Stillman Bank: Putting Community in Banking for 140 Years

How does a bank stay relevant and successful for almost a century and a half? For this group, the not-so-secret secret is hard work, accountability and excellent customer service.

Executive officers of Stillman Bank (from left): Sherri Hayes, Executive Vice President and CFO; David Mecklenburg, Executive Vice President and COO; Martin Larson, Chairman and CEO; Edward Munguia, Executive Vice President; Thomas Hughes, President.

How committed is your bank? For Stillman Valley’s homegrown bank, commitment is built into every part of the organization, from its philosophy of customer service to its incredible longevity.

This year, Stillman Bank marks its 140th anniversary, no small mark for any institution, especially one that remains fiercely loyal to its status as a community bank.

“We try to remain very high-touch. We’re the kind of bank that rolls our sleeves up and looks for solutions,” says President Thomas Hughes. “If our customers are successful, we’ll be successful, and I think that idea has guided us over all of these years.”

Stillman Bank remains a full-service, locally headquartered bank, offering everything one would expect of a modern financial institution: checking and savings accounts, loans, business products and services, trust and wealth management services, and much more.

Where the organization separates itself from the big players is its ability to make key decisions right on-site at any of its six northern Illinois locations: Stillman Valley, Oregon, Rochelle, Byron, Rockford and Roscoe.

Lenders are local, so decisions are made and servicing is done in-house. This means investments get reinvested back into this region. Bank leaders also take pride in the fact that a customer calling during regular business hours will reach an actual person, not an automated or off-site call center.

Small-business clients remain the bank’s bread and butter, and Stillman Bank serves a variety of industries, including agriculture, with a promise to stand by its customers. In fact, some local businesses have been customers of the bank for multiple generations.

“I like to say that we’ll never run hot or cold. When something gets tough for a certain industry, we’re not going to bail on them,” says Chairman and CEO Martin Larson. “We will continue to work through ups and downs because every industry has them. Ag, real estate, manufacturing, you name it, but we take pride in the fact that we’re here for them for the long haul.”

And what a long haul it is. Stillman Bank is still owned by local investors, some of them the descendants of earlier owners. Larson has served multiple generations of clients after spending 50 years in the industry, all of them with Stillman Bank. Like Larson, many of the bank’s 105 employees have been there long-term as well.

“They are the backbone of everything we do here,” says Hughes. “They’re very committed. The success we’ve had, we’ve been incredibly fortunate to have because of the hard work they do, and I can’t say enough positive things about them.”

Adds Larson, “And in addition to our employees, it has been a privilege to work with such a dedicated Board of Directors and to receive such great, ongoing support from our shareholders through the years.”

What’s now a regional powerhouse with $624 million in assets, according to the FDIC, traces its origins to 1882, when James H. King opened a private bank on the northwest corner of Walnut and Main streets in downtown Stillman Valley. King worked out of that single-story, 20-foot-wide frame building for nearly 20 years as he acquired new partners and clients in a small, farming-dominated community.

In 1911, the bank replaced its frame structure with a brick building that’s still standing. The organization continued to grow, enduring through the Great Depression and becoming a nationally chartered bank in January 1937.

The postwar boom set Stillman Bank on a half-century course of growth, as it moved to a newer, larger facility on the northeast corner of Main and Walnut in 1963. At its centennial, the bank established a satellite facility in Oregon, and in 1987 it acquired the former United Bank of Rochelle. It opened a location in Byron a few years later, built another location on Rockford’s East State Street in 1999, and entered the Roscoe/Rockton area in 2006.

Larson still remembers what it was like to be a rookie banker in 1972 when Stillman Bank was just a small-town institution with 14 employees and around $13 million in assets. Over the decades, Larson has risen from the teller station to almost every part of the institution, and he now serves as Chairman and CEO.

“I can look at every one of our employees and tell them, ‘There’s an opportunity for every one of you,’” he says. “It just depends on your desire and willingness to put in the time and effort.”

Perhaps the biggest change he’s experienced has been the pace of technological advancement. Today, Stillman Bank offers a full array of online banking services including opening accounts, applying for loans, depositing checks and more. The bank also offers no-fee withdrawals at more than 37,000 ATMs nationwide and provides services that enable customers to manage and protect their debit and credit cards via their mobile phones.

“It’s probably been the biggest change I’ve experienced in my career,” says Larson. “I started from a point where there were no computers and everything was done manually. No checking account numbers, everything was organized alphabetically. Every phase of technology we’ve added continues to advance our services. I’m excited for what the next five or ten years might look like.”

While it’s entirely possible to work with the bank and never step foot inside the building – and Larson recognizes there are customers like that – most all customers appreciate the personal, human touch that goes along with a community bank. It’s just as powerful for a 20-something mobile bank customer in Rockford as it is for a retired snowbird who lives part-time in Florida.

“They like to be able to pick up the phone or email us and say, ‘I’m looking to buy a car. Can you help with that?’” Larson says. “Absolutely, we can handle it for them. They like the timeliness, they know us, and there’s that additional personal touch. There’s really no reason for someone not to bank with us, given the technology that’s available.”

Hughes, who has been with the bank for 27 years, started his career in a LaSalle County bank that had only six employees. Now president of Stillman Bank, Hughes believes that emphasis on the customer is still an integral part of his team’s work.

“I actually interviewed for my first job here with Marty and I told him I liked the way the values of the bank lined up to mine – treating the customer right and treating our employees right,” says Hughes. “It all aligned with the way I thought people should be taken care of, so that’s what drew me here. And obviously, that idea has come true many times over.”

In addition to the services they provide, bank employees remain committed to their hometowns in many ways, including involvement with local charities, nonprofit boards, fundraisers and donations. The bank is also one of the largest area supporters of United Way.

“There are many times a customer comes in and the teller comes around the teller line and hugs them because they’ve known each other for 20 or 30 years,” says Hughes. “There’s definitely that neighborly, hometown kind of feel. We have the same kinds of capabilities as big banks but we also have that small, friendly hometown touch.”

Does it feel daunting to carry on a legacy 140 years in the making? Larson and Hughes believe Stillman Bank owes its success and longevity to the work of every individual behind the scenes.

“It took a lot of people before us, and it’s going to take a lot of people after us,” says Larson. “From my standpoint, I feel very comfortable with where the future of this bank is, and what it looks like. I can’t say it enough: the skill set and the mindset and the commitment we have with our people has been tremendous. It looks like a very bright future.”