Ron Samuels, chairman and CEO of Avenue Bank, was on vacation in Florida about four years ago when he struck up a conversation with a collegiate golfer who now manages one of his four branches. He happened to spot an "MTSU" on her golf bag while she was out on the course with her boyfriend and, being from Nashville, recognized it as a Middle Tennessee State University logo. So he went up and introduced himself when he saw the couple back at the clubhouse.

"I asked her what year she was. She said she was a senior. I asked if she knew what she was going to be doing and she said no. And I said, 'Well, have you ever thought about banking?'" Samuels recalls.

He left his card, and she followed up. The timing worked out well, because Avenue needed a concierge banker at the time.

Samuels first told me this story over lunch at the community banking conference that Keefe, Bruyette & Woods hosts in New York every summer. I knew then that
Avenue had made our list of Best Banks to Work For, and I learned in that conversation a little about what it takes to be one of those best banks.

Having employees who like the company they work for is not something that happens by accident. Executives at the best banks are cultivating that positivity in ways big and small.

Samuels says Avenue, which opened in 2007, started with a philosophy of "employees being number one." But he doesn't think perks are what ultimately win employees over, so much as it is a sense of being part of a family. He hosts an early morning meeting every Tuesday at the main office that he calls "a family gathering." About half of Avenue's 120 employees typically show up to have coffee, note milestones like birthdays and employee anniversaries, and ask questions. There is no agenda, and the meeting, which is not mandatory, is generally over in 15 minutes.

"When you've got four offices in a wide area, it gives people a chance to say hello to each other, kind of connect again," Samuels says. "And it's not me telling. I'm just there. I'm in charge of the climate control, sort of."

That's also another way of saying he's in charge of culture, which he says is "hugely important" to the bank. Avenue's very first ad had the headline, "Not another bank," Samuels recalls. "And in the first line of that ad, I do remember that it said, 'We're going to challenge everything you think you know about banks and we're going to redefine how you experience a bank.'"

To execute on that vision of creating a different experience, Avenue is particularly careful about who it hires, putting candidates through multiple rounds of interviews. The bank looks for what Samuels calls "a servant heart," and other traits that, as it turns out, athletes often possess in great amounts.

Since hiring MTSU's Mallory Smith — who is now married to the boyfriend she was golfing with that day — Samuels has recruited two more collegiate golfers and a few tennis players too.

Lauren Peck, who oversees another one of Avenue's branches, played golf at Lipscomb University, as did Nathan Mueting, a newly hired concierge banker. Peck met Samuels about three years ago while working in the pro shop at a local golf club. She asked about the Avenue Bank hat he was wearing, and he invited her to come in for a visit.

Like the other golfers, Peck initially came on board as a concierge banker (which is Avenue's term for its universal bankers). In Mueting's case, one of his college professors recommended him to Avenue.

Samuels says being an athlete tends to train young people in working toward goals, motivating themselves and effectively managing their emotions — all traits that he likes to see in Avenue employees.

"Golf is something that requires high integrity and respect for your competitor. You're responsible for yourself, so you learn early to take accountability. And you have to make judgments. So, it seems to me, the kinds of things that create good employees really are found there," he says.

"And attitude is number one. They end up with a very positive attitude, which helps the work environment."

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