Every November, deposits at F&M Bank skyrocket-sometimes by more than $1 million. The influx isn't triggered by catchy ads or trendy social-media marketing, though the bank does both. A Christmas party, of all things, has customers scrambling each year to move tens of thousands of dollars to this bank in Clarksville, Tenn.
That's because they must have a certain amount of assets at the bank in order to be invited. "I know a couple of people that put some money in this bank just so they can come to the party," says longtime F&M Bank customer Virginia Lowe.
The swanky shindig is always a spectacle and eagerly anticipated, with customers closely watching their mailboxes for invitations. "You make your hair appointment the day before, so you'll look good at the party," says F&M customer JoAnn Caldwell.
In 2005, the bank flew in half a dozen Rockettes to mingle with guests. To celebrate its 100th anniversary the following year, it held the party on the General Jackson showboat from Opryland in Nashville. This year the theme is Babes in Toyland and the entertainment will feature singers and people posing as statues.
"It's about the bank and it's not about the bank," says Fred Landiss, senior vice president and marketing director at the $800 million-asset F&M. "It's the kind of deal where you build those relationships, but you put a little pressure at the same time."
The event is focused on women and usually draws around 800, mostly middle aged and up. They're part of a group of about 1,300 key customers the bank has identified that collectively holds more than $270 million in deposits, at an average of $44,000 per household.
Usually the Christmas bash is held at the corporate headquarters, which the bank built in 2007. Reflecting its commitment to hosting parties, the entire top floor is a banquet and dance hall. It gets used for various functions, including weekly luncheons for smaller groups of women, in which the bank will invite one customer who then brings 10 or 20 guests of her choosing. "How many banks would ask, 'You want to have a party? We're going to pay for it,'" Landiss says. "That has brought big business."
Landiss started the luncheons because he noticed years ago that local banks weren't targeting women at the time. "Every Christmas they all had huge country ham breakfasts for the men or wild game dinners in the fall," Landiss says. "There was nothing for the women."
Celebrities, fanfare and elaborate place settings aside, Landiss says that the people running the show are what make party-throwing a viable business practice. Success hinges on hiring genuinely nice marketing people who will welcome guests to functions as if into their own home-"You can't train people to be nice," he says. It also depends on having a CEO like Sammy Stuard who gets that you can't always trace every marketing dollar back to a tangible return-and as long as business is growing and customers are happy, there's no need to nitpick.
Landiss insists it's essential to think and act big, too. F&M's marketing team and budget are larger than those of most community banks. Where others are handing out pens and yardsticks, F&M sends Omaha Steaks and bank-branded bottles of wine from a local vineyard. "We're going to out do you," Landiss says. "We're like that little tenacious chihuahua that nips at your heels."