Rural America has a strong grip on banker Debra R. Lins.
So strong, in fact, that Ms. Lins decided to move to the country from the city to start a new bank with a niche in business and production agriculture lending.
"My roots have always been very close to ag," said Ms. Lins, who grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm and is married to a hog and crop farmer.
Today, her 1994 start-up, Community Business Bank, Sauk City, Wis., has $10.6 million in assets. Agriculture loans make up about 42% of its $5.3 million loan portfolio. It finances products that include dairy, corn, soybeans, and hogs, said Ms. Lins, the bank's 36-year-old president. Another 30% of the portfolio is made up of small-business loans.
"We make sure that we're diversified in ag," said Ms. Lins, who holds an undergraduate business degree from Lakeland College and a master's degree in business from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "We have different enterprises, geographic locations."
Her last employer, First Business Bank of Madison, a new bank focusing on small-business customers, didn't do much agriculture lending, but it did prepare her for start-up activities such as how to raise capital.
First Business Bank's president and chief executive, Jerry Smith, said Ms. Lins' background made starting a bank in a rural market a natural.
"Now if I were to start a bank in Sauk City, that would be surprising," he said.
He said he expects Ms. Lins' bank to be successful.
"She's one of the hardest-working people I have had the occasion to work with in my entire life," Mr. Smith said.
Her past farm lending experience includes more than three years with a Farm Credit System entity in Baraboo, Wis., and an independent bank in Sauk City that was bought by Valley Bancorp and subsequently Marshall & Ilsley Corp.
About two years ago, Ms. Lins decided to see if the small business niche would work in more rural Sauk City.
Focus groups said Sauk City and surrounding areas had farm and small- business credit needs that were not completely being met by an independent bank in neighboring Prairie du Sac, the M&I branch, and a savings bank branch.
The bank has drawn customers who want a hands-on approach, she said, like the farmer who told her, "My banker hasn't been here in five or 10 years."
Community Business Bank, which started with $3.2 million in capital from 268 shareholders, is on track to its three-year plan for profitability, Ms. Lins said. It is projected to reach $30 million in assets after five years.
"We look back and say, 'Wow,'" Ms. Lins said of the bank's progress so far. "We're also very cognizant of not resting on our laurels.