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Vested interest Featured

4:58am EDT March 22, 2005
Banking is in the blood of Ann Durr, president and COO of Valley Savings Bank.

The granddaughter of the attorney who helped found Valley Savings and Loan in 1923 and the daughter of a former Valley chairman of the board, Durr can relate to the small business owners who come to her for loans and financial advice.

"I have an enormous amount of pride in what I do because of my family heritage," she says. "And I think my employees feel that, too."

Customer demand weighs heavily at this institution. With three offices in Cuyahoga Falls and Stow and more than $100 million in assets, Valley Savings Bank is adding a drive-up facility next to its downtown headquarters and is the first bank in Summit County to offer Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) to employers and individual health care consumers.

"We initially got into them because of the opportunity to offer a local business HSA accounts for their employees, and in a two-hour meeting, we acquired 35 accounts, so that's a productive two hours," Durr says. "It meets a need in the community and gives us an opportunity to grow our account base and get more individuals familiar with Valley."

Smart Business recently spoke with Durr about managing growth into the future.

What are you doing to meet the evolving financial needs of business customers?

I personally meet with a majority of (new commercial prospects) with my senior lender, Bill Flinta.

There seem to be more small businesses in the Akron area than maybe there were 20 years ago. In some of the larger bank models, borrowers who are looking for $500,000 to $2 million may not fit their model perfectly, and that is right in the wheelhouse of the kind of commercial customer we look for.

When we can sit down -- the president of the bank and the chief lending officer -- with a small business owner, that's pretty powerful.

As we move into more of a technology-based society, larger conglomerates just aren't as prolific as they used to be, and as a result, some people have been outsourced, but they're still talented, so they evolve into other businesses -- a little bit of entrepreneurial spirit.

We get requests via word of mouth because of the way we handle our small business customers.

When you're a small business owner, you're sometimes your own bookkeeper. You don't have multiple layers to rely on so that you have a lot of free time to deal with your financial needs. (Small business owners) become frustrated if they're not dealing with a decision-maker because they need to know, 'Is this going to work?' 'What do I need to do?' -- they need answers.

What techniques do you use to manage your business?

Since we're locally owned and operated, the techniques we use to manage our business (include) local decision-makers and having the ability to be flexible.

We have a customer who's a pretty high-profile guy who has financing with us, and he's a small business owner. He came to us with a request, and we examined it for quite some time and decided that ... we weren't going to be able to provide him with additional financing.

That was a little gut-wrenching because ... he's a good customer, and we didn't want to turn him off. (Later, the customer was the guest speaker at an event attended by Durr and Flinta. He mentioned Valley Savings in his speech and said,) 'When they turned me down, I knew I had a partner.' And it's like, OK, wait a minute, we turned this guy down, and he's our biggest fan.

He did some things to retool his business to improve his cash flow, and he felt it was a turning point for his business. He's still a great customer and a good referral source, I might add. Go figure.

People appreciate that we're partnering with them, looking at their cash flow and not getting them into a situation that would potentially jeopardize their business. I don't have 500 originators out there working under an incentive (saying), 'Let's just give the guy the money because it's going to help me make my (quota) for the month.' To be a good financing partner means you're giving good, solid advice.

There are so many (businesses that) have gotten away from the fundamentals as far as (being) honest, hard-working, giving accurate information, professional. When people call in, sometimes they're surprised to talk to me, and I'm just doing what I'm supposed to do.

How do you foresee the local business climate in the future?

I'm not an economist, so I don't know what to say there. We have a very strong business community. One of the things we've become pretty adept at is some of the U.S. Small Business Administration lending. There's a lot of heavy lifting involved there.

Now we're dealing with another decision-maker -- the government. The customer has to be willing to create whatever paperwork the SBA might request but the customer appreciates the assistance of trying to navigate through those waters.

Some of them would prefer not to deal with the paperwork and time involved, but if it's your only option, then some people do look at that. It's not the majority of our business but it is something we have available that could be helpful for the right borrower.

What are you doing to foster growth at Valley Savings?

I can't get into specifics except to say that we're embarking on some new strategic initiatives for deposit acquisition. The entire organization will be going through some training and procedure development, and it will be ultimately unveiled to the public in May. We have developed some strategic plans to attract checking account customers to the bank.

When you're a bank our size, we have limited financial resources as far as how much we can dedicate toward marketing and training. We're in the process of training and development right now but in May, it will become readily apparent to the public what we're doing.

This drive-up facility will be a nice complement to retaining and attracting more customers. It's more on the personal side but we do have a very competitive business deposit.

They appreciate online banking and bill pay because a lot of the time, they can't get to their own personal affairs until 10 at night, and the Web's always open. We have a reputation for being fairly innovative, and we were one of the first Summit County banks to have a completely online and bill pay function.

Because we're small, we have the ability to be fairly nimble. As an executive team, we just said, 'This is something we really need to get our hands around.' In a larger organization, it's a big change to bring on a Web site with a bill payment function. The larger the organization, the tougher it is to get change started and completed.

HOW TO REACH: Valley Savings Bank, (330) 923-0454 or www.valleysavingsbank.com