Rocket IT Business Podcast | Neil Stevens | Creating Remarkable Experiences | Ep. 21
On this episode of the Rocket IT Business Podcast, we have the pleasure of speaking with one of the banking industry’s most admirable leaders, Neil Stevens.
Having served as Oconee State Bank’s President and CEO for the last four years, Neil and his team have carefully crafted an organization that generates remarkable experiences for the communities it serves. And now, as many small businesses continue to navigate the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Neil’s team has shifted to provide support through innovation and new initiatives.
In This Episode, You’ll Hear More About:
- The Path to becoming a leader in the financial industry
- How to effectively shift values of a long-term institution
- The importance of relationships in business
- Managing business expansions
- How the banking industry kept small business afloat during the pandemic
- How traditional businesses can innovate
- How to keep values and purpose alive in remote operations
Mailing Address: 25 North Main street, Watkinsville, GA, 30677
Matt Hyatt (00:00):
Hello, and welcome to the 21st installment of the Rocket IT Business Podcast. I’m your host, Matt Hyatt. And today we have the pleasure of speaking with one of the banking. Industry’s most admirable leaders, Neil Stevens.
Matt Hyatt (00:27):
Served as a Oconee State Bank’s president and CEO for the last four years, Neil and his team have carefully crafted an organization that generates remarkable experiences for the communities it serves. And now as many small businesses continue to navigate the negative effects of the COVID pandemic, Neil’s team has shifted to provide support through innovation and new initiatives. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s first welcome Neil to the show. Neil, I’m glad to have you here.
Neil Stevens (00:53):
Thank you, Matt, for having me. It’s an honor to be here.
Matt Hyatt (00:58):
Yeah, absolutely. So you are broadcasting from the thriving metropolis of Watkinsville.
Neil Stevens (01:05):
Yes, sir. Absolutely
Matt Hyatt (01:08):
Our friendly neighbors to the East. So glad you’re here. Hey, I want to dive right in you and I have been friends for a while now. We have known each other pretty good long time. I feel like it’s been 10 years or so.
Neil Stevens (01:19):
Yeah. It goes back to that first round table, that innovation round table that we used to be a part of. Yes, yes.
Matt Hyatt (01:25):
Yeah. Well, I would love to just let our audience get to know you just a little bit. And I want to kind of roll back a little bit the entire time. I’ve known you as a banking professional and leader, but I understand that that’s not maybe where you started. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got to where you are?
Neil Stevens (01:46):
Sure, sure. So my father was a firefighter and he fought fires for 38 years, retired as a captain on the Macon County fire department. And so, I grew up around sirens and spending birthday parties at the fire station spending the night there with him. And so we had a really good friend who was the owner of the local ambulance service in Macon and it was called Mid-Georgia ambulance service. And I guess it was probably around 1983 or so. I was I was a junior in high school and he asked me to come dispatch. And so I was a dispatcher for the service. And then when I started at Mercer, I went to Mercer working on a business degree. And while I was at Mercer, I went to paramedic school. And then for those years at Mercer, I worked full time at the ambulance service, but also was a full-time student. So I loved my time as a paramedic. That was really fun and very exciting. So that was sort of the first real job I had.
Matt Hyatt (02:45):
Yeah. Well, man, I’ll tell you what your father sounds like an amazing guy. 38 years as a firefighter.
Neil Stevens (02:51):
Yeah. Yeah. He passed away about four years ago. But what an incredible man for sure. No question.
Matt Hyatt (02:58):
I’m amazed to hear about that long of a career. That’s a good long time. Well, I wonder as you’re kind of going through school, you said you’re studying business, but you’re working full time as a paramedic at the same time. That’s a big load all by itself, right. Trying to juggle those two things. And I admire you for doing that. I wish more of our college students would kind of embark on that path of working and going to school at the same time, but that, you know, that’s a big commitment and and it’s not an easy thing to do, but I am curious, was that the intended trajectory? You know, I’m a paramedic today, but man banking world watch out I’m on my way.
Neil Stevens (03:46):
So, you know, I get that question a lot. So, you know, I thought I would maybe study medicine or get into nursing or something of that nature. And honestly studying business at Mercer and working at the ambulance service is what intrigued me was the business side of the ambulance business. And so that was my hope was, but the service was too small to really have a career opportunity there in that role. I mean, the owner wore most of those hats. So I was interested in hospital administration. And so I interviewed with several hospitals, but at the time this was back in 89 or 90, the economy wasn’t that great and hospitals just were not hiring. And so it was just a very difficult time. And so I went to a career fair and met a lady there with CNS Bank.
Neil Stevens (04:40):
And the next day she called me back and offered me a position on their management training program for CNS national bank, which was based in Atlanta. And it was in the middle Georgia market. And my brother, he’s been a big influence on my life. My middle brother, he has been in banking for a number of years and I called him and I said, Mark, what do you think about the opportunity here with CNS? And he said, you know, he said, banking is a great career. He said, I know you may have other aspirations, but he said, just go do it a couple of years and you can figure out what you want to do. And he said, you know, then you can go from there. So that was I guess 31 years ago. And so here I am still in the banking business and never made it the hospital administration, but that’s always intrigued me as well.
Matt Hyatt (05:30):
Well, you know, that’s a fun story. I, I love hearing a little bit about your brother and the influence they had on you. That’s pretty awesome. And good to know, you know, if that banking thing doesn’t work out.
Neil Stevens (05:43):
Exactly. I’ve forgotten a lot of stuff since then, and I’m sure technology has improved drastically, but
Matt Hyatt (05:51):
So I, in my notes here, I think it would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there was also a moment of fame see that you were on a TV show. Is that right?
Neil Stevens (06:04):
Yeah. I don’t know that this is the way you want to become famous. But while I was at the ambulance service, I I guess I was about probably three or four months from graduating from Mercer, but we were going to a call one day and we were we hydroplaned and we flipped our ambulance. We were in it and our ambulance flipped in a troubleshooter for Georgia Power happened to see it. He was going to work and he happened to see it. And he ran over and literally pulled my partner out of safety before the ambulance was fully engulfed in flames fire. So anyway, Rescue 911, our younger listeners would never know the show. Now our older listeners would remember that show. It was really the first, I call it the first reality TV show because it would come on and re-enact the story exactly the way it happened? Well, they heard about these events and they came to Macon, Georgia, and they reenacted the entire event just as we described and they were spot on. And so those who want to see it again, it’s not anything to be proud of flipping an ambulance, but those who want to see it are welcome to go to Google and Google Rescue 911, Rescuers Rescued. That’s the name of the episode and you will see it as a good story because what, Norris Thomas was the guy who pulled us out, what he did and how we saved our lives. And this it’s a very inspirational story from that perspective. But you know, I’d rather been me, you know, going in to save someone from a burning house than me being the one, flipping an ambulance and having the rescue.
Matt Hyatt (07:46):
Right. Did we get to see a young looking Neil Stevens in that, or
Neil Stevens (07:50):
A little heavier Neil Stevens. Younger, certainly, but yeah, I did a lot of exercise in high school, but in college I sort of quit and I kept eating the same amount. And so I’m probably about 215 in that video.
Matt Hyatt (08:06):
Wow. Well, you know, it’s funny, you mentioned that I actually, I think I commented the other day. You seem to be the picture of health these days, every time I see you, you look fantastic.
Neil Stevens (08:17):
I don’t know about that, but I think exercise is one way to clear my mind. And so it’s just, just been a hobby for a number of years.
Matt Hyatt (08:25):
Is that the secret of it? It’s hard. It’s really tough as you know, to lead an organization, maybe balance family life and personalized with that, and also try and stay fit. Is that the secret, just lots of working out?
Neil Stevens (08:43):
I think it’s intentionality and then you have to put focus and priority on the things, whether it’s family time. I think to me, you know, staying fit provides energy. I don’t do it to live longer. I’m a goal oriented person. So I get to set some goals. I feel a lot better. I have a lot more energy. I’ve got high blood pressure that runs in my family. So this keeps my blood pressure in check, you know, all sorts of things of that nature. And so, and it also is a great outlet and it also kind of provides a competitive spirit. We’ve got about six guys, seven, six or seven guys in the morning that work out together and this kind of takes you back to the high school football days and that kind of thing. But I think with anything in life, you’re really, you know, spot on there when you’ve got a lot going on. It’s really easy to get out of balance. And I think a big, a big key to that is being intentional, whether it’s with your family, whether it’s with your health, you know, obviously, you know, you’ve got to spend time on your work, you know, developing good friends and such all those things are very important.
Matt Hyatt (09:54):
I totally agree. Well, it seems to be working for you. I like it. Well, I’d love to hear more about your story is sort of the path to CEO of a bank. And it sounds like at least midway through your college career, maybe that wasn’t even on the radar just yet CEO somewhere potentially, but of an out of the banking world. So you went to work with CNS. We went through their management training program, which sounds like an amazing opportunity for a young person. Right. And I think probably still fairly uncommon in the late eighties, early nineties here, you know, these days, it feels like you hear about leadership programs and they don’t really call them management development programs anymore, but you hear about leadership development programs online, but a great opportunity. I think particularly when you were coming up in, into your career, eighties and nineties, what was the past from there? You finished the program and I said, okay, great. Here’s here’s your new a banker CEO? Or was it a little different than that?
Neil Stevens (11:00):
Yeah, you know, my brother, obviously my parents were big influencers in my life, but there was a individual I met at CNS on that program. And you’re right. That program, we’ve tried to replicate that somewhat here, but those programs are hard to find anymore, but it was a, it was about a year long program and you went through different areas of the bank and how was actually placed for awhile in Dublin, Georgia. And part of that program was a mentor there who is the city president. And he’s since, you know, a number of years ago passed away, but his name was Tom Falk and he was a big advocate of mine, I don’t know, really, you know, why he took a liking to me and took me under his wing. I guess we all have those people in our life. And I have no idea what I did, but he got me a lot of visibility and exposure.
Neil Stevens (11:53):
And when I finished that program, I ended up in Atlanta as a commercial banker. And that’s really where I began to cut my teeth. And, you know, I didn’t know exactly what path I wanted to take. There’s so many different paths we can take in banking. A lot of specialty areas, there’s big banks or small banks, there’s, you know, specialty banks. So really it was not until a number of years later that I determined that, you know, I loved helping people. I love being a part of their decisions of helping them finance a business or, you know, whatever it may be to helping them solve their financial problems. And then I learned that I had felt like I was gifted in the area of leadership and vision casting and inspiration and those types of things. And I found that to be a passion of mine.
Neil Stevens (12:41):
And I had people through assessments that I took and a lot of, you know, people giving me feedback saying you have this skillset. And I found that to be a real passion of mine. And that’s one of the things just to pause for a second. That’s one of the things I really encourage young people today is to really understand your skills, because you want to understand where your strengths lie and then what you’re really passionate about and try to go and marry those two things together, and then work for people who are willing to invest in you and who really care about you and your career growth. And when you can put those three things together, that’s awesome. And so I’ve had that over the years. And so it’s also about patience and timing and the opportunity arose, you know, with that former bank to to lead that institution.
Neil Stevens (13:32):
And that was a great opportunity. And then when this opportunity lined up, I think it was just the past and the experience and my desire to try to make a difference is what opened up the opportunity for me. It was reading the other day, Simon Sinek, great author. And speaker said that when anyone looks at an opportunity and focuses on just the title, it can be a recipe for disaster. And so I would encourage anybody who’s aspiring to do whatever it is. Don’t do it because of the title or the whatever may come along with that title, do it because you really love the responsibility and you love the actual job because when you get to that point, the title and the rest of it takes care of itself. But otherwise it’s a recipe for disaster.
Matt Hyatt (14:26):
Right. That’s great advice. I love what you said also about the, sort of the best path for the young professionals out there. There are so many young folks that I’ve talked with over the years college students, particularly that are in their third or fourth year of college, and they still don’t have any idea what it is that they want to do. And you know, that they might not have an idea even of the industry yet. And as you pointed out that might take care of itself, you know, you, you graduated from college. It sounds like, look, you know, looking towards the medical field and then an opportunity came along in a different field and he grabbed it and went with it. So I like that a lot, but I especially liked the idea of going to work for an organization. That’ll make an investment in you as a young, aspiring professional, because that’s so critical and key, especially early in the career, so that you can sort of figure out who you are and what you want to do.
Matt Hyatt (15:30):
You know, I didn’t have it figured out at age 22, exactly what things Look like. I had an idea of sort of that I wanted to certainly want it to be an entrepreneur, but I didn’t yet know the field and it wasn’t until various people came into my lives and opportunities opened up that the path became clear. And I just think that’s so important to go in with an open mind, but looking for those folks that are going to make that investment of time, or potentially even professional training and development, I think that’s, that’s really good advice.
Neil Stevens (16:03):
If there is one piece of advice, like you said, I could give any young person today is don’t chase the money because there are a lot of companies out there. I mean, I know a lot of, and nothing wrong with this. I’m not saying anything’s wrong with it, but a lot of kids will graduate from UGA or what other, other business school and the big firms, you know, the big accounting firms consulting firms will hire them, pay them lots of money, put them to work for, you know, 90 hours a week and then burn through to them. Whereas if you can find someone, even if it’s at a less amount of money, if you can find both that’s even the best, but at the last amount of money who will invest in you, the money will take care of itself. Once you discover your passions and talents and have someone who really invested in you in Tom Falk back at CNS did that for me and my brother, you know, was a big advocate. And the encouragement they gave me was, was really why I’m in banking today.
Matt Hyatt (17:05):
I love it. How fortunate that Tom Faulk came into your life. I’ve got a mentor of mine as well. Gordon fuller, just a guy that took me under his wing for some reason, I don’t know why, but he took an interest in me and and mentored me and taught me a lot of things. And, you know, in that case, he not only was mentoring me at the office, but also in my personal life, you know, things like getting me into the gym, getting me into church, bringing me home to his family and spending time at the dinner table with his family. You know, those, those are important things for a young person. So great. Great to have mentors in your life for sure. Well, tell us a little bit about County, state bank. I’d love to hear sort of the background and and the trajectory of Oconee State Bank right now.
Neil Stevens (17:55):
Yeah. So we just celebrated this, this year earlier this year, our 60th year, this next February, it’ll be 61 years. And the bank was started by a group of business leaders who at the time you think about Athens, which is only about six or seven miles from Watkinsville for that being, it was back then, it was like a long way to get to Athens, to do your banking. And so Watkinsville was a small community. Didn’t have a bank and a group of shareholders and business people got together, had a vision cast, had that vision and started it. And so thank goodness for them. Thank goodness for their bravery, for their courage. And the bank would not be what it is today without the, the people who came before everyone here to bill what it is today. And but we are a full service financial institution.
Neil Stevens (18:50):
Our asset size today is about 500 million and growing. We have a very great future. That’s a lot of vision and our future in terms of where we want to go. And, you know, we want to ensure that we don’t forget our past, but at the same time, we have to keep our eye on being relevant and not changing. We want to stay rooted and the foundational values that the bank has always held to, but at the same time, we have to be relevant with what today’s banking needs and whether it’s mobile banking and technology, to being the best at customer service, to updating our facilities, to looking at new growth markets, to continue to draft shareholder value over time, to continue to grow all those things are critically important. And if we take our eye off that ball, you know, I think it’s it can be a decline and we don’t want to stay stagnant
Matt Hyatt (19:53):
Yeah. So for those of our listeners that are not maybe as familiar with the banking industry, I know banks many times, but you know, you mentioned 500 million in assets, a lot of non-banking entrepreneurs and leaders might not be able to equate that to size of bank. So in terms of maybe number of employees or number of locations, or what is, what is that like for Oconee State Bank?
Neil Stevens (20:22):
Yeah, so 500 million is still a very small, small bank. We have our eyes on becoming a billion and beyond but there’s a lot of what I guess would be termed medium-sized banks that are 30 billion. So we’re, we’re a small bank, but yet we’re still, I think the 35th largest asset size bank in the state of Georgia out of 150 banks or so that are in the state. But we’ve got about 90 employees. And today, honestly, with mobile technology and less branch network, I mean, you have fewer employees then you would have had, you know, a number of years back at our size, but you know, we’re still a small business and, you know, but want to continue to grow. But we like that because that gives us the ability to be nimble, you know, do things very quickly. But at the same time, we feel like that that growth trajectory is still very important. And our intention here is to remain independent. A lot of the smaller banks today are looking to, you know, they’re, they’re actively seeking to sell. That’s not, that’s not our, that’s not our intention. Our intention is to continue to grow now what we have to do, and that growth path is bringing as much value to our shareholders as we could, if we did sell, but we’re confident we have the team, you know, employee base to make that happen. And that’s our intention. So we hope to be here for another 60 years plus.
Matt Hyatt (22:04):
That’s great. So I’d love to unpack, you said a lot there, and I think some really good stuff in there that I’d like to unpack just a little bit. One of the things that you mentioned is how today we may not need as many employees as we might have needed 20 years ago. And certainly the same is true for, for Rocket IT. We’ve seen that as well. And so sometimes when people, you introduce someone or you meet someone at an event, a lot of times, that’s one of the opening questions. So, can you tell me how many employees do you have? You know, they want to know about that. And in the answer is maybe does not reveal that much about the size or capability of the organization, as much as it used to. We’re able to do a lot more today with every pod of 10 employees or so than we could 15 years ago.
Matt Hyatt (22:54):
And I’m sure that’s true in other industries too. One of the things that I like about Oconee State Bank though, is this approach that you seem to have. It seems to be a very relationship based organization. And so you’ve already pointed out sort of the roots of the organization where, Hey, you know, we’re a community bank that served a very specific community in a very specific communities need in and around Watkinsville. And over time. My guess is, is that the bankers in your organization, leaders in your organization develop relationships. One at a time with most of the business owners and many of the community members in that area. And so you’ve sort of had this depth, right? Rather than breadth. A lot of times you see the really big banks, the ones with the names we all see in the news all the time.
Matt Hyatt (23:54):
They’re not wired for depth at all. They’re wired for breadth, right? They want as many transactions as possible as many people as possible. So it’s a very different approach. And I’d like to hear a little bit more about that, because I know now not only do you serve Watkinsville, but you also have a terrific location and Athens, you’ve got a terrific team right here in Gwinnett serving our area of Metro Atlanta. Tell us a little bit about that. How do you preserve that? Focus on depth and relationships as you begin to multiply the locations and spread out in different areas?
Neil Stevens (24:30):
Yeah. That becomes a challenge as you grow larger is to keep what I would call what you’re describing. There is the culture of an organization. You know, that that depth that you’re talking about is preserving the culture of an organization so that we can adequately, you know, serve our customers in a way that, you know, meets their needs. We feel like that part of that is goes back to being intentional and our vision and mission. You know, one of the things that Simon Sinek, another one of my favorite author says is, you know, know your why. And our why is our vision statement is that we want to be essential to the lives, businesses and communities that we serve. Well, how do we become essential? That is our why. And the way we do that is by what we call creating remarkable experiences.
Neil Stevens (25:27):
So we feel like, I think that depth comes by always keeping our customers the heroes of the story, not ever let it become about us. We don’t want to be remarkable so that we can say, look how great we are. We want to be remarkable because we want our customers going out and remarking about us because we have made a difference in their lives. So that they’re the hero of the story. And I think as you expand, it’s very difficult to keep that. I mean, a company that we all know that has done a tremendous job of that, as it expanded is Chick-fil-A. And so, but they have a very, very intentional process. And so 90% of what we do as an organization and named the other bank, you could insert any bank name in there, 90%. It’s exactly the same. You know, our money is just as green.
Neil Stevens (26:27):
We have ATM’s they have ATM’s, we have mobile banking, they have mobile banking. I mean, 90% of what we do is the same. And that’s what we consider the first mile. And the first mile is expected. I mean, if you don’t go the first mile, that’s a low par, if you go the first mile, that’s expected, really the 10% that will make us different is, and radically different is that second mile. And it’s the creation of those experiences in such a way that differentiates us. And I think what you’re sharing about relationships is that’s, the secret is found in those deep relationships where our bankers truthfully and genuinely care about the customer, want to make them the hero of the story. And we have three little words that you create remarkable experiences. You, you engage and in a way that’s enthusiastic, you personalize in a way that’s very purposeful. And then thirdly, you surprise them with sizzle. And if you can, if you can do that on a consistent basis, and that’s hard to do, but if you can figure out how to do that, that’s the 10% that makes us different and keep our breadth, you know, our depth where it needs to be so that we don’t just look at breadth and be three miles wide, and only an inch deep. We want to be three miles deep, like you were talking about earlier. So I think that’s the secret.
Matt Hyatt (27:56):
I love it. You know, it reminds me there was a family camp that took my family to a few years ago. And I remember, you know, we’re, we’re all kind of excited about it. My kids were small and we knew that there were going to be various activities. We had other friends that were going to the same family camp. There were a lot of things that we didn’t know, you know, such as what the sleeping arrangement was going to be in terms of you are going to be in that tent or the cabin or, or whatever. But there were a lot of knowns going into it. And I just remember having an even better than expected time. And I remember they had the saying that they were talking about plus ones, and it’s kind of like that 10% that you’re talking about. Like, here’s the expectation. Here’s what everyone expects out of their bank, that their money’s going to be there, that I’m going to be able to go online, or these days on my mobile device that there’s going to be a team that I can talk to for support, you know, that’s, those are all givens, but when you can give them that little surprise or the plus one, or the 10%, that can make a big difference especially over a long period of time.
Neil Stevens (29:11):
Yeah. Thank you.
Matt Hyatt (29:14):
I know you’re expanding and we talked about it a little bit the Gwinnett locations.
Neil Stevens (29:21):
I haven’t been over three years now. A couple of years, maybe since we converted that.
Matt Hyatt (29:25):
Yeah. So tell us a little bit about how you manage that kind of expansion. What are some of the mechanics, Neil that you personally have to keep an eye on as you’ve got, you know, you’ve got your sort of your home base there and Watkinsville. I know that even that’s changing, we’ll talk about that in a minute with your new location headquarters, how do you manage so many things at once? What’s the secret there?
Neil Stevens (29:54):
Well, I think you have to I think it has to be a, what I would call thinking long. In other words what we’re going to be doing two or three years from now has we have to be casting vision and talking about that today. I think you also have to be nimble. I mean, none of us knew that COVID was going to hit. So we’ve had to a favorite word around here has been pivot. We’ve had to pivot a number of times during this pandemic. You know, I had a banking consultant. One time told me, he said recently said, don’t waste a good pandemic. And it’s a, you know, even though this is awful, it’s terrible for people in society, nonetheless, what can we learn from it? But so I think we have to be nimble, but at the same time, we have to think long.
Neil Stevens (30:44):
We have to think, okay, the next three years, what do we want to accomplish? Because it’s, it’s going to, it’s a journey to get there. And if you wait until you wake up one day and say, Oh, we need to be doing this well, then, you know, it’s probably another year or further out before you can accomplish that vision. So it’s always about casting vision thinking long and communicating and doing it in a strategic way. So our board, I mean, every board meeting, we will have strategic discussions. Our boards actively engaged in those discussions. Our management team, our senior leadership team. We spend time talking about major decisions. We involve our staff, you know, as best we can, all of our team members to get their thoughts. And buy-in some of the best ideas in our bank have come from team members, you know, who have come up with an idea that says, wow, you know, that’s a terrific idea.
Neil Stevens (31:37):
And so I think it’s about planning, being strategic thinking long. And when you have a clear vision and mission and clear values, you don’t become distracted by every little shiny object out there, because then you can begin chasing things and you get nowhere. You have a lot of sideways energy, and we want to keep our energy focused on going forward. So aligning our team on where we’re going and making sure everyone’s on board thinking long thinking strategically, avoiding those distractions by keeping our true North, our vision mission values at the center. I think that’s the secret to making it happen and then realizing that there’s no perfect world. I mean, the best football play design in the world sometimes falls apart. You know, when you get on the field and something goes wrong. So you have to be have to have a mindset that, okay, if we need to pivot we’ll pivot,
Matt Hyatt (32:36):
I love that you’ve mentioned it actually. So I don’t know if you realize that or not, but you’ve mentioned your mission values, your purpose, you know, that Y you’ve we’ve mentioned earlier, you’ve been now CEO and at the home of the Oconee State Bank for four plus years, I think, but it was, so that means it was 56 years old when you stepped in where the purpose and mission and vision and values all clear when you stepped in or was there work to be done to figure those things out?
Neil Stevens (33:10):
I think they were clear. I think there’s been great vision casting in the past. The bank would not have, you know, been where it is today. I think what it needed was maybe some refocus to just think about it. I mean, when I joined, we had just recently come through the biggest recession of our, of our lifetime and banking. I mean, there were several years there that the bank and bank management and I wasn’t here at the time, but they were just fighting to keep the doors open. Right. So, I mean, that was the mission: not close down. Every time someone showed up in the parking lot, people were, you know, employees were looking out the window thinking is this the day we’re going to be closed. And so we had some incredible people and leadership positions on the board. It’s also some great staff you know executive team members who led the bank through the recession and a great way.
Neil Stevens (34:06):
And so I think after that, all that was over and the dust settled, it was time to, to come in and sort of have a fresh look refocus on, okay, where do we go from here, cast vision? And we had some board turnover and some various things of that nature. And I believe now we’ve got the board and the executive team that can appreciate the past. And, but also make our vision more clear and you know, different and align everybody in a way to achieve, you know, where we’re headed today. And that’s not easy to do. I mean, that’s a task
Matt Hyatt (34:48):
I love, I love it. It reminds me so much of, you know, trying to grow my business over the years. My favorite place to think about is, you know, down the road 10 years, that’s just, I’m kind of wired that way, sort of future focused and oriented towards what’s going to what life is going to be like for, for the team or whatever, 10 years down the road. That’s kind of where, where I’m usually pointed. But every once in a while we get blindsided, you know, the pandemic as a good example, the great recession is great example. You know, the we’ve had certainly in the it industry over our past 26 years, numerous times when things have been shifted from one winter, you know, cloud computing as, as an example of things where there are major shifts that all of a sudden is okay, I need to put my head down a little bit and I got to go figure out what’s going to happen this afternoon and tomorrow.
Matt Hyatt (35:46):
And I can’t be worried too much about 10 years from now. And so every once in a while, that’s what’s necessary, right. That’s, what’s necessary for us to, okay, I’ll roll up my sleeves and we’re going to fight for today because that’s, what’s important right now. And then somehow you make it through all of that. And you know, our shirts are tattered and our face is dirty, but we’re up or knuckles are bleeding, ready to go again. And that’s when I think you’re right. It’s time to say, okay, you know what? We made it good job. Let’s focus on the future. And a lot of times that does mean kind of getting back to our roots okay, what is important to us? How are we going to interact with our community and what are we going to be focused on next? And you’re right. Sometimes those things might shift a little bit, but the core, I think is often the same, right? You know, the values, at least you correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m guessing values, don’t change a lot. They’re not wild shifts and values over a period of time. There are some times recentering and making sure we’re all pointed in the same direction. Anyway, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but I love where your head is and kind of how, how your approach has been there.
Neil Stevens (37:00):
Yeah. Well, I think of values. I think about, you know, you think about the values of yeah, I know there’s a lot of political unrest, but you think about the values of our country, our constitution there hasn’t been, you know, that’s still solid. That’s still there, but yet, you know, we don’t do things the way we did and 1803. I mean, we have a lot of new technology, obviously, a lot of things of that nature think about churches. I mean, today, you know, and George Washington’s error churches, we do church a lot differently yet the fundamental values of scripture and such have never have not changed, they’re still rooted. And so that’s how we look at the bank and this thinking long and visionary pieces is very important, but it’s a blessing and a curse because I think the blessing obviously is to be able to kind of see the future and know where you’re going.
Neil Stevens (37:57):
And I’m thinking always thinking ahead, you know, but the danger there is you can not really cherish the now and because life’s uncertain, right. So we don’t know what’s really going to happen tomorrow. And so I think it was an as a balance there. And thankfully for me, I feel like there’s a team of executive leaders here who together, we all balance each other out and they’re able to call me out, maybe when I’m thinking too far ahead or thinking of something crazy and I’m able to call them out when I’m thinking, you know, you’re, you’re too caught in the weeds on something and that kind of thing. But, that’s the secret is to be able to put people around you who can breathe truth into your life and be transparent.
Matt Hyatt (38:41):
That is important for sure. So I’d love to hear a little bit more about you. So I know you’ve got two kids, adult kids, right. I know that when you’re a leading an organization, especially a growing changing organization and a dynamic field, I have some experience in this area. It can be pretty consuming. Right. And so how, how does a leader like Neil Stephens balance the family life? I know you’re on several boards and several activities outside of a Connie state bank and leave the bank at the same time. What’s the secret to managing all of those things at once and doing that well,
Neil Stevens (39:28):
Well, I think it goes back to something I mentioned earlier and that’s intentionality. I really do believe that, you know, if you get so caught up in your work, that it consumes you, there is a cost, there’s a, there’s a price to that. It’s, you’re going to pay for that. And some other area of your life at the same time, if you’re all about leisure and you know, you don’t spend the time at work, you need, there’s a price that you pay for that as well. And so what I’ve tried to do and, there are really the three things we talk about at Oconee State Bank is faith, family, and then work. So if at 3:00 PM you need to be at a soccer match at, you know, Augusta to watch your kid go be, go do that.
Neil Stevens (40:14):
Don’t miss that opportunity. Simultaneous to that. I think of, you know, the next night you may have to work at 10:00 PM to to get the work done and get the work caught up. So it’s about balance. And I liked the word integration, even more work work-life integration and that every single myself and along with every single team member, we bring home, we bring work home. You can’t help, but bring work home regardless of your position, what’s going on at work. And we take home to work. Things that are happening in our personal life has to come to work. And so I don’t know how you really separate the two, but I do believe that you have to put it on the calendar and schedule that time. I can remember when my kids were younger there, I was a baseball coach for my oldest son.
Neil Stevens (41:05):
And I would go to coach all of his practices, but I may be up, you know, late at night working when I got back from that in order to, to sacrifice that time, my youngest, son’s a tremendous musician and I haven’t missed any of his, you know, performances. Anytime I can go hear him play or sing or do whatever. I’ll sacrifice time to go do that with my wife, a guy told me a long time ago at first citizens bank where I used to work. He said, Stevens. He said, you’ve done a good job here. And he said, but I want you to look around this room. And I looked around the room, we were at a management retreat and he said, there’s not a single person here that’s going to be feeding you pudding when you’re 90 years old and in a nursing home, he said, that’s going to be your family. He said, you don’t ever forget that. And so I think we’ve got to put things in perspective, scheduled time, scheduled, date nights, scheduled times with the kids, but at the same time, manage our time in a way that we get our work done adequately as well.
Matt Hyatt (42:08):
Well, I’ll tell you, I have never heard that before the work life integration versus work-life balance. I liked that a lot. I may I’ve spent some time thinking about that of myself, but I totally agree with you about the intentionality part also. No great things happen with intentionality. They might happen by accident, but that’s pretty rare. I told somebody the other day that it’s amazing what you can accomplish in a decade, right? And you don’t arrive there on accident after a decade. It takes, it takes intentionality to hit your target after 10 years. So I, I love that very much. Life goes by so fast.
Neil Stevens (42:55):
It goes by so fast. And my wife, I mean, she is everything in the world to me and we have a great relationship, but it’s like any other relationship you gotta spend time, you’ve got to talk. You got to talk things through, you got to spend time with each other, by the way, one thing I probably should correct is it’s our, our sons. Sometimes I say my sons and she’s always scratching at me. It’s our sons. She is the mother of our two kids. But just for the record here, but life flies I’m I was looking at a picture the other day of our kids, young, you know, in a pumpkin patch back, I can’t remember what Halloween, but it was years ago. And it’s like, wow, I can remember that photograph. And it seems like just maybe two or three years, and it’s been a lot longer than that. So don’t, don’t say, you know, work’s important. We got to achieve our goals. We got to bring shareholder value. We got to breathe life into our teams, but let’s not forget the ones that are closest to us and sacrifice that. So that’s so important.
Matt Hyatt (43:58):
I totally agree. Well, well said, so tell us, we were talking a little bit about being blindsided and yes, you’re right. Summer of 2019, I don’t think any of us would have guessed what was in store for 2020. How, how has, you know, the banking industries in many ways, sort of the center of this with, you know, want to make sure we don’t take my words out of context here. Healthcare is huge, and we’ve got a lot of folks working very hard, but with the government mandates to help out our citizens and businesses with stimulus and so forth, suddenly the banks have been thrust into the middle of that also. And I’d like to hear a little bit about how Oconee State Bank has helped help your customers stay afloat and navigate these very challenging waters with with abandonment.
Neil Stevens (45:02):
Oh, I tell you, thankfully, our team and I give, I mean, if I started naming people, that’d be, it’d be, you know, all 80 people. I mean, some worked harder than others from the standpoint of hours and that kind of thing. But I want to tell you, we had a tremendous amount of people working Easter all Easter weekend, trying to get the PPP in place, but the reason we were able to help so many people is that we, we reacted quickly. We did not wait. It’s back to that vision thing. I mean, it was a quick decision on that, but it’s like, okay, we’ve got to, we’ve got to begin to move on this. So I think the day that the portal open that we could, you know, make long as we were ready and we began getting applications loaded in that portal.
Neil Stevens (45:49):
And it made a tremendous difference. I mean, I got, I can’t tell you how many emails, phone calls testimonials. We had a series of testimonials of people that we were able to help. And it was a perfect opportunity to live out our vision and mission of being essential and creating remarkable for others. But we couldn’t have done that without a team of people who, you know, sacrifice their personal time and had the mindset of keeping the others person first and not worrying about their own schedule. And so we closed about 55 million, I think, in a PPP loans, which generated some nice fees for us, but more so than that, I mean, it was the ability and we have customers today that we would have never gotten that we’re happy at other institutions, but we were able to gain that customer base as a result of this. And they’re still with us. And, and it’s the opportunity of seizing those opportunities. But at the same time, it’s such a thrill. Our people had such a thrill from helping someone else. And so what was awful and terrible for everyone, it’s like, it was the opportunity to try to make a difference.
Matt Hyatt (47:05):
You know what, there’s, there’s a saying success is when preparation meets opportunity, right. And having your team sort of already primed to know that their calling is to make a remarkable difference in other people’s lives. When the opportunity comes along to actually do it, you’re ready. Like you’re not only ready because you’ve got the processes in place, the people’s mindsets right there, right. For those kinds of opportunities. And that’s not something you can just create overnight. That’s something that, you know, you’ve you and your fellow leadership team members over there have had to curate or cultivate in your organization job well done. I mean, it sounds, it sounds like it’s worked out exactly the way that it,
Neil Stevens (47:51):
Einstein had a quote, one time, of course, he was the mathematician of all time. You know, he didn’t have to teach him math. And he’s, he made a statement, a very profound statement, and it said not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts. And so it’s, it’s really more about, you know, the profits will take care of themselves, but let’s begin to focus on what matters in people’s lives. And that’s what made me so proud of this team. It was just incredible watching them get joy from serving others and making a difference. And when you can create that in an organization, the rest of everything else takes care of itself.
Matt Hyatt (48:36):
I love it. Well, let’s, let’s jump into a slightly different topic for just a moment I want to touch on it is just the technology, the digital aspect of banking. I mean, that’s something that has just completely changed even, well, actually, that’s the pandemic. We’ve seen it even accelerate more, you know, I bank with Oconee State Bank and we’ve got a great relationship and there’s there have been improvements that I’ve seen fall into place. So tell us a little bit about kind of how that’s how you see that going forward. What kinds of things do you have to do as a, as a community bank to stay competitive on the, on the digital front? How do you navigate that?
Neil Stevens (49:26):
Well, we’ll never want to lose sight of what we’ve mentioned earlier, and that’s the relationship aspect. I mean, individuals, customers are our best customers and any customer of our bank. They want to know they can call someone in need. However, because of Amazon, because of what’s happening out there. And with technology in general, as a result of the pandemic, all those things American banker, as a publication, that’s a widely read publication within banking. And there’s not a week that goes by that. I don’t read an article in American banker about how the pandemic is accelerating the need for banks to be really good at technology. And so I think what customers want and you think about me and you, I mean, we, if we order something you want convenience, you want ease of use you want it to be right. You want it to be quick.
Neil Stevens (50:25):
And so we’re right now into what we’re calling our three year digital transformation roadmap. We’ve committed a actually we’ve created a segment of our board. That’s the digital transformation committee for our board. And we’re sharing things with them on a regular basis, but we have our, our it group, our head of it. And everyone working with some consultants to really create, because a lot of it is where technology is going. It’s just not where it is today. It’s where it’s going. And so it’s like making that pass to the receiver. You’re not throwing the ball where the receiver is, you’re throwing the ball to where the receiver is going. And so we want to make sure that we’re doing that effectively. And so this roadmap will help kickstart that, but we’ve made a lot of, a lot of improvements, a lot of changes, but we have to stay relevant and keep up there. So that’s a, that’s a big one on our plate and it’s even made it into our strategic plan and multiple places.
Matt Hyatt (51:26):
I love that, you know I think you’ve done a good job at it, just from my, my perspective as a user of your services. I know that there are certain things that I’m able to do in the app that I use for my Oconee State Bank accounts, and also on the website that are not easily available, if at all, from the bigger banks that I’ve worked with. So good job. And it sounds, sounds like you’re doing a great job on that. Well, Neil, we’re going to move on to what we call our lightning round. And so this is just a number of questions that we try and ask every guest as happens, that we’ve sort of touched on a couple of them. You you know, I would usually ask folks, Hey, what’s a person that’s made a profound impact on your journey. And you told us about John Faught. Are there others?
Neil Stevens (52:19):
Yeah, well, of course, I guess I’m a parents and my brother, but outside of family and John Faught was a big influence, but I would tell you, Randy Pope was a pastor at Perimeter Church. He retired just recently. He’s still involved with the church. He’s not retired. He’s no longer pastoring, right. And he’s never going to stop, but he is a tremendous leader, tremendous believer. He, we were there at that church for 25 years and he made a profound impact on me through his leadership. And so I’d have to say he’s at the outside of the family and my wife and, and, and everybody that’s around me. Randy Pope has been a big influence.
Matt Hyatt (52:58):
How about that. What’s the single most important lesson you’ve learned in your professional career
Neil Stevens (53:05):
To me it’s, and it’s sometimes hard to do this for leaders, but I think having a sense of humility and being willing to ask for help when you need it and not being like you have all the answers. And then when they give you the help share the credit or give the credit away, I think that is so critically important enough. And I’ve learned over the years, I’ve not always been that way. And I’ve learned over the years that, you know, it takes a lot of people to create success and keep a sense of humility about things, regardless of how big, how well things are going or how poor things are going.
Matt Hyatt (53:46):
You know what I think a lot of folks kind of fall into that trap of, hey, I’m leading this organization or I’m building this business or, or whatever it might be even parenting of. Okay, I gotta figure this out on my own. And I’m just gonna kind of try and use my head to figure my way through it when the truth is that there are probably lots and lots and lots of other people that have gone through the same things and figured out some of that hard stuff. So leaning on others, looking for mentors asking good questions. And I love the part about giving credit where credit is due. That’s important stuff. Nice job. Are you a podcast guy or a reader? What what’s your favorite podcast?
Neil Stevens (54:29):
By the way, you’ve built an incredible company yourself. I just gave you that shout out. I mean, you’re one of those leaders who I admire and you’ve done it the right way. I knew that back at that first round table years ago, this guy’s got something going on, but you know, the Andy Stanley leadership podcast has been a good one and he’s a great communicator. And he’s had some tremendous leaders on his podcast and I’ve talked about some great principles. I’ve played a lot of those podcasts for our team actually, and we’ve all listened to them from a podcast standpoint, not really widely a podcast listener, but that’s one that I have listened to quite regularly.
Matt Hyatt (55:10):
He is probably one of the most gifted communicators I can think of Andy Stanley he’s he’s. He does a great job. Yep. So, if people want to learn more about you or Oconee State Bank, what’s the best way for them to reach out?
Neil Stevens (55:22):
Well, I’m located here in Watkinsville, Georgia at 35 North Main Street and the email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And so feel free to reach out anything I can do to help that we can do to help love, to try to be of service.
Matt Hyatt (55:38):
Wonderful. Thanks so much, Neil, on that note, I believe it’s time to wrap things up, Neil from myself and our audience. Thank you so much for joining us today. So our listeners, thank you for tuning in to the Rocket IT Business Podcast. So do you have any suggestions on future topics that you’d like to hear more about email us at email@example.com. Finally, a quick plug for Rocket IT, we work with businesses, nonprofits, and municipalities in the areas of it, support information, security and strategic planning to learn more about Rocket IT and its services simply visit rocketit.com. Thank you, Neil.