By Erika Webb
The sign out front reads Surety Bank since 1926.
A fledgling company going into the Great Depression and 80 years old going into the Great Recession, the last building and loan in Florida.
Last month about 120 people attended the DeLand Area Chamber of Commerce After Hours reception at the bank, said President and CEO Ryan James. "We were very excited with the turnout."
Two new partnerships were announced.
Home Team Equity Mortgages will offer borrowers "a hands on approach here locally," Mr. James explained.
Residential mortgages are all they do.
"We partnered with them to offer the absolute best pricing," he said. "For our clientele it means the best rate and best service. Clients can set an appointment and meet with a rep. If they go to a big bank, they get an 800 number."
When DeLand Reliable Cars and Trucks co-owners Ronald Swintek and Paul Montgomery were looking for a loan to build their dealership office, the big banks were dragging their feet.
"My partner and I had excellent credit," Mr. Swintek said. "We weren't high risk, but they were treating us as though we were. Surety stepped right in and helped us."
As a result, Surety has DeLand Reliable's business for the long haul. And, Mr. Swintek said, he never hesitates to refer customers, friends and relatives to the bank.
"Our relationship with Ryan James and Surety Bank has been a good one for both of us for over 10 years," Mr. Swintek said. "They are heavily staffed with friendly people who work quickly to assist their customers. This is the wonderful thing about smaller banks. They associate more closely with the needs of local businesspeople."
Surety Investment Services will provide two financial advisors to aid bank customers in planning for college, retirement and everything in between.
"Now, being a community bank, we offer more than traditional banking products," Mr. James said. "With mutual funds, annuities, insurance and 401Ks as well as college savings plans, we can offer the full gamut of financial services."
Historically the bank's focus has been on business loans and business checking services.
"We have a hands-on approach," Mr. James said. "We visit every property we loan on and we deal with every customer."
Knowing its limitations has been the key to the financial institution's survival through good times and bad.
"We look at everything like a business. We are owner operators. When we have had hard times the shareholders are the first to step up and put money into the bank," Mr. James said.
"This recession was almost worse than the Depression for banking," he added. "The shareholders and directors immediately raised capital. Surety was one of very few banks in Florida that raised capital at book value."
Prudence and personal relationships have contributed heavily to the bank's success.
In 1991, Surety opened a branch in Daytona Beach to serve the needs of those on the east side of the county.
Community banks have the same technology as big banks. What they don't have is a branch on every corner and a revolving door for branch managers.
"You're not gonna have to explain your business time and time again. If there's a problem, we'll take care of it right there immediately," Mr. James said.
And they also will help customers avoid problems.
"We're not always chasing that loan," Mr. James said. "There are times when you do have to deny a loan because it's not what they need at the time, but you do have to have that conversation with them."
Prior to the recession, he said, Surety did very few home equity loans.
"Not because we couldn't get them, because they wouldn't be right for the individual," Mr. James said. "It's not always a good idea to take equity out of your house. You have to have a defined plan. How is it going to benefit you?"
"It could have crippled us if we bought into it and chased those loans," he added.
It's a lot like the old movies portray: the farmer goes in to talk with the banker because some unforeseen crop damaging circumstance prevented him from making his loan payments on time.
Mr. James is there to have the tough conversations and help individuals find alternatives to default.
"One difference I always find with community banks, especially in lending when there is trouble and business is down 30 percent, we are not going to tell you to default for a lower loan rate," he said. "Their loan is tied to our success."
The same philosophy will be applied at Surety Investments Services.
"It's not going to be driven by commissions or the mutual fund of the month," Mr. James said. "We'll sit down and see what the individual's needs are: How much do they need to live on each month? How far away from retirement are they? Our approach is a client-centered focus."
Surety Investments Lead Advisor Pete Longo graduated from Stetson University and has worked in retail banking and financial services for nine years.
He and Mr. James were born and raised in DeLand.
"So many people go to big banks because they're forced to," Mr. Longo said. "There are not many commmunity banks that offer all of these services. They might not like the big bank approach but they have no choice. Now they have a choice."
Mr. Longo said along with financial knowledge and experience, it's important to identify with clients.
"We feel the same things the community does, and that's how we align with our clients," he said.
Rather than pushing college credit cards, Mr. Longo said Surety rewards savings customers with higher rates on money markets and savings accounts.
"Our minors' savings account rate is 10 times higher than any other (bank offers)," Mr. James said. "We don't want to push credit cards down your throat. We'd rather you save money."
"It's teaching young people to save and do the right thing and that's why I'm here," Mr. Longo said. "They'll remember Ryan and the bank and they'll come back when they go to college or want to start a business."
Like former paper boy Lewis Long did.
Mr. Long has banked at Surety since he was selling the DeLand Sun News for 30 cents a copy.
"I grew up with the stories that during the Depression Surety didn't want to foreclose on properties," Mr. Long said.
He was told bank officers would allow customers to simply pay the interest portion of the payments until they were able to get back on their feet.
"I think they only foreclosed on four properties during the whole Depression and that was because the people either just moved away or died," he said.
Mr. Long remembers when the Wall Street Journal did an article on the bank during the 1960s.
"So here came a flood of money, checks to open accounts at Surety Bank in DeLand," he said laughing. "It broke the budget that year when they had to buy stamps to send those checks back because they couldn't handle it."
Today, the bank can handle distantly originated business, but Mr. Long appreciates the way it concentrates on locals.
"They know you and you know them," he said. "The thing that's most pleasing is you call them and within three rings someone answers the phone."
A finance and real estate major, Mr. James graduated from Florida State University in 2001.
"I could talk all day about banking," he said.
He understands the need to balance technology -- for convenience -- with old-fashioned service.
"We offer remote deposit, business online banking, originating ACHs (Automated Clearing House) ... we're not gonna be far behind so you'll soon have a mobile app," Mr. James said. "We do a lot remotely so our footprint is expanding but we're always gonna be rooted in Volusia County."