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Opinion: The power of community banks

  • By Betsy Lawer
  • Tuesday, August 23, 2022 7:41pm
  • Opinion

One of my favorite childhood memories is joining my father as he visited communities around Western Alaska to conduct some truly “mobile” banking. Pop would pilot his float plane from Lake Hood in Anchorage to some of the most remote and special places in an area the size of Montana. The villages we visited were on rivers, the transportation system for much of Alaska. We would land in the river, tie up to the shore and visit. We were always welcomed with open arms and hospitality. While he visited with local business owners and community leaders to see and hear firsthand what circumstances were either helping or hindering their endeavors, I would play with other kids until it was time to take flight to another village – or against my wishes, home.

Those childhood trips impressed upon me the values of community and relationships in Alaska – where great distances and diversity of cultures, landscapes, and economies can pose unique challenges. Little did I know at the time that my father – known by others as Dan Cuddy – was simply living up to the true meaning of First National Bank Alaska’s role as a community bank. Truly understanding our communities and knowing the people and businesses that help them thrive are at the heart of the bank’s 100-year success story.

Community banks like First National provide financial services to Alaskans who might not otherwise meet the criteria of lenders at national or regional banks headquartered in the Lower 48, who serve multiple markets and economies. They often don’t know how to pronounce the names of our communities or understand why the need is so urgent when a pipe breaks in the middle of winter in Fairbanks. Our mission is to understand our customers and their dreams and that takes dedication and time and we have a century of experience working for us.

For First National, the foundation of our banking relationships is grounded in our

community bankers. They are community members – homeowners, coaches, volunteers, and leaders – who care about their hometowns and their local economies. Each of them has formed trusted relationships with their customers – from mom-and-pop stores to Alaska’s largest companies – to help them succeed during good times and bad.

Because of this close connection found especially in community banks, our mission is taken to heart by our staff, and their families who support the long hours dedicated to setting customers and communities up for success. The pandemic is certainly one of the most consequential events of our time, however, our response was similar to how we helped during other crisis like the ’64 earthquake and the oil crash during the 80s. We simply rolled up our sleeves, reached out to customers, and took care of them with all of the available tools at our disposal.

Most recently, that meant processing more than 5,500 PPP loans totaling more than $585 million to help Alaska small businesses, customers and non-customers alike, weather the economic collapse caused by COVID. It meant continuing to believe in the dreams and abilities of those who envisioned success beyond the pandemic, to help them create new businesses and jobs. It’s the same spirit my father showed when he was the first to announce construction of a new First National building in downtown Anchorage while our city was still in ruins after the Good Friday earthquake.

When Pop and I visited those villages in Western Alaska, he’d go immediately to the village store to talk to the locals. He often shared his philosophy that a bank could only be as successful as its community and there must be a partnership to ensure the success of both. I heard him emphasize this over and over to customers, employees and me throughout his next 50 years at the bank. He deeply believed, as I do today, that investing in Alaska and its communities was not only good for business, it was essential. This vision has helped First National become the state’s largest Alaskan-owned and -operated financial institution.

The power of a community bank lies in its understanding of the people and the communities it serves, and having the resources to put that knowledge to work for its customers. First National’s century of local experience and financial resources is unique in Alaska and has helped Alaskans succeed. We look forward to continuing this partnership with our neighbors, shaping tomorrow for a brighter future for all Alaskans.

• Betsy Lawer is a third-generation Alaska banker and Board Chair and CEO/President of First National Bank Alaska, Member FDIC and Equal Housing Lender. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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