financial technology.

“They are full service,” McNair said. “They’ve got all the bells and whistles of the larger banks, the back office efficiencies.”

Lance said that embracing technology means the bank is offering all of its clients a choice in how they bank.

“What we’re trying to do is be responsive to those interests,” Lance said. “We try to find out from our customers how they best like to be communicated with.”

“I think where we are to distinguish ourselves a little bit is that if you have a problem or a need, you call and you’re going to talk with our folks,” Lance said. “You’re not going to talk on an 800 number somewhere and get people on hold. I hope you’re never going to be transferred more than twice.”

Unfortunately the COVID-19 environment has forced the bank to shut down its lobbies for a second time. He explained that the bank is trying to protect not only the health of its customers’ assets, but the physical health of both customers and employees.

Greater Community plans to do some special recognitions during the year, COVID-19 permitting, to celebrate its anniversary.

What Lance doesn’t want to do is open and close, open and close the banks during the pandemic.

“We did open once and then the numbers just went totally south and so we just decided we needed to wait to be sure that once we get them open we can keep them open,” Lance said.

The Calhoun bank has been undergoing an extensive remodel. Lance said that he felt the pandemic offered the ideal opportunity to undertake that project.

“We are building a state-of-the-art building in Calhoun,” Lance said.

The bank was in a whole strip center and the remodel includes close to 11,000 square feet. He hopes to have the new building ready early this summer.

“If it’s not the case, you may be talking to somebody different (next time),” he said with a smile.

GCB is also in the process of taking down the building at the corner of Tennessee and Dixie streets in Cartersville for a new facility.

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