published Thursday, June 20th, 2013

FirstBank owner talks of Chattanooga area expansion efforts





Jim Ayers, chairman of FirstBank (right), and Christopher Holmes, president of FirstBank, meet with reporter Ellis Smith before a luncheon at the Hunter Museum of American Art on Wednesday, June 19, 2013.
Jim Ayers, chairman of FirstBank (right), and Christopher Holmes, president of FirstBank, meet with reporter Ellis Smith before a luncheon at the Hunter Museum of American Art on Wednesday, June 19, 2013.
Photo by C. B. Schmelter /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Jim Ayers, chairman of FirstBank, speaks before a luncheon at the Hunter Museum of American Art on Wednesday.
    Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
    enlarge photo

FirstBank fast facts:

* Founded: 1906 as Farmers State Bank in Scotts Hill, Tenn.

* Headquarters: Lexington, Tenn.

* Size: $2.2 billion in assets, $1.8 billion in deposits

* Employees: 700

* Branches: 54

* Owner: Jim Ayers

* Earnings: $25.1 million in 2012

* Chattanooga deposits: $44.2 million

Source: FirstBank, FDIC

About Jim Ayers:

* Hometown: Parsons, Tenn.

* Occupation: Owner of Lexington, Tenn.-based FirstBank and founder of several foundations

* Education: MBA from Memphis State University

* Early career: health care and real estate

* Banking foray: Purchase in 1984 of $14 million Scotts Hill, Tenn.-based Farmers State Bank

* Interests: Hunting, art collecting, Boy Scouts of America, medical and educational philanthropy

* Notable facts: The first in his family to earn a college degree, Ayers today gives away millions to charity.

Source: FirstBank

FirstBank owner and avid outdoorsman Jim Ayers visited Chattanooga on Wednesday to drum up business for his bank and trim some market share from his Scenic City rivals.

"Last year was a record year, and this year, barring unforeseen circumstances, will be another record year," said Ayers, the sole shareholder and founder of the bank, which today boasts more than $2.2 billion in assets.

Though FirstBank is the largest independently-owned bank in Tennessee, it maintains a smaller presence in Chattanooga with just two branches. And executives are not in a hurry to slap down a bevy of new building, even as they they celebrate $25.1 million in 2012 earnings.

"Expansion doesn't look today like what it did five or 10 years ago, and five years from now it will look different again," said Chris Holmes, president and CEO of the Lexington, Tenn.-based bank.

Rather than building new branches, many banks today are looking at cutting the number of tellers and combining branches, as customers gain the ability to deposit checks with a cellphone or PC without ever getting in a car. Most of FirstBank's commercial customers these days can deposit directly from their own offices, Holmes said.

"If you looked at it a few years ago, you'd say, 'Gee, I need 10 branches in Chattanooga,' but you wouldn't say that today," he said.

But that doesn't mean that the bank of the future is going be an anonymous server farm, Ayers was quick to add. It simply means that more bankers will be working from the road, traveling to meet key customers instead of waiting for people to come to them.

"I'm chairman of the board of the bank, but I make as many marketing calls as anybody in the bank," Ayers said. "When you come to get a loan, it's not like it goes to Atlanta or St. Louis or North Carolina, and some faceless, nameless person gives a thumbs up or a thumbs down. If you ask, we'll give you the name of the person who's making the decision."

On Wednesday at the Hunter Museum, Ayers addressed a crowd of business owners and high-net-worth individuals, only half of whom were FirstBank customers. The rest were customers of other banks that he hoped to woo, he said.

"I'm meeting with a large customer here in town later, and I want to make him know two things," he said. "One, we're very appreciative, and two, we want to do more."

Ayers told attendees the FirstBank story: how in 1984 he bought Farmer's State Bank, which then had $14 million in assets, and promised its owners he'd never change the name. Even though the men who sold him the bank have long since passed away, and though the FirstBank empire today boasts 700 employees and $1.8 billion in deposits, -- the third largest Tennessee-based bank by deposits -- the small brick building in Scotts Hill still has "Farmers State Bank" written above the front door.

"Most of the folks in that town don't even know why," he said. "This is what we believe is the way that you build business."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6315.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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