Hahira, a speck of a town about 50 miles west of the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia tobacco country, is an unlikely setting for a community bank that doubles as an international software company.

With the belief that community bankers know best when it comes to back-office computer software for small banks, the executives at the Hahira-based Commercial Banking Co. four years ago started a sister company called Goldleaf Technologies Inc. to develop software created by the bank.

Goldleaf, located near the town's single intersection, has sales of $2 million a year and customers in 42 states and Puerto Rico. By early next year, it will provide the automated clearing house network software for the entire country of Panama.

The company and the $25 million-asset Commercial Banking are both owned by Lowndes Bancshares, a single-bank holding company based in Hahira (population 1,300).

Despite the rural, small-town atmosphere, Goldleaf's founders and employees believe they are on the forefront of equipping community banks with the tools they need to compete in an increasingly high-tech industry.

"The Charles Schwabs and other companies marketing their products nationally represent an assault on the traditional bank marketplace," said David Peterson, the founder and president of Goldleaf and still the chief operating officer of Commercial Banking Co.

"Customers are increasingly aware of products in other areas of the country, so if they don't find them in their local bank, they'll go somewhere else," he added.

Goldleaf's primary products include automated clearing house origination and receipt processing, interfacing with network service providers, corporate cash management, and interactive voice response and bill payment services.

"If I want to know if something will work, then I can walk into our bank and see for myself," said Mr. Peterson. "It's a beautiful research and development environment."

Mr. Peterson wrote the software himself in 1989 and gave away rough copies of the programs to area banks. When some of those bankers called back with suggestions for improvements, Mr. Peterson had to tell them Commercial Banking was not in the software business.

Maybe they should be, he and other bank executives then thought. Goldleaf subsequently was founded in November 1990.

The company allied itself with Fitech, a bank consulting and marketing firm near Orlando, to do its marketing and sales, and hired David Baskin, Mr. Peterson's brother-in-law and now vice president of the company, to streamline and upgrade the software.

From this beginning, the company's revenue has increased from $300,000 in the first year to more than $2 million for 1994.

The software subsidiary now has more employees and generates more revenue and more bottom-line income to the holding company than its community bank sister. Mr. Peterson expects the company to achieve over $10 million in sales within five years.

Its biggest coup to date has been to win the contract for installing the automated clearing house network for Panama. It won the bidding in August against more established technology providers, such as Politzer and Haney out of Cambridge, Mass., and expects to have the system installed early next year.

Goldleaf offers 15 different products and estimates that about 2,400 copies of those have been installed in more than 700 financial institutions nationwide.

Its products range in price from $200 to $200,000, with its automated clearing house program selling for about $10,000.

While Goldleaf's customers include the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the American Airlines Credit Union, its focus remains community banks much like Commercial Banking Co.

The bank remains small, with about 20 employees, but management believes it is one of the most technologically advanced banks in the country.

While the company-bank relationship is unusual, officials believe it is a symbiotic one that is mutually beneficial. Mr. Peterson's office is in the bank, but he spends 70% of his time in the three adjoining buildings that house the software company.

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