I know that seemed to typify what community banking is all about. The editors questioned whether this institution, which recently has grown fast, is really a community bank. They wondered if the ideas I wanted to present would be relevant and valuable for the readers of this page. Community banking, I replied, is a state of mind, a way of running the business, not a matter of size. A major institution can still be a community bank in the towns across the country where it has branches. I talked about the days when Bank of America was so decentralized that each branch manager could exclaim with pride: "In my community, I AM Bank of America." The branch's actions were as independent as those of the locally owned bank across the street. And I reminded them of the days when people in North Carolina would say, "I don't bank at a big statewide organization, I bank at the Wachovia." So I stressed that a big bank with a community focus could provide just as many good ideas for independents to copy as could an independent one. "How, then, would you define a community bank?" one of the editors asked. I had no categorical answer. So I presented some examples of what makes a community bank from my own experience: *I got a call one day from my bank telling me I had forgotten to sign a check made out to the phone company. Did I want them to honor it or bounce it? the banker asked. *I wrote four checks in one month on a money market account that is limited to three check withdrawals a month. Instead of just taking a whopping service charge out of my balance with no letter of explanation, as another bank did when I had the same situation, I got a letter starting "Dear valued customer." The letter explained that I was entitled to only three checks a month, and that they would gladly open an account that would allow more activity if I needed one. Finally, they said they would forgive me this time without a service charge, but please don't do it again. *I was in New York City with my daughter, who lives there, getting her travelers checks for a trip starting that afternoon. The American Express office questioned the validity of my certified check, so I called the bank and the teller told them that the overweight man with the certified check was indeed Paul Nadler and she had cut the check the day before. *Immediately after addressing my class at an IBM school in Princeton, N.J., the chief executive of a bank in White Plains, N.Y., dashed home 80 miles to sit on a dais and eat rubber chicken. Why? I asked. "I'll be there supporting the charity hosting the event," John Kley answered. It's a safe bet that Citicorp and Chase didn't have CEOs or other top officers there.
*** Which brings us to our contest. I gave my examples of what community banking involves. But I still had not answered the question: "What makes an institution a community bank?" Maybe you have a definition that we could use. We decided that this will be our next contest to pick a president for a day of the Schmidlap National Bank, our community bank without a community. Your response - by mail or fax to the destinations listed below - will not only help solve our problem, but will also help us learn what areas of community banking may not be getting the attention they deserve on these pages. Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of the American Banker and professor of finance at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.