Robert L. McCormick is so sure about his bank's ability to compete in two chosen specialties - student lending and affinity credit cards - that he doesn't think twice about going toe to toe with institutions much larger than his own.

"We think of ourselves as a community bank," said Mr. McCormick, 50, president and chief executive officer of $411 million-asset Stillwater National Bank and Trust Co. in Oklahoma. "But you're going to have to really redefine what a community bank is if things keep going the way they are."

Stillwater National is the oldest bank in Oklahoma, tracing its roots to the turn of the century when hundreds of small private banks were founded in that state and Texas. While it clings ferociously to that tradition, Mr. McCormick in recent years has set about melding the best of the old with the latest thinking in marketing and niche strategies.

A former president of the Independent Bankers Association of America and prominent survivor of Oklahoma's oil and real estate crises of the 1980s, Mr. McCormick began at Stillwater National in 1973, when it had only $22 million of assets.

Owned by a tight-knit group of old-line Oklahoma families, Stillwater National entered the 1980s looking like any one of thousands of Middle American community banks: treading water until interstate banking came along, waiting for a buyer.

Mr. McCormick pressed the board to adopt a 10-year strategy. Over the last five years, Stillwater has taken the plan to the next level, going statewide and even nationwide with selected products. Last year it made its initial public stock offering.

More than 20% of its loans are to college students; it has a statewide network of representatives on college campuses cranking out the credits.

The bank also has $19 million of receivables in a nationwide credit card portfolio. It markets cards through other banks and affinity groups such as the Sweet Adelines, the society for female barbershop quartets.

In branch banking, while Boatmen's Bancshares, Liberty Bank and Trust Company of Oklahoma City, and Banc One Corp. were carving up Oklahoma City, Stillwater opened a small office to go after commercial business. In three years, it has grown to $62 million of assets. Similar, focused branching ideas that don't conform to the regional giants' have worked in Tulsa.

In effect, Mr. McCormick has turned Stillwater National into a model community bank for the interstate banking world. It sticks to its traditional knitting while not yielding to competitors on its home turf. And it pursues a few well-defined niches in which it is fully confident it can stand up to the big players.

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