Meet a team of commercial bankers who determined to try a different approach to serving local businesses, and learn how they’ve found success during a challenging first decade.
In 2005, local banker Tom Budd saw an opportunity to start a local bank dedicated to small businesses and their owners. So, along with his business partner, Shawn Way, Budd founded Rockford Bank & Trust with eight employees and a focus on commercial banking.
“We had come through the post-9/11 mini recession, and at that point I believed there were many small-business owners who needed a banker who understood the uniqueness of their business and would be there during the good times and bad,” says Budd, who is President and CEO of Rockford Bank & Trust. “During the bad times, business owners often discover they don’t have the relationship with their bank that they thought they had. It’s not scientific – it’s about forming long-lasting and sincere relationships. What they really need is someone who will take the time to get to know them and their business. They needed to know we’re in it for the long haul. The key is maintaining customer relationships through thick and thin.”
In just 10 years, Rockford Bank & Trust has expanded to 52 employees, two locations and a full line of commercial, retail, mortgage, and trust and investment services. The bank has grown to $350 million in assets and a portfolio in loans to $270 million, making it one of the leading commercial banks in the market.
“We were able to attract the right type of people who were experienced and well-known in the marketplace,” Budd says. “We thought that if we took the right approach, the rest would take care of itself. There’s nothing complicated about the way we do business. We don’t have turf wars and we don’t have silos. We work as one team and have one goal – to solve the customer’s problems, whatever they might be.”
Budd and Way, who met in high school, both came from banking backgrounds: Budd from Chase, Way from AMCORE. They spent four months assembling the pieces – creating a business plan, hiring employees and finding a location to set up shop. “We were both 40 years old at the time,” Budd says. “Our attitude was ‘Why not take the risk?’”
Not that it was easy. Budd had plenty of worries in the beginning: What if we can’t get anyone to buy stock? What if no one will bank with us? What if no one will work for us?
“Those were concerns we had for six months,” Budd says. “I remember going to the post office one day and there was no mail for us. I thought, ‘How pathetic are we?’ We had several people who said we wouldn’t make it, but there were many others who were very supportive. That gave us the confidence that we should stick with it.”
In late 2004, Rockford Bank & Trust opened for business inside Cord Construction, on East State Street, with three offices, a couple of cubicles and a vault tucked away in the closet.
The bank moved to the Morrissey Building in downtown Rockford a few months later. By 2006, it had built and opened its current location at 4571 Guilford Road on Rockford’s east side. Rockford Bank & Trust has since moved its downtown branch from the Morrissey Building to Stewart Square, 308 W. State St. “Downtown is important to us,” Budd says. “We’ll always have a presence there.”
Last year, Rockford Bank & Trust donated 2,000 hours of time volunteering for more than 50 nonprofits in the community. Its staff serves on numerous boards and the bank donates to local charities. Those served include the United Way I-Read program, in which a number of bank employees volunteer to go to elementary schools and help children with their reading skills. In addition, the bank was a significant contributor and provided a number of bankers to help build the Habitat for Humanity “Banker Build” house in 2014.
Rockford Bank & Trust also pledged $12,500 a year for three years to support Rockford Bank & Trust Financial Scholars, a financial literacy education program for high school students in the Rockford Public Schools. The web-based program uses new media technology to get today’s digital generation to understand complex financial concepts. The goal is to reach every high school student in the district over the course of the program.
“We have a commitment to education,” Budd says. “Our clients need educated workers; students need education. Personal finance can be confusing, with issues such as managing your credit score, handling debt and fraud. If we can help prepare these kids to be responsible with their personal finances, it will really help them in life.”
Recently, the National Association of Government Guaranteed Lenders named Rockford Bank & Trust a winner of its 2014 Champion of Veterans Small Business Lending Award. The award is given to financial institutions that advocate and improve awareness of small-business opportunities to veterans. In 2014, Rockford Bank & Trust facilitated six small-business loans to veterans in the amount of $1.3 million.
“This is the right thing to do,” Budd says. “We know there are a lot of veterans out there who have dreams of starting small businesses. This is a way to make it easier for them.”
Budd is cautiously optimistic about the economy, thanks to the determination of local business owners. “What I love about small-business owners is they lay it on the line every day,” he says. “They risk everything they have for themselves and their employees. I have so much respect for how they persevere through tough times.”
Way left the bank five years ago when he took over as president/CEO of Milestone Inc., a nonprofit that benefits people with disabilities, but he continues to serve on the bank’s board. “I was happy for Shawn,” Budd says. “He followed a dream of his, and we continue to be the best of friends.”
As far as any future expansion for Rockford Bank & Trust goes, nothing has been decided, according to Budd.
“We see ourselves as a boutique bank,” he says. “We’re never going to have 14 branches in Rockford. From an industry standpoint, there’s an ongoing debate about brick and mortar in the banking industry. Most young people, for example, don’t even step foot in a bank. If you want to be the bank for the future, it’s all going to be technology-driven. It’s not enough to take deposits, offer loans or provide good service anymore. We have to get as good as we can be at solving problems for our clients.
“We have to continue building trust and have our clients view us as a partner,” he adds. “No matter what, it will always be about relationships. Technology will have its role, but when it comes down to it, it’s still a people business.”
It’s been 10 years, but Budd feels that Rockford Bank & Trust is just scratching the surface.
“My goal was never to see how big we could be – it was how good we could be,” he says. “If you had told me we would reach $350 million in assets, it would have been hard to picture. It reaffirms that I wasn’t crazy. I’m totally humbled that people took a chance at banking with us, and they’re still with us today.”