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Interview with Mark Williamson, Presdient, High Point Bank
April 05, 2012
Q: High Point Bank is a family-owned bank. Has that offered special advantages to your bank during the recession? If so, what are they? Any disadvantages?
A: High Point Bank is fortunate. We were founded in 1905 and since then we have had very patient capital behind the bank. Our shareholders are in it for the long haul, so they are not looking at the numbers exclusively from quarter to quarter. Additionally, our shareholders have been very smart in their appointment of the Board of Directors. The bank is blessed to have a very capable, smart and patient Board at the helm.

If there are disadvantages, it is that we have an abundance of capital. However, we are unwilling to accept the dilution of our stock. In other words, we can't use our stock as currency in order to grow through acquisition. Therefore, we intend to continue to grow organically into the Triad region.

Q: What do you think the community banking industry will be like in the next ten years?
A: Well, I am not very good at predicting the future, but it is my belief that there will be a lot fewer community banks in ten years. I also think there will be less branch offices. However, the remaining branches will be more important. They will be less about transactional activities and more strategic, supporting all lines of business - in our case, business and mortgage lending, trust and investment services and insurance.

Q: You recently attended the North Carolina Banker's Association Washington Caucus. What was your primary take away from it?
A: It was a pretty depressing trip. My biggest take-away is how some in Washington believe that every problem can be fixed through more legislation and regulation; although it is not surprising. It only serves to make the community banks weaker and damage the entrepreneurial spirit of the bankers. Community banks did not cause the problems, but are definitely bearing the brunt of the "cure."

Q: What do you enjoy most about being a community banker?
A: Despite what Washington says or tries to do, I clearly believe that community banking is a high calling. We are a fundamental grass roots part of our community economy. My dad was a community banking executive, and I am proud to follow in his footsteps.

Q: As a whole, what do you think community banks are doing right? Where are they falling short?
A: Doing right. We are meeting the credit needs of our neighbors and small businesses. But equally important, community bankers do a great job supporting their communities financially and through supplying a volunteer base for community programs and non-profits. The bankers I know work hard to make their communities a better place for everyone.

Falling short. It is pretty clear that community banks need to do a better job of telling their story. We do so much good in our communities. Community bankers are not Wall Street, and we should not allow the media or the government to paint us with the same brush as those on Wall Street.

Q: What are the best opportunities for growth of community banks?
A: Small and medium-sized businesses and institutions need a "banker" more than they need a bank. Community banks need to be sure that they have qualified, caring and smart people who know the businesses of their customers and provide their customers a direct person to contact. They need to do what they do best, provide financial solutions and serve the needs of individuals and small and medium-sized businesses.

Q: What should be the focus of community banking?
A: Gathering local deposits and meeting the credit needs of their customers and those in the community.

Q: How is High Point Bank addressing the onslaught of new regulations being issued?
A: Like every other bank, we are adding compliance staff and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The cost of the onslaught of excessive regulation puts pressure on earnings and requires us to grow simply to absorb the increased cost burden of compliance. Each bank will have to determine its magic number for being big enough to absorb the increased cost of regulation. It is going to force a lot of community banks to grow or merge with others; otherwise these regulations can put you out of business.

Q: Bankers and banks (regardless of the size of the institution) are being demonized by politicians and the news media. I think you would agree that this is unfair but what can and should community bankers do to rehabilitate their image?
A: Community banks need to continue to donate time to the community, volunteer and be deeply involved with their neighbors. Community bankers usually do not like attention, but we all need to be a little less modest. Most bankers do things because they are the right things to do, not necessarily to get attention. But now community bankers need to get their stories out and let everyone know how they positively impact their communities. It really is critical to draw a distinction between the public's perception of Wall Street and what we do as community bankers.

Q: If community banks would substantially decrease in number, through consolidation, failure, etc., what effect, if any, do you think it would have on the communities that they presently serve?
A: It really hurts those smaller communities when their local community bank merges or goes away. We have seen it time after time. Those small towns are not as vibrant without the support of a local bank.

Q: What would you tell someone wants to be a community banker?
A: I would tell them that they need to truly believe in the purpose of community banks - to serve small businesses and neighbors; otherwise you will not survive because it is challenging and tough work. One has to be committed to it, because like I said, it is a calling. You have to keep your spirit up and press forward.   
High Point Bank was founded in High Point, NC in 1905 by a small group of local businessmen. Since then, it has grown to 8 full service branches plus a commercial office in Greensboro, N.C. As of December 31, 2011 it had assets in excess of $792 million. Finally, its financial strength is showcased in that it did not accept TARP funds. 
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