FirstBank completes purchase of Northwest Georgia Bank, names new executives

FirstBank's downtown Chattanooga office at 4th and Chesnut streets is one of two local branches

FirstBank has completed its acquisition of Northwest Georgia Bank and named two veteran local bankers to head the bank - one in Chattanooga and one in Ringgold, Ga.

The existing Northwest Georgia Bank branches - four in Hamilton County in Tennessee and two in Catoosa County in Georgia - will operate under their current name as a division of FirstBank until the back office and IT systems of the banks are combined next May and the branches adopt the FirstBank identity.

photo Rick Partain
photo Jim McKenzie

Jim McKenzie, who has been serving as president of FirstBank Chattanooga and its two branches, will now also head up the four Northwest Georgia Bank branches in the Chattanooga market.

Rick Partain, a 20-year banking veteran who managed Northwest Georgia's special assets for most of the past eight years, has been named North Georgia President and will lead FirstBank's North Georgia operations and its two offices.

"We are fortunate to have someone with Rick's local banking experience to provide leadership in North Georgia," said Chris Holmes, FirstBank president and CEO. "FirstBank's approach in all of our markets, large and small, has been to allow as many decisions as possible to be made at the local level by people who know their communities and their customers."

Steve Rownd, who succeeded Wesley Smith as CEO of Northwest Georgia Bank in February 2013, has left the bank.

FirstBank entered the Chattanooga market in 2008, but prior to the completion of the Northwest Georgia Bank last Friday had only about $60 million in local assets. Northwest Georgia had nearly $286 million in assets as of June 30. But the Ringgold, Ga.-based bank has shrunk in half from its peak of $633 million in early 2008 before the Great Recession forced the bank to shrink in size after suffering heavy loan losses.

Northwest Georgia Bank, which began in Ringgold in 1904, expanded across the border into Tennessee nearly a decade ago shortly before the Great Recession hit and created major loan problems for many banks. Northwest Georgia has lost money since 2007, accumulating losses of nearly $47.4 million in the past seven years to erase most of the bank's capital, according to filings with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The bank has operated under a consent order with regulators and been subject to heightened oversight for more than five years.

Partain, a lifelong North Georgia resident, said he is looking forward to helping FirstBank grow in the region.

"I'm excited about getting back to growing the bank again," Partain said. "Before, our hands were tied in many instances (because of the consent order) and we couldn't do some kinds of loans. Now we can go back and start doing what a normal bank can and hopefully growing our presence in the market."

Partain said FirstBank "is a perfect match for us.

"They understand our market and have a track record of giving back to the communities they serve," he said. "They have also been successful in larger markets, and they will provide us with the resources and expertise to help us meet all of the needs of the Catoosa County market and beyond."

FirstBank, the wholly owned subsidiary of First South Bancorp Inc, is the third-largest Tennessee-headquartered bank. The addition of Northwest Georgia Bank will more than quadruple FirstBank's presence in the Chattanooga market and increase the bank's overall asset size to more than $2.8 billion.

FirstBank, which began in 1906 in Lexington, Tenn., was bought in 1984 by nursing home developer and millionaire Jim Ayers. Since then, the bank has grown its assets from $14 million to more than $2.5 billion through organic growth and a series of eight acquisitions of other banks.

Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or at 757-6340.