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Patti Steele, president and chief executive officer of First Volunteer Bank, sits at the head of the table with other bank executives during an interview at First Volunteer Bank headquarters Monday, May 13, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Megan Cassell, chief financial officer, Trish Phillips, executive vice president and director of retail banking, and Jeremy Dean, executive vice president of business banking, sit along side Steele.

When Patti Steele joined the former Marion Trust & Banking Co. in 1987 the bank had about $50 million in assets.

But over the past three decades, through a series of acquisitions, plenty of organic growth and a new name and bigger footprint, the bank has grown into the biggest locally owned bank in Southeast Tennessee with assets topping $1 billion this year. Steele, who joined the bank as a young loan assistant in Chattanooga, has risen through the ranks to become president, CEO and chairman of the holding company for the bank now known as First Volunteer Bank.

From its downtown Chattanooga headquarters, First Volunteer has grown to 24 branches in nine counties in Tennessee and two in Northwest Georgia stretching from Knoxville to Lawrenceburg and from Jellico, Tennessee, to Lafayette, Georgia, with more than 270 employees. While most banks have pruned the number of branches they operate, First Volunteer has not closed any of its offices since the recession a decade ago, and the bank is looking to add a couple of more offices to serve the Chattanooga market.

"We're putting together our branch expansion plan now for Chattanooga," Steele says. "It's very preliminary, but we expect to add at least two more branches in the next year with more in the future. We want to fill in more of our footprint, and we think Chattanooga is the biggest opportunity today."

 

Promoting from within

To help foster more growth, Steele has promoted from within a nearly entirely new leadership team in the past year, including chief financial officer Megan Cassell, retail banking director Trish Phillips, business banking head Jeremy Dean and commercial banking executive Jeff Bridgman.

"We've got a great team that I am really proud of, and they have a lot of great ideas to take us forward," Steele says. "We have a fairly flat management organization with our entire executive team working together here in Chattanooga."

Steele's own career path to the president's suite came from internal promotions at the bank. In November 1987, Steele joined the bank for her first job as a loan assistant helping to develop a centralized credit department to look at all loans over $50,000.

"I've had a lot of opportunity to do a lot of different jobs here as we have added banks and added people," she says. "We were a small company when I joined the bank with just six people at the holding company, and we were looking to grow so I got a lot of different jobs."

Steele initially was just looking for a job when she joined then Marion Trust & Bank in November 1987. Just a couple of years earlier Robert Anderson had bought the bank. Steel immediately liked her co-workers and being able to help customers with loans and other bank services. Although she didn't go to college, Steele has had plenty of on-the-job training and education as a banker, earning a Stonier Graduate School of Banking Diploma from Georgetown University, a Professional Master of Banking Diploma from Louisiana State University and a Graduate School of Human Resources Management Diploma from Purdue University.

Steele was promoted to bank president in 2003, bank CEO in 2005 and the additional role of chairman of the bank holding company earlier this year. She has served three years as a director on the board of the Tennessee Bankers Association, three years on the Community Bankers Council for the American Bankers Association and she is currently serving on the Stonier Graduate School of Banking board.

Steele says she emphasizes a team approach to running the bank. Her workday starts early most days with reading emails and reports at 5:30 a.m. She often doesn't finish work until after 6 p.m.

 

Breaking the glass barrier

Steele is one of the first female CEOs to head a bank with over $1 billion in assets, but she downplays the gender factor in her role.

"I'm fortunate to work for a company where gender is not and has not been an issue," Steele says, noting that both her CFO and head of retail banking operations are women. "I think the banking industry has evolved a great deal and I've never felt that gender issues matter that much and have not tried to focus on that."

Instead, Steele emphasized the community nature of the bank as distinctive.

some text Patti Steele, president and chief executive officer of First Volunteer Bank, poses for a photo at First Volunteer Bank headquarters Monday, May 13, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

For all of its new technology and the growing use of online, telephone and digital banking, Phillips said many customers still want to personally visit and talk with bankers in a branch office.

"You can deliver services many different ways — and we do – but I think branch banking is still very important for a community bank like ours," she says. "We see very healthy loan demand in this market, which is one reason I think you're seeing a lot of competition come into this market. Chattanooga is a sweet spot in the state right now."

First Volunteer is the biggest locally owned bank in Chattanooga with nearly half of its deposits in the six-county Chattanooga metro area. Among the 28 commercial banks in metro Chattanooga, First Volunteer was the sixth biggest in Chattanooga, according to the 2018 reports by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

 

Century-old roots in Marion County

The bank traces its roots to 1904 when it began as the Marion Trust and Banking Co. in Jasper near where Steele grew up. Under the ownership of Robert Anderson, the bank relocated its headquarters to its current Broad Street headquarters in downtown Chattanooga in 1999 and changed its name to Volunteer Bank & Trust and later First Volunteer Bank.

Since 1986, the bank has grown through eight acquisitions of other small community banks, including its most recent purchase in 2012 of the former Gateway Bank & Trust in Ringgold, Georgia.

"I spent my entire career in community banking and they are different from regional banks," says Phillips, a former Gateway Bank official who joined First Volunteer with its Gateway Bank acquisition and now heads the combined bank's retail operations and staff. "It's about helping customers."

First Volunteer now serves more than 30,000 customer accounts and Steele says First Volunteer is looking to fill in its footprint and could make other acquisitions, although none of are now in the works.

 

Positioned to grow

"We're in a great capital position (with an equity-to-asset ratio of nearly 11.8 percent) and we've got a great leadership team with a lot of long-term focus," Steele says.

The bank is seeking to grow its small business loan portfolio, especially with more consolidation among other banks and more borrowers looking for different bank options, Steele said.

"Small business banking, I think, is just the backbone of the whole country and we see real opportunity there, especially as some of the larger regional banks may tend to overlook some of the small mom- and pop-owned businesses," she says. "We do bank a lot of those businesses already, but we just want more so we're putting an intentional focus on that in this market."

For all of her focus on growth, Steele says the key to success at First Volunteer has been to focus on soundness, profitability and growth "in that order of importance."

"And we've never wavered from that," she says. "Because we are a locally owned and community bank, it keeps us on the ground, connected and knowledgeable about our customers and I think better able to serve them. Our credit team is in the same building as our lending teams, and having [everything] all together makes us quicker, more nimble and still more careful."

First Volunteer owns an insurance agency, which operates out of many of its bank branches, and it operates one of the largest mortgage lending services among banks in the area. The bank is expanding its fraud detection, credit monitoring and even road service options with a new "Beyond Checking Account" introduced in May.

First Volunteer also offers cash management, treasury and other business services of larger banks, although it does not offer wealth management or trust services.

Among community banks of similar size, First Volunteer is among the top 10 percent in its financial performance, Cassell said.

"We're built to last and you can see that in every decision we make," Cassell says.

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