After a 25-year career with Colonial Bank in Atlanta, Stephen Whatley returned home to his native Alabama—not to retire and play golf, but to start his own community bank.
He immediately started gathering investors, and by August of 2007 had raised $32 million in capital to open two branches simultaneously in Anniston and Opelika. Less than a year later, Southern States Bank opened in Birmingham, as well. After the recent acquisition of Trust Bank in Sylacauga, Southern States now has four offices and 28 employees.
Whatley, who serves as president and chief executive officer of Anniston-based Southern States, says the bank’s primary focus is on small- to medium-sized businesses, business owners and professionals who have significant net worth and strong liquidity. Southern States specializes in real estate lending, according to Whatley, and has developed “quite a SBA portfolio.” The bank’s motto is “The Common Sense Bank.”
Whatley founded Southern States Bank because he felt there was “a strong demand, maybe as strong as there has ever been, for independent banks that are locally owned by the communities that they are in and have input and representation from local boards that actually have authority.”
A very hands-on leader, Whatley says he visits each of the bank’s markets every week. “I delegate, but I’m very involved in the day-to-day activities, especially on the credit side, ” he says. “I get to all our banks.”
On those visits, he gets to know all of his employees, and he feels it’s in his best interest to attract only the best to Southern States Bank. “We feel we have to have the most talented employees, ” he says. “We want to attract and retain the most viable group of informed employees, and we hope to accomplish job satisfaction and an excellent return for our stockholders.”
Accessibility to Whatley and the other members of the management is important, he says. “We keep an open flow of ideas. We communicate very openly and transparently to employees and customers. We treat them as we want to be treated. After all, helping to solve problems is why we’re here.”
In addition to a benefits package that includes health care, a 401(k) plan and long-term disability (and a tuition reimbursement plan in the works), Southern States is “very competitive, ” Whatley says, with compensation and vacation policy. “We concentrate on having a good, wholesome work environment. We’re very attuned to the needs of our employees.”
As a result of the bank’s efforts, Whatley has seen a low employee turnover rate and “highly skilled, educated staff, which gives us a competitive advantage in the markets we serve.”
All of the bank’s employees participate in a monthly staff meeting via teleconferencing where employees are recognized for jobs done well and where there is an open floor to answer any questions and share success stories, Whatley says.
Employees look forward to an annual picnic at Whatley’s farm in Opelika, where he grew up, and each office has its own Christmas party.
Whatley makes sure the bank’s employees are acknowledged and appreciated for the growth of Southern States over the past five years. “We’ll celebrate our fifth birthday on Aug. 27, ” he says, adding that the bank now has $275 million in total assets, with total capitalization somewhere in the $40 million range.
While the bank continues to grow internally, Whatley says he’s always looking for opportunities to start new branches and acquire other banks.
“At Southern States Bank, we believe the most important thing is our relationships with our customers, ” he says. “Staffed with seasoned bankers you know and trust, we are committed to carrying out our mission of providing our customers with the best service they should expect from their bank.”