This week we sit down with Heath Fountain, CEO of Colony Bank in Fitzgerald, GA. We talk about Heath’s journey to becoming a CEO, the importance of focusing both on relationships and technology, and how to invest in the next generation of bankers.

The views, information, or opinions expressed during this show are solely those of the participants involved and do not necessarily represent those of SouthState Bank and its employees.

SouthState Bank, N.A. – Member FDIC

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Caleb Stevens:
All right, let’s get started. Alrighty. Well, Heath, welcome to the Community Bank podcast. How are things down your way in Albany, Georgia?

Heath Fountain:
Everything’s good, Caleb. I appreciate you having me. I’m a big fan of y’all’s podcasts. I appreciate being on

Caleb Stevens:
Well, one of my very first banking visits that I ever went on when I first started in correspondent banking was in, I think, August or September of 2019. And I came down with a couple of my colleagues to talk to you about the ARC program. And it was fun just to get to hear a little more about Colony Bank and you all and your story. And so I’d love to just kind of start here. Tell us about, how did you get into banking? Was this something? that you had on your radar in high school or college? Did you sort of fall into it? How did you get started in the industry?

Heath Fountain:
Yeah, well, I didn’t plan on it. I started my career in public accounting. I’m a CPA. And I did that for a few years. And I did during that, I audited banks. That was one of the things I did, but that led me into being a financial planner after public accounting and did that on the bank side with banks. And then after a number of years of doing that, I came back in on the finance side of banks and I came up the CFO route is kind of how I, on the finance treasury side of banking is how my career path was.

Caleb Stevens:
the transition from a CFO to a CEO? I’m always curious to sort of hear CEOs talk about how they got to where they are and in some cases they came up through the lending side, sometimes they came up through the credit side, sometimes they were a CFO. You know, what were some of the things as a CFO that prepared you to be a CEO and then what were some things that maybe were trickier, new territory learning curves as a new CEO?

Heath Fountain:
Yeah, that’s a great question. I always aspired to become a CEO. And so I was always trying to learn other areas of the bank and make sure I knew and understood the different facets of banking. And I do think that’s one area where it’s an advantage for the CFO because you interact with every area of the bank. If you’re a good CFO, you’re really pushing and digging. and really getting in sort of everybody’s business in every area of the bank. And so I do think it prepares you very well. And I was very fortunate, Lynn Dormany, the CEO I worked under for a long time, he wanted that career path for me and helped me. And so he really allowed me to. do things that CFOs didn’t always do and oversee other areas of the bank. And so it gave me a real opportunity to learn that. At the same time, there were certainly a lot of things when I got in a CEO role for the first time that I did not appreciate as much. And they’re probably the softer things like, board relations and how much time is spent, you know, sort of managing the board relationships and those things, sort of just how much time a CEO has to spend in PR, you know, in communication, internal and external. So the amount of time, you know, my accounting background didn’t really give me the as much communication, as much dealing with people and understanding relationships as much. And so, you know, I spend almost all my time in communication of some type. And so that’s been fun. It’s been a challenge, but it’s been a lot of fun. And I’ve enjoyed that. And, you know, I think the biggest just getting into this role versus another role or versus CFO role is just that, you know, the buck stops with you. And so you know, before I could make recommendations or I could say, I think we should do this, I think we should do that. And obviously, I take today a lot of input from my team, but ultimately, you know, the buck stops with me. And so that’s just a different level of responsibility to get accustomed to.

Caleb Stevens:
Yeah, well I was talking to a CEO not too long ago and he was telling me about how he came up to his role through the lending side of things. He used to be a chief lending officer prior to becoming a CEO. And he said, you know, it’s really easy for me, having been a CLO, to let the CFO just do their job. You know, cause I’m not a CFO, I’m not an accountant. I don’t know anything about the bond portfolio, so. delegation when it comes to the CFO role is very easy but for my chief lending officer well that used to be me not too long ago and so there can be a temptation to say well I don’t know if I would do it that way sort of like when a defensive coordinator becomes a head coach they probably have a little more of a tendency to nitpick with the defense versus the offense how is that transition sort of been because I would imagine any time that you’re looking at someone who used to do what you do there could be a temptation to put on your own you know, Heath would do it this way. Talk about the importance of delegation and sort of trusting your people when you get to that level.

Heath Fountain:
Yeah, that’s a great point. And I think there’s always that temptation there. And one of the things that I’ve had to do as we’ve grown and scaled here at Colony is really just make sure that I’m very deliberate in that communication and to just say, like, hey, in my past, I would have looked at that this way or would have done that this way. What are your thoughts? You know, and make sure that I’m seeking input and not just that my team isn’t just saying, well, Heath wants it done this way, even though I don’t think that’s the best way. So let’s go execute it the way he wants to. You know, we really try hard to be very collaborative here and set up our structure with our internal meetings, our one-on-one meetings with my team in a way that, you know, input is sought. first before my idea hits the ground. So I try really hard to do that. And I think that’s a tough thing for a lot of CEOs, a lot of folks that get in that role have been, are just very assertive people. And so, a lot of times lead with your thoughts and what I try to do, and my team may not agree with me that I do it all the time, but I try to get that input first so that I’m not… really influence in what their thought process is, because I want to hear from them.

Caleb Stevens:
Yeah. Well, tell us about Colony Bank. How did the bank get started? When did you all go public? I know you’re one of the bigger community banks now in Georgia, if not the biggest community bank. So tell us a little bit about Colony Bank.

Heath Fountain:
Yeah, so Colonies started in the mid 70s in Fitzgerald, Georgia. It was founded by a group of entrepreneurs in Fitzgerald and their reason in behind getting the bank started is really unique in that the reason they wanted to do it is they felt like when they were getting their start in business and when their businesses started that the banks really that were there didn’t give them the opportunity. They They weren’t well-heeled enough or weren’t from the right side of the track. So they had a little bit of a chip on their shoulder when they started the bank. And their goal was we’re going to start this bank and we’re going to push these other banks out of this market and show them that we did know what we were doing. They had been very successful entrepreneurs. And so that’s what they did. And they ended up doing that. They took market share there. And then from there they went on and started buying small troubled banks that were nearby. And that’s really how the company got started and later on expanded to markets through de novo branches once you could do that. So, you know, grew from just one small office in Fitzgerald to where we are now with three billion in assets and all over the state of Georgia.

Caleb Stevens:
Yeah, well I’d love to hear your perspective on the future of community banking and specifically your take on, you know, how do you become a community bank that stays true to its DNA? We’re about relationships, we’re about local market leadership, we really want our communities to thrive. At the same time, we know that technology is always going to be changing and the younger generation of business owners and consumers are going to be demanding. better and better technology solutions with their bank. How do you sort of think about balancing, we wanna be a community bank, we wanna stay true to our relationships, we want you to be able to call somebody and talk to somebody when you have an issue, but we also wanna offer great technology platforms, whether it’s treasury management or mobile apps or whatever the system might be. How do you all kind of think about that from your strategic standpoint?

Heath Fountain:
Yeah, I think that’s a great question. And I think for any community bank like we are, that’s ambitious and wants to grow, that balance between we’ve got to grow, we’ve got to put controls in place, we’ve got to do things maybe a little different than a one market bank does. How do you keep that balance between the growth, the controls, the systems, the technology, and making sure… that you keep true to your roots, keep those relationships. And so for us, I think it’s about how do we leverage technology to deepen relationships, to understand more about the customer, to make sure that we’re able to, you know, stay in touch with the customer better, provide a higher level of service, stay in touch. And, you know, There’s always gonna be the one-on-one relationship, banker and customer. I truly believe that always will exist. And so I think the community banking industry future is bright, but at the same time, I think for the community banks, we have to recognize a community bank is not gonna look the same 10 years from now as it does today. It didn’t look the same 10 years ago. And so we have to evolve and understand, and a lot of that is the technology, and we’re in a transformation of that internally, we brought in a chief innovation officer trying to look at doing things better, having a better customer experience because we know we’ve got to evolve that. And the tough thing in banking is that you have to really, you… get these new channels when mobile and online came out, when ATMs came out, all through history, but you keep your old channels too. You keep the call center, you keep telephone banking, you keep your banking centers. And so you have to be good on all fronts. And for us, we’ve got a broad customer base. We’re not a niche, you know, only customers wanna communicate this one way. So you got to be able to be good at all this stuff, the personal interaction and the online. And so, you know, but to do that, you just have to evolve, I think, your mindset. You have to invest in the technology. You can’t necessarily maybe be afford to be on the bleeding edge, but I think now with technology, what it is, you know, what we’re trying to do is embrace fintechs and embrace… products outside the core. And I think we’re finding that we can be just as innovative as the bigger banks are, and maybe even better and faster at doing that in the future. And so, you know, trying to harness that and serve the customer, but, you know, still having that personal touch. And the main thing… with that for us, we’re in multiple markets. It’s about having people in the markets that are involved in the community, giving back to the community. And no matter how much technology we have, we’re always gonna have that personal touch in the markets that we serve, for the one-on-one interactions we need to have.

Caleb Stevens:
Well, you talk about hiring a chief innovation officer. That’s a pretty big hire. And I’m imagining that’s something you probably had to run by your board, if not at least your executive leadership team. You know, for a bank that’s been around for a long time, since the seventies, that probably requires a little bit of a culture shift to say, we do need a chief innovation officer. We do need somebody who’s full time thinking about these things. Where does sort of culture play into this? How do you help? shift some mindsets that maybe have been stuck in a certain way of doing things for a long time so that everybody can get excited about where you want to go in the future.

Heath Fountain:
Yeah, it is a cultural shift and it’s something that I think it’s really important, you know, from the very top of the organization, from the board and the executive team to embrace and say we’re going to do things differently. And, you know, people think about innovation as being, you know, technology or some cool new app that replaces some old thing, but honestly What we’re trying to cultivate is an innovative mindset where it’s everything. It’s just even doing things different. You know, like, um, I really, I can’t stand to hear, you know, well, that’s the way we’ve always done it. Well, the world evolves and changes and you got to keep up with it. And if you’re doing something the same way you were doing it two or three years ago, chances are that’s not a good thing. And so we try to embrace that and talk about that a lot and get feedback and input from our team on processes, really involve a lot of people in process improvement. So that’s really important. And when it came to the idea of bringing on a chief innovation officer, what I looked at with the opportunities that were going on. and the community banks I saw across the country that have really embraced technology. I mean, like Eric Spring at Coastal, you know, that have really dove in. I thought, I don’t think we can do that without bringing in a fresh set of eyes. Too many of us had been in banking too long, had our mindset too fixed, and we needed some outside influence to come in. and really help us to bring that fresh culture mindset. And so when we brought Christian Rupp in as our chief innovation officer, he’s doing that. I’m not gonna tell you where I wanna be, but we’re on a better path to where I wanna be. We’re doing some neat things and we’re building out our own data layer and data set so that we can plug in things quickly. And once we have that done, I think, you know, we’re going to be able to experiment with things, try innovative products and solutions and, you know, and be okay that some of them don’t work, you know. And so it is a big mindset shift and cultural shift. And, you know, it made me feel like I was making the right decision because it’s made people a little uncomfortable. And that’s okay. And I think if everybody’s real comfortable. You’re probably not doing all the things you need to be doing. So it’s been a good shift for us and we’re excited about the things we’re gonna see come out of this.

Caleb Stevens:
Yeah, I was talking to one CEO not too long ago and he was looking to make a change with his head of HR and it came down to two candidates and one candidate had been in banking her entire career and one candidate had never worked in banking, had worked for Chick-fil-A corporate for most of her career. And the CEO said, I’ve got too many folks on the team that have done banking their entire career. The reason we want to hire this person is exactly because they’ve never done banking before and they’re gonna bring a fresh perspective. So I think that’s what you’re talking about is important. Certainly there’s a lot of risk in banking. You need people who are wise, who are smart, who are sages of the industry that can keep you safe, but you probably need maybe 20 percent or so of your team to be people that bring that fresh perspective.

Heath Fountain:
No, it is helpful, I think. And you can look throughout like great leaders. Alan Mullally comes into Ford during the Great Recession and he had been in the airline industry. And he brought that fresh perspective to that. And so… I think it is good to bring in people from the outside that don’t have their whole career and a good mix. It’s like everything else. If you tried to run a bank with all bankers, it didn’t maybe the best. If you try to run a bank with all outside people, that probably wouldn’t be too good either. But bringing in some fresh perspective and people with different points of view, different even for us, different sizes of banks. We’ve got people that have been in small community banks. We’ve got people. that have been in regional and national banks. And we’ve got people that have been in small community banks that became really large regional banks. And giving those different perspectives of seeing how things have been done and how can we do things better is really, really a big thing for us.

Caleb Stevens:
Well, I’d love to end on the topic of the next generation. I was at the Georgia Banking School not too long ago, and I remember I was getting lunch with one of the classmates there, and he was from a small town in Georgia, and I won’t say the bank name or the town, but he basically said, it’s hard to find talent that wanna work in banking, that wanna stay local to this smaller town in Georgia. Albany and Fitzgerald are a little bit bigger than this town that he was talking about. But what’s your pitch to the guy or gal who is coming out of college and trying to think about their career and their future? Maybe banking piques their interest? What are the pros of a career in community banking these days?

Heath Fountain:
Yeah, that’s a great question. And it is a challenge, especially in some of our smaller markets, but it’s not a challenge unique to the community banking industry, I don’t think. I do think one thing, the community banking industry hasn’t done as good of a job as it could of talking about careers in banking and exposing, you know, high school students and college, getting college interns And so we’re doing some things around that. You know, we’ve got a youth leadership program and that we do for high schoolers and their junior and senior year. And one of the things we do, we expose them to a lot of industries, but we spend time telling them about careers in banking. And not that it’s not just about being a banker and lending money, there’s HR opportunities and technology, innovation, accounting, marketing. You know, there’s a lot of stuff going on within a bank, you know, the customer face inside, which is obviously very important too, but doesn’t appeal to everybody. And so, you know, we try to do those things. We’ve started visiting the colleges in, you know, our footprint to try to, you know, get in that arena and to tell, you know, the colleges what kind of opportunities we have, because I feel like the banking industry. I mean, the big banks have, but the community banks haven’t done as good a job of going and interacting with the people at the school so you can start funneling in potential candidates. But the thing I think that I think really does the best job when I’m talking to somebody and what I really want to find people with a passion for community banking is when I explain to them, you know, how important community banks are to the community. capitalistic system we have in the United States. You know, we have this dynamic economy in the US, and it’s because of, in my opinion, our community banking system. You have capital allocation decisions being made at the closest point versus a country with five national banks. And so, you know, when I tell them, you know, if they’re interested in finance and in… you know, and they have this capitalistic mindset and you can tell them, you know, you’re going to get to interact and help people grow jobs, grow the community. And if you can find people that are passionate about that kind of thing, I mean, that’s when you can really get really good people and you can keep them for a while and you may eventually lose them to some other capitalistic opportunity, which is fine. But you really get them excited about, you know, being the grease that makes the economy run, getting out there and helping customers achieve their financial goals. It’s really, we’re trying to uncover, can we find people that are passionate about that? And we’ve had some good success in that and we need to do more of that, get more young people into industry. But I think a lot of young people have a vision of a stodgy banker or a… you know, in a suit and real stiff and we try to be as opposite of that as we can and show them how much fun it is in banking and how much you’re helping individuals and businesses achieve the American dream really.

Caleb Stevens:
Yeah, when I was in college, banking was probably the last thing that I thought I would be doing with my life. But a lot of it was because I didn’t understand it. I thought it was just sort of, that’s what my dad does and he puts on a suit every day and does something about loans and something about deposits. But I didn’t understand banking. I didn’t realize how critical it was to small businesses and to communities across America. And once you kind of learn why the technical components matter and how they connect to peoples and stories and lives all across the country really creates a lot of meaning to the work and i think once you understand it that’s when the passion tends to come uh… man so i think a big part of it as bankers is just what you said helping educate folks on what banking is and why it matters and give folks a vision for how they can you know be part of that and i love your example to of you know if you’re in a country that’s got five or six national banks miles and miles away that aren’t really local to the community. But if you can have banks that really have relationships with these small business leaders, how much more effective are they going to be because they’ve got those local relationships when it comes to accessing the capital they need. So I think that’s a great point.

Heath Fountain:
Yeah, and you know, I think getting trying to get people in and experiencing some of that, you know, with us and going through like we do an MA program where you can come in and, you know, be in credit, but also work in other areas and part of that going out in the field with some of our bankers to, you know, go out to manufacturing plants, see a customer, you know, go to a veterinarian’s office, you know, do different things that aren’t, you know, making sure people understand it’s not just, you know, sitting behind a desk with a suit and tie and, you know, working your way through big old compliance manuals or something. I mean, it’s an exciting industry really. And I think we could do a better job of painting a better picture of that. So we’re trying to do our share of that at Colony and I’d love to encourage others to do the same thing.

Caleb Stevens:
Well if folks want to learn more about Colony Bank, how can they find you guys?

Heath Fountain:
Yeah, so obviously our website, colony.bank, and then I try to do a good bit on sharing information on social media myself. So if you wanna go follow me on LinkedIn, Heath Fountain, and you can follow us also on all the social media platforms, but come follow me on LinkedIn, and we put a lot of information out about what’s going on in the bank and the communities that we serve.

Caleb Stevens:
Good deal. Well Heath, thank you for your time. Always enjoy our discussions.

Heath Fountain:
Great to catch up with you, Caleb. Thank you.

Caleb Stevens:
AHHHH

 

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