He more or less achieved the kind of autonomy he was looking for when he took over as president and CEO of Kent Commerce Bank earlier this month.
“I saw a chance to be my own boss and lead a group of people,” DeWitt said of his decision to take the leadership helm at Kent Commerce. “It was the kind of job I was familiar with by way of my experience. I understood the parameters of what was entailed in running a small bank.”
DeWitt was fresh out of the University of Michigan with a degree in business administration when he joined the former Michigan National Bank, now Standard Federal Bank, as a credit analyst in 1983. A year later he went into commercial lending and has been doing a lot of that, as well as business development, ever since.
“I’ve had many, many friends in banking who have ‘escaped.’ But I was given some significant responsibility early on that just made it fun.”
He spent 12 years with MNB, the last three of them in Kalamazoo. Michigan National “was going through a lot of interesting things at that time,” DeWitt recalled. The Kalamazoo office was in “significant disarray” when he showed up and he was handed responsibility for cleaning up credit quality, evaluating the staff and turning the operation around.
“In Kalamazoo we were a small fish in First of America’s big pond. We had to try to find our niche. Besides small business, we really started concentrating on the private banking concept, which was fairly new. We spent a lot of time with a lot of medical groups and law firms. That was a chunk of business.”
In 1995 DeWitt took a position as a vice president in commercial lending with First of America Bank, now National City. That brought DeWitt, a native of Jenison, back to the Grand Rapids area.
Seven years later he joined Grand Rapids-based Select Bank as vice president and business development officer. The single location bank had only three lenders at the time and DeWitt’s job was to generate business. He believes his tenure at Select prepared him well for his new role at Kent Commerce.
“It’s hard to think of what it truly means to be a smaller bank until you get into one and come to understand the dynamics of it. It’s a small business, and it’s a very rewarding job.”
Similar to Select Bank, Kent Commerce Bank is a single location, full service bank that is locally managed. Kent Commerce is an affiliate of Lansing-based Capitol Bancorp, a bank holding company that operates as a bank development company. The company has developed a network of 33 separately chartered community banks in its nine-state footprint, 12 of them in Michigan.
Each bank in Capitol Bancorp’s network of affiliates has local decision making authority in regard to loans and delivery of other financial services and has an on-site president and management team under the direction of a local board of directors.
Capitol Bancorp serves as an investor, mentor and back-office service provider for its subsidiaries and monitors their financial performance.
At Kent Commerce, DeWitt said, it feels a lot like what banking felt like 20 years ago before all the bank consolidation.
“Twenty years ago you had a lot of local autonomy and you were a locally run bank. All those things banks wanted to accomplish through consolidation — i.e., all the backroom stuff — is already in place here. For me, it’s very convenient because I have all these highly qualified people who are very good at achieving economies of scale for the backroom functions, but the bank is separately chartered. It’s very unique, and it’s an interesting challenge.”
As DeWitt sees it, Grand Bank “kind of broke the mold” here locally for the single location bank and proved it could be done.
Like many small community banks, Kent Commerce prides itself on personal service, timely response to customer inquiries, a well-trained staff experienced in the local market, and products competitive with the larger banks, he said.
From his perspective, small banks appeal to customers that want to have a more personal relationship with their bank, want to be able to come in, sit down and have someone listen to them, and want to be able to call the bank and quickly connect with a person that will help solve their problem.
“Our job is to find customers who want to bank with a small bank. That really comes down to getting face to face with customers and getting them to like and trust us. We have to reach out and find them, or probably better yet, do such a good job that our customers and board of directors are referring them to us. That’s how we get a tremendous amount of our customers.”
As new president and CEO, DeWitt said that more than anything he wants to build on Kent Commerce’s past track record and present customer base.
The bank has about $90 million in total assets currently, and DeWitt hopes to reach the $150 million mark as quickly as possible. It could take three to five years to reach that level, he acknowledged.
“There are more things we can do to get to that level from the standpoint of employees and services we can offer. Short term, the goal is to do more business. We’re working on that every day.”