Left, Russ Marquart, Empire Bank president and CEO, and Mike Williamson, chairman of the board of directors.
Pre-1980s Decade Award Winner: Empire Bank
Karen E. Culp
Empire Bank’s impact on the local economy is tied to its core philosophy.
“We are a bank that has always thought that we needed to serve the community in order to be successful,” says Mike Williamson, chairman of the bank’s board of directors.
As one of the largest small business lenders in Greene, Christian, Dallas and Webster counties, the bank is dedicated to extending credit to qualified, credible customers who can bring jobs to the area.
“When we make credit available to our customers, it will cause them to grow their businesses or build facilities or expand operations and it provides employment opportunities,” Williamson says. “The bank employment itself is not insignificant, but it’s not nearly as important as the number of lives that are influenced by credit being extended by ourselves.”
Empire Bank got its start in 1956 with a single branch, $13 million in assets, and six employees. Today, the bank has 17 full-service locations, $820 million in assets at the end of 2009 and more than 240 employees.
Through the years, the bank has expanded its services, adding investment and trust services and insurance.
Though Empire was acquired by Jefferson City-based Central Bancompany in 1980, Empire has maintained independence and local control, Williamson says.
“They had a really different approach to running a holding company,” he adds “Empire is still a separately chartered bank, with its own board of directors. As far as everyone is concerned, we are a local bank, and we like that.”
Empire has helped several area businesses with financing, and Williamson says he’s particularly enjoyed working with developer John Q. Hammons through the years.
Privately held Empire has kept its eye on its own financial position, says Russ Marquart, president and CEO.
“Our bank … has maintained a high loan-to-deposit ratio, which means that we gather local deposits and we believe that the best investment … is to loan that money back out,” Marquart says.
The bank also has contributed to growth in the local housing market, providing thousands of home loans through the years, Marquart says.
The bank and its employees also lend their time and talents in the community, through activities such as teaching local children about savings and credit. Empire also donates more than $300,000 a year to area organizations.
“We do it because it’s the right thing to do,” Marquart says.
Empire’s holding company was named one of the Top 10 Safest Banks in the Country in 2009 by Forbes Magazine.
The bank will continue to grow – adding locations and services – but it will do so in the appropriate way, Marquart says.
“We don’t gamble our depositors’ or shareholders’ money based on speculation of where rates will go,” he says. “We want to make sure we are a stable, reliable financial partner able to provide what our customers need.”
On July 14, Empire and Citizens National Bank announced that the two banks have entered into a definitive agreement for Empire to buy CNB for an undisclosed amount. Though the transaction is pending regulatory approval, Marquart says the deal will make Empire the second largest bank the Ozarks based on local deposits.
Empire is committed to trying to retain as many CNB employees as possible, according to past Springfield Business Journal coverage, and 0fficials with both banks say their shared philosophies based on old-fashioned customer service will serve customers of both institutions well.[[In-content Ad]]