Bear State Bank Bears Recognition

By Karen M. Kroll

Arkansas once was known as The Bear State, an homage to the many American black bears found within its borders. By the 1930s, however, fewer than fifty American black bears remained in the state. Their departure likely resulted from over-hunting and habitat destruction, according to the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism.

Over the next few decades, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission worked to restock the state’s population of American black bears. By 1990, 2,000-some bears were thought to reside within the state. Today, the population of American black bears in Arkansas tops 3,000.

What do American black bears have in common with banking?

Like the American black bear, Little Rock-based Bear State Bank has come to represent a successful comeback from troubled times. And if the 1930s were tough on bears, we all remember how the late 2000s were for banking.

The first step came in 2011, when an investment firm called Bear State Financial Holdings, LLC invested $46.3 million in First Federal Bancshares, the holding company for one of Bear State Bank’s predecessors, First Federal Bank. “They were looking to rehabilitate this financial institution, and rebrand and grow it,” said Shelly Loftin, Bear State Bank’s chief administrative officer.

In 2013, First Federal announced a merger with First National Security Company, the parent of both First National Bank, headquartered in Hot Springs, and Heritage Bank, based in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

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With the merger, the bank would be operating under three distinct names, making it difficult to gain recognition. So, in 2014, First Federal Bancshares changed its name to Bear State Financial, Inc. The change has been one key to the bank’s rebound.

Bank executives tested potential names with focus groups within and outside the bank. The conclusion? “There was never a clear winner,” Loftin said. “We just couldn’t get a clear picture of this will absolutely work or this won’t.”

That prompted more discussion.

Should the bank go with a safe, traditional name, or one that was different and also acknowledged its heritage?

“We ultimately decided that we didn’t want to repeat someone else’ story,” Loftin said. “We wanted to be able to tell our own.” A different name would help accomplish this.

Moreover, many of the employees who’d expressed concern about changing to Bear State actually liked the name, but worried customers might not recognize it. “That’s a very valid concern,” Loftin pointed out.

It’s also one that could be addressed with information and education. The bank was able to bring many employees on board by including them in the rebranding discussions and marketing.

Bear State has also used social media to aid in its rebranding efforts.

Given the distinctiveness of the Bear State name and logo, “the more we can get that out there, the better,” Loftin said. She noted that the bank operates in many small communities, making community engagement important both to customers and team members.

Bear State has a bigger presence in many of its local areas than its predecessors typically did. Customers sometimes assume that a new, larger bank won’t provide the personalized service its predecessor did.

To nip that in the bud, Bear State’s Facebook feed features photos of employees in the community—for example:

  • Participating in a Relay for Life.
  • Teaching fourth-graders about saving.
  • Providing guidelines to safeguard against fraud to local trade groups.

Customers can see many of the employees they’ve known, participating in the community in ways they’ve always done, Loftin said.

Keeping the community feel as a larger bank.

Bear State continues to enhance its social media and digital advertising presence, to attract new customers via digital channels. At the same time, it’s striving to balance digital and personal outreach. Because Bear State operates in many small communities, it’s unlikely to “go all Jetsons,” as Loftin put it. But, management will continue to innovate.

Patience has been another essential, if surprising, element in the bank’s journey. Loftin noted that consolidating three separate community banks means working with many moving pieces. “The ‘overwhelm’ can’t overtake the process.”

Also key: employees’ interest in embracing new roles.

“You need people who are willing to keep learning all the time so that you can keep making processes and procedures better and smoother,” Loftin said.

A collaborative approach has been another essential element of the bank’s revitalization. Loftin exemplifies this, as she oversees a range of departments:

  • Marketing and advertising
  • Retail
  • Education
  • Human resources
  • Mortgage and investments

She started with responsibility for marketing and advertising, and then added retail and education. “It didn’t make sense to rebrand and do a lot of advertising,” she said, “if the experience didn’t reflect the image we wanted to project.”

As the company added banks, it made sense to include human resources to Loftin’s responsibilities, given the impact employees have on a brand’s image and the experience it offers its customers.

Then she added investments and mortgages to her repertoire to ensure the experience mirrored that of other business lines. “We need the experiences to look the same, the visuals to look the same, and to all stay on brand,” she said.

Such an approach is new to many banks, Loftin pointed out. Typically, retail talks within retail, marketing talks to marketing, lending to lending, and so on. “To do what we did (in rebranding), you can’t do that,” she said.

The efforts are paying off. Bear State’s assets almost tripled between 2013 and 2016, when they topped $2 billion. Earnings per share increased more than fifteen times, from $.03 to $.46, over the same period.

Assets and earnings and bears. Oh my.

Karen M. Kroll is a business and financial services writer and content marketer based in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Email: karen@karenkroll.com.

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