Today's column is about Susie Preston, president of Boatmen's National Bank of Charleston, Ill.

The Boatmen's! That $26 billion-asset St. Louis-based holding company! How can a column about one of their affiliates belong in the community banking section of this newspaper?

Meet Susie, aged 53 , whose real name is Sara Jane Preston, and you'll see why she exemplifies everything solid about community banking.

Susie moved to Charleston in 1969 because her husband, Fred, became a professor at Eastern Illinois University there. Hired by the Charleston National Bank, she became secretary to the board and then moved into lending and administration.

Executive Mentor

Her real training, though, came from one-on-one discussions of individual credits and policy decisions with James Leonard Archer, president of the bank for 40 years.

"He would hand me the financials, write his opinions on a piece of paper and ask me to do the same. Then we would compare notes and, boy, would I learn."

Archer became ill in 1983 and Susie took over much of his workload until he returned.

"In a community bank, that's what happens," Susie says. "Somebody just has to surface."

Personal Question

When Archer returned, he asked Susie if she would like to be president. But Susie admits he also asked, "Could your husband stand having his wife be a bank president?"

"My husband has a strong enough ego that it won't bother him," she replied. But when I met Susie recently at a Boatmen's meeting, we both agreed that no one would ever ask a man if his wife could stand having him promoted.

Susie took over the bank, raised two children, and became active in civic organizations. She placed her desk in the lobby, where she keeps in touch with the customer base, and handles a large portion of loans. But she hasn't yet learned to play golf.

She is usually there, except, of course, when she is out doing things like washing windows at the drive-up along with other staff in a promotional effort to boost business. As she told a customer, "If you insist on using the drive-up, I'll just have to come out here to see you."

Susie's test of fire came shortly after she took over the presidency:

One of the directors "preapproved" a loan to expand a local business, and Susie found out about it when the customer came in to finalize the paperwork.

Not Up to Snuff

Susie took the application and reviewed the loan; unfortunately it did not fit into the portfolio. Before telling the customer of the bank's decision, she called the director, who was out of town at the time. Susie offered to make the loan if he would guarantee it personally.

The director replied, "If I am going to have to guarantee the loan, I might as well make it privately if you will draw up the papers."

That's just what happened, and directors have been principled enough since then not to make informal statements that affect the. bank without first checking. (Incidentally, the borrower paid off the loan on schedule.)

Duties Intact After Merger

Boatmen's has owned the bank since 1986, just one year after Susie became president, but the company was smart enough to leave Susie alone, other than to take over operations and investments, areas in which few community bankers like to spend their time. They would rather spend it in direct community contact.

And the strategy must be working, because Boatmen's of Charleston is one of the company' most profitable banks.

So it would be hard to differentiate Boatmen's of Charleston from any other community bank except in its well-known name and the fact that Susie has the ability to call on talent in other affiliates for help in specific problems when she needs it.

But even this is a resource that most community banks that have remained independent have available to them if they choose their correspondent banks carefully.

And if more proof is needed that Boatmen's of Charleston is today's community bank, Susie admitted to me that just before she left for the meeting of Boatmen's leadership where I met her, she had stayed up late the night before ironing her husband's shirts.

Listen John Reed and Richard Rosenberg -- can you make a similar confession?

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