The leader of Catoosa County's oldest continuous business has stepped down, Northwest Georgia Bank announced Wednesday.
Wes Smith began his career at the bank in 1971 as a commercial lender, took over as president in 1978 and was appointed chairman and CEO in 2004. He retires after almost 42 years with the bank.
While Northwest Georgia Bank prospered for several years after he took the helm, the real estate downturn cut into earnings, and the bank lost more than $35 million over the past four years. Like many other financial institutions hit hard by bad loans, Northwest Georgia operates under a federal consent agreement, and has received the lowest possible ranking at Bankrate.com.
But in spite of the bank's challenges, Northwest Georgia did not get a U.S. Treasury Troubled Asset Relief Program bailout, which many other banks such as SunTrust, Regions and First Security Group received.
"I have enjoyed most of my 41 years at the bank, although the last four years have been difficult," Smith said in a news release announcing his retirement.
Smith, who also served as treasurer of Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal's gubernatorial campaign, did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement, he said he felt good about the bank's future under his son, president and chief operating officer Scott Smith, who is now the bank's interim leader.
"It was not easy dealing with customers who needed loans and did not qualify, but thankfully, trends are looking positive and the future looks good," said the elder Smith.
During his tenure as head of the 107-year-old bank, Northwest Georgia grew from a $6 million institution to more than $500 million in assets at the market peak in 2008, and expanded from two branches to nine.
However, Smith's son will still have his work cut out for him. When many of the bank's real estate loans were rendered worthless, Northwest Georgia was forced to shrink dramatically from a $622 million bank in 2009 to a $451 million bank today in terms of assets. Four years after the market crashed, Bankrate.com still calls the quality of Northwest Georgia's nonperforming asset ratio "highly problematic," and rates its new worth to total asset ratio as "significantly below normal."
The elder Smith will remain on the board of the bank, as well as the bank's holding company, NW Services Corp.
The Whitwell, Tenn., native began his career in 1965 at Chattanooga's Pioneer Bank as a teller to pay the bills while he completed his degree at the UTC. Smith is a graduate of the Tennessee Bankers School of Vanderbilt and the School of Banking of the South at LSU, and formerly served as chairman of the Georgia Bankers Association.
He helped found the Catoosa County Chamber of Commerce, serving as chairman there as well as at the Better Business Bureau of Chattanooga. With his wife, Shirley, Smith has three children and six grandchildren.
"I will most miss helping people start their business and purchase their first home," he said.