Most of us remember the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” for its message about the difference one person can make if they do the right thing.
But a smaller theme of the 1946 Jimmy Stewart film is the impact a lending institution can have when it is committed to the success of its customers.
You may recall that Stewart’s character, George Bailey, is itching for bigger things than “Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan” that his father runs in their hometown.
When his father tries to persuade him to stay with the business, he says, “I couldn’t face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office ... Oh, I’m sorry, Pop, I didn’t mean it that way, but this business of nickels and dimes and spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe ... I’d go crazy. I ... I wanna do something big and something important.”
To which his father replies, “You know, George, I feel that in a small way we are doing something important. Satisfying a fundamental urge. It’s deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace. And we’re helping him get those things in our shabby little office.”
George, of course, is forced to take over the firm when his father suddenly dies, and George makes an impassioned plea to the board to keep it open, arguing that it makes people better citizens and customers if they own their own homes. And later in the movie when we see what life would have been like without George Bailey, we see a town filled with rental slums and distressed, hopeless people.
Although the villain of the movie is the owner of a rival bank, Old Man Potter, it’s not that he lends money at interest, which the building and loan also does, that makes him evil but the way he exploits his customers.
The idea, therefore, is that loaning money can be a noble profession when done right.
This came to mind this week in Columbia following the death of longtime Citizens Bank President Chip Williamson. Many of his customers spoke of the personal interest he took in them, not just from the perspective of a banker but also of a friend. That’s as good of an epitaph as anyone could hope for.
Locally controlled community banks are particularly adept at this way of doing business. Their success is tied to that of their hometown, and they are often one of its biggest promoters.
Yet they have faced difficulties in recent years as big banks, which don’t give one whit about the towns they pull profits from, have grown through consolidation. It was national banks, mind you, that caused the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession, yet community banks suffered from both the economic hit, from which most rural Mississippi communities have yet to bounce back fully from, and increased regulations.
Thankfully, Columbia has strong community banking options. That’s one of the things that makes our city special. By our count, putting your deposits with those institutions is a way of “doing something important,” as “It’s a Wonderful Life” reminds us.