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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 20, 2014 5 years ago

Community Focus

Cathy Swanson has helped St. Petersburg's Freedom Bank of America turn a profit for the first time in eight years. Now, as CEO, she has her eyes on the future.
by: Traci McMillan Correspondent

There are people who don't believe community banks will survive in the coming years. Cathy Swanson is not one of them.

“A good community bank still has a place in the market,” Swanson says. “People still want a bank where they feel they are important, and they can come in and sit down and talk to their banker, and when they call, they can get right through to them.”

Swanson is Freedom Bank of America's new chief executive officer. She was promoted to the post in March, after helping the bank turn a profit for the first time in its eight-year history as its senior lending officer.

The 58-year-old CEO is heading the St. Petersburg bank with a recent injection of $7.5 million in capital from local investors in late 2012.

“That was really the adrenaline the bank needed to turn the corner,” Swanson says.

In 2013, the bank grew loans by 30%. It's had four consecutive quarters of income, which were the first in the bank's history. In the first quarter of 2014, it grew total assets 20% to $107 million. The bank reduced its non-performing assets to 2%, a percentage that will continue to decline, according to Swanson. The bank is seeking to duplicate its growth this year, with an additional 25% to 30% growth in loan volume.

With 25 employees and two locations, the bank is focused on growing its loan portfolio for small- and medium-size businesses and professionals in the market.

“Businesses with half a million dollars to $2 million is our sweet spot,” Swanson says. “We are looking for good loans. We do have money to lend, and we have a challenging budget for 2014, so I'm anxious to make that happen.”

Though she previously worked as regional credit officer for the state and for years as a lender at Synovus Bank (formerly United Bank), Swanson hasn't always worked in lending. She says one of her best decisions was taking the opportunity to move from the human resources and marketing department at United Bank to commercial lending.

She remembers a mentor telling her, “If you are going to be in banking, you have to be in production, because that's what it's all about.” The switch to lending “really introduced me to the backbone of banking,” Swanson says. She also says taking a leap of faith and joining Freedom Bank of America after working 27 years at Synovus was a second great move.

Her biggest challenge is making a name for Freedom Bank of America in a competitive market. There are a number of “good commercial banks in the market” that Swanson considers competitors, including Cornerstone, Bay City's Bank, C-1, Wells Fargo and Synovus. There are also a number of “solid” community banks, “and they're just as hungry as we are,” Swanson adds.

Swanson thinks being a community bank is an advantage.

“We can react quickly; we can be very creative with our structure while still being prudent,” she says. “You can win just about anything on pricing, so it's a real balance to try and determine which deals are worth skinnying down in terms of pricing to get a loan.”

Structure of a deal and pricing will play into a customer's decision, but, at the end of the day, it boils down to relationships, she says.

That's why she relies on the bank's nine members of the board, shareholders and employees to bring community relationships in the door. Swanson credits most of the bank's growth to relationships they've cultivated in the community over the years and have been able to bring to the bank by telling them, “We are back at a community bank and we want to bank you.”

Freedom Bank of America recently hired Adam Curtis from Hancock Bank to help grow the loan portfolio. With seven years in the market, he brings with him a “portfolio of customers,” she says. “It's all about being able to bring existing relationships that are built with individuals to the bank.”

Swanson says the bank is always looking for good lenders, but she's careful to find someone who is the right fit.

“Some people are big-bank people and some are small-bank people,” she says.

The bank is currently seeking to add two or three employees.

Swanson says the main thing keeping her up at night is finding ways to continue the momentum. As leader, she has to continue to look ahead.

“You can't rest on your laurels,” she says. “We had a really good 2013. What I have to keep remembering is that I have to keep looking forward so every quarter and every month is a bit better.”

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