Polk County Bank is 100
Focus, timing and tight control help bank grow and prosper
Last week, more than 300 city leaders, bankers and customers gathered in Johnston to recognize and celebrate the 100th birthday of Polk County Bank. The party, attended by employees, customers and city dignitaries, was a low-key, rather staid event, according to those who attended. But the fact that more than 300 people attended demonstrated the strong goodwill that the bank has managed to cultivate in its first century of life.
How the bank, which is controlled by President Robert Miller and his family, survived a century of life is a story of tight family ownership and even tighter relations with Polk City, the small but stable community where Polk City Savings Bank – as it was then called – first opened its doors in 1903.
The back wall of Miller’s office is filled with citations and plaques praising both his and his family’s activism in Polk City. More recently, he has taken that drive to Johnston, where he and his wife were named businesspeople of the year in 2000.
“We’ve always focused on being part of the community,” Miller said.
Steady growth and a focus on the community characterized the bank’s early years.
As happens in many small towns, the bank’s officers took up leadership roles in the community, serving on the school board in other civic positions. Miller’s grandfather, Albert Miller, who joined the bank as an assistant cashier in 1910 and later controlled the bank with his brother, Elmer, was mayor of Polk City and involved in the Kiwanis Club, bank records show.
Polk City received a jolt of growth in the early 1970s when the dams at Saylorville and Big Creek were completed, laying the foundation for the area’s now-dominant industry – recreation. Polk County Bank, buoyed by the prosperity, built a new and bigger headquarters and introduced computers to daily operations.
The bank survived the farming crisis in the 1980s largely by not having a great deal of exposure to agricultural-related customers. Robert Miller, who succeeded his father, W.C. Miller, as president in 1981 and other bank leaders used that experience to build the bank’s exposure to real estate construction loans.
The move proved prescient. The attraction of the newly completed dams and improving roads lead to Polk City’s growth as a bedroom community for Des Moines. New home construction shot forward. Polk County Bank rode the wave into the 1990s as interest rates began a 20-year decline and home construction continued to boom.
Miller his leadership team began preparing for the bank’s next big move: Johnston. The city was picked because it was growing fast and brought Polk County Bank closer to Des Moines. The bank moved its charter to Johnston and opened its doors in 1997.
Miller’s 28-year-old son, Tom, joined the bank in 1997 and currently works in consumer lending. He handles much of the technology issues facing the bank.
The Johnston location has helped the bank’s total assets nearly triple to $94 million in 2002 from $29 million in 1997. Employment, too, has nearly tripled over the past five years to 40 workers today. The bank also then changed its name from Polk City Savings Bank when it moved to Johnston to project a broader image and attract more customers who didn’t live in Polk City.
The bank has also been helped by its use of the U.S. Small Business Administration, though which it makes loans to dozens of small companies in Central Iowa. Polk County Bank handled $7.7 million in SBA loans last year, making it one of the SBA’s top lenders in Iowa.
Today Polk County Bank faces a number of challenges and opportunities. Development in Polk City is set to leap forward once more as construction continues on the Tournament Club of Iowa, a planned golf course community that features a golf course designed by Arnold Palmer. When complete, the development is expected to have about 500 townhomes and single-family homes.
Iowa’s banking industry continues to consolidate as bigger banks dominate the industry. There have been a number of opportunities over the years to sell the bank to larger rivals, though Miller said he has consistently declined any offers. Polk County Bank is currently the only bank in Polk City, though there are no barriers to new banks opening branches there, he said.
The bank is also under pressure to offer an increasing number of financial products. Miller has also hired Stenson Management Consulting Inc., a Minnesota-based company that helps financial services companies, to add new services and technology.
Acquisitions are also a possibility, though Miller said he has not yet thought seriously about buying another bank.
“We’re more interested in being better at what we do than in being bigger,” he said.