Have you ever wondered who or what makes a bank successful? Come with me on my interview with Brenda O’Neil, native Southwest Floridian, life-time equestrian and bank-builder. Her story is fascinating, her enthusiasm rich, her dedication admirable and her motto “Change is good.”
I met with Brenda at her bank’s main office building in Fort Myers on Colonial Blvd. With her firm handshake, quick smile and grace, I could tell right away she is a woman with purpose.
She got into banking accidentally. She was going to school, taking college courses, while supporting her mom who was ill. She found a job in 1972 as a teller at a Savings & Loan (at the time, it was Fort Myers’ oldest bank.) An accidental broken foot moved her from the teller department into accounting and that’s where she got hooked, and found her calling and business love. Her original intention of becoming a lawyer fell to the wayside as she wholeheartedly embraced the challenges and opportunities that came her way in the banking industry. Brenda “had the privilege of joining forces with two gentlemen in 1984.” Together, they formed Parkway Bank which they ran for 10 years. In the mid-1990’s, the bank was acquired by AmSouth Bank where she served as area executive for 6 years; this was the only time in her history the she wasn’t a community banker.
Brenda left AmSouth after receiving a call from a community bank that was trying to get started. She helped pick up the pieces, pulled them together and began Premier Community Bank in 1999. She ran it for 4 years until Colonial Bank came “knocking on the door,” offering them a price they couldn’t refuse.
Following a non-compete clause, she stayed out of banking for 2 years and focused on her beloved horses and riding. She and her husband Andy live on a 25-acre farm with their horses, 4 rescued dogs and animals of many kinds that have come to be part of their family. “Animal lovers don’t even begin to describe us!” she proclaims.
As with most competitors and people with a passion for what they do, they never really retire. Brenda is no exception. In 2006 she and her business partners saw a need for a local community bank. They started the groundwork and in 2007 they received their official charter and, with many of the same people who had been let go in the Colonial Bank acquisition (directors, shareholders and employees whose careers had ended prematurely), they launched what is now Preferred Community Bank (PCB.) It began predominantly as a business bank where they financed mostly owner-occupied commercial real estate.
“Statistically, commercial real estate lags 2 years behind residential real estate” Brenda shared, so when the worst economic downturn in US history hit the area, they found themselves in a precarious situation. Banks were folding left and right, but PCB survived because they are small and nimble enough to change business plans at the spur of the moment, whereas larger banks take time to change directions. PCB had to decide what they wanted to do and what they could safely do. Part of their plan was to do nothing and stay the course, waiting for the market to stabilize. Perhaps these were lessons she learned on horseback?
“In essence, PCB took a 3-year hiatus and this limited growth created a sense of security with our customers which is what probably saved us.” When the bank came back into lending, it was primarily as a residential lender. “Like a small business, you don’t produce a lot of widgets if there aren’t a lot of widget buyers” Brenda states.
A community bank is set up like a small business but has local shareholders who are bank customers. Regional and national banks are publicly traded and have thousands of shareholders from around the world. “Preferred Community Bank has a very limited scope, it’s kind of a friends and family environment. The people in the community own this bank” she explains.
Being a good community member means supporting local events and charities. Preferred Community Bank “belongs to everything” she smiles, the Chamber, Kiwanis and much more. “The Bank does a “Jeans Day” every week on Friday, the employees pay $5.00 for the privilege of wearing jeans to work. The money is collected and goes to different charities (people and animal.)” They sponsor rescue groups and have invited Gulf Coast Humane society to bring animals to the bank for a few hours for adoption exposure. Community is what it’s all about.
“People who are successful in business have that drive to be competitive,” she says. So, eleven years ago Brenda decided to take her love and life-long experience of riding horses to the next level: competition, ranging from Western Pleasure, Horsemanship to Trail. She modestly admits to “having some success” (she has more than 40 World and National Titles.) One horse, Brady (registered as “Taking Hits” after his original owner’s favorite football player, Tom Brady) is “good at everything.” He wasn’t the original horse she wanted, but she decided to buy him 3 years ago, sight-unseen. “He is the most amazing horse I’ve owned in my life from a performance perspective.” A relatively small Appaloosa (a breed she has always had and raised), Brady is also registered as a Buckskin, so last year they went to many more competitions where they “cleaned house and won everything.”
Brenda’s philosophy, confidence, intuitiveness and compassion are the keys to her success in the banking world and in the arena. Rules and regulations have to be lived with, but a willingness to take a calculated risk have propelled her over banking business and physical equestrian hurdles with admirable outcomes, and have created a successful community bank with an accomplished leader in the saddle.