What makes an individual a community banker? How about some examples.

The president of a regional holding company recalls when he was chief executive officer of a small bank that has been absorbed by a giant.

"I loved working with people who needed me. A widow would come in and I would help her find the money for her son's college. I would work with a garage owner to arrange for a second bay on his facilities. Now all I see is computer printouts."

A branch manager says:

"What I love is helping people understand what they are doing. I have a woman who wanted to start a business and was willing to put all her assets into it. I saw it didn't have a chance of succeeding, and my job was to get her to understand this and not enter a potential disaster.

"Another woman was about to start a business with two other people, but she was the only one signing on as responsible for its debts. I had to warn her of that situation and try to talk her out of the loan."

A lending officer told me:

"I had made a loan that was quite substantial in size for our bank, and it went sour. Immediately the CEO called me in and said, 'Sam, I want you to know on the day of your greatest unhappiness with us that you are a great loan officer and this was just one incident. Don't let it depress you.' "

Then he added: "Advance the customer enough to meet today's payroll. His problems should not keep his employees from eating."

This is personal banking. When a bank takes care of you and makes you feel that you are special and your problems deserve personal attention, it gives you something that no rate differential, Internet connection, or basket of new services can match.

Of course, community bankers can sometimes be provincial.

A young bond salesman from New York told me he made a cold call on a bank president in a southern town. He was brusquely told that the bank doesn't "do business with anyone above the Mason-Dixon line."

He walks into the next bank, where the president is now waiting at the door to shoo him away. At the third bank the president immediately has a patrolman arrive and ticket his car for some violation or other while he is trying to see the boss. That's fast communication.

Young bankers often don't understand how banking was done just a generation ago. Now, with the Internet, computerized reports, and lending dictated by credit scoring, they will brag that no human ever gets involved in a loan of less than $50,000.

But while automation has undoubtedly made banking more efficient, there are still many borrowers out there who prefer to interact with bank personnel face-to-face.

After all, does a hospital brag, "We are so automated that you never have to see a doctor unless it is a terminal illness"? Mr. Nadler, an American Banker contributing editor, is professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

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