By Ken de la Bastide
Tribune enterprise editor
A little more than a decade ago a group of civic and business leaders decided to take the risk to create a bank centered around Howard County, that’s how Community First became a reality.
The bank opened for business in downtown Kokomo on Feb. 3, 2003 and since that time has added two more branches.
Mike Stegall, president and CEO of Community First, said the bank started with assets of $12.5 million and 16 employees and today has assets of $190 million and has grown to 45 employees with an annual payroll of $2.5 million.
Back in 2003 Stegall was president of the First National Bank and was reasonably sure the bank was going to be sold to another financial group.
“I knew there would be an opening for a community bank,” he said. “At the time, First National was the community bank for Kokomo. Community First would become the 13th bank in the community.”
Stegall enlisted the help of 15 other local civic leaders and began the process of forming the bank.
“I wanted a commitment of enough money to form a good foundation,” he said. “Those first investors became the board of directors. I wanted solid members to guide the bank.”
The effort first started with the forming of Community First Mortgage to begin the groundwork for opening of a locally-owned bank.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. indicated that to start the bank it would require $10 million in assets and up to $1 million to get organized.
Stegall said the board of directors provided half of the assets and the bank was able to raise $12.5 million without any outside help.
“Our model was good,” he said. “We were able to attract clients from First National and when it was sold to Harris Bank, that was our big growth spurt.”
Stegall said most of the stock in Community First is retained by Howard County residents and all the decisions are make in Kokomo.
“Our plan is to not expand outside of Howard County,” he said. “As Howard County goes, Community First goes.”
Although there are no future plans, Stegall said there has been discussions about opening branches in Greentown and Russiaville.
“We’re content with the three locations,” he said. “Virtually all our customers are Howard County residents. We do have some loans outside of Howard County to diversify our portfolio.”
A trend in Indiana and the U.S. over the past few decades has been that locally-owned banks are eventually purchased by national banking companies.
“We’ve had a few inquiries,” Stegall said, “but no firm offers.”
During the tough economic times in Kokomo from 2008 through 2010, the board discussed the idea of selling the bank, he said.
“We thought it was worth maintaining the bank in Howard County,” Stegall said. “It was determined to take the risk that the local economy would bounce back.”
The bank has turned a profit every year except for the first and won’t grow by another $200 million in assets over the next decade, he said. The bank expects a growth rate per year of 3 to 5 percent.
Community First will continue to promote the Kokomo and Howard County community, he said.
“We will do everything we can to help keep Kokomo vibrant,” Stegall said. “We’re willing to take some risks if it benefits the community.”
Stegall said when the bank started he pledged to remain as CEO for ten years. He plans to remain in his current position through 2014 and possibly 2015.
“I will stay on the Board of Directors,” he said. “I’m starting to delegate more responsibilities. Almost all my assets are in the bank, so I have a vested interest in it.”
One of the prime movers in the creation of the Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance, Stegall said he will remain active with the group in the future.
“I love this community,” he said.
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