Declaration of Independence

By Karen Kroll

In 1963, the Buick Riviera was a bestselling car, “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs topped the pop charts, and Cecil Batchelor joined the board of Citizens Bank and Savings Company in Russellville, Alabama. In the years since, General Motors stopped production of the Riviera and the Fireballs have largely disbanded.

But in his nineties, Batchelor soldiers on as chair of CBS Banc-Corp., the holding company for CB&S Bank, where he continues to serve as a board member. While the bank’s headquarters remain in Russellville—population 10,000—it’s grown to nearly $2 billion in assets as of September 2020 and more than 50 branches across Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. Batchelor’s business savvy, his love for his community, and his determination to keep CB&S independent have contributed to the bank’s success.

Batchelor’s early years held few signs of the success he would enjoy as an adult. Born in 1925 in rural Alabama, Batchelor started first grade during the Depression. Midway through the school year, funding dried up. Only those students whose parents could afford to chip in and cover the teacher’s salary could remain in school. Batchelor wasn’t among them. “Life was hard in those days,” he says, adding that he ended up repeating the year.

When he was in fourth grade, Batchelor’s family moved to Marion County, Alabama. At school, he met Buris Boshell, a stellar student—“he made me an ‘A’ student,” Batchelor says—who became a lifelong friend.

The concern for others that has been a hallmark of Batchelor’s life can be seen early on. By the time Batchelor and Boshell graduated high school, Batchelor’s family had gained enough financial stability that they were able to cover many of Boshell’s expenses in college and through medical school. Boshell became an internationally recognized expert on diabetes.

Batchelor joined the Navy during World War II and was stationed in Williamsburg, Virginia, the landing point for German soldiers captured during the war. Batchelor and one of the soldiers, an engineer named George Giersburg, struck up an unlikely friendship. When Giersburg learned Batchelor was engaged, he spent his nights crafting a jewelry box for Batchelor’s fiancée, Olivia. (Now his wife, Olivia still has the box.)

Fifteen years after the war, the two men reconnected. The Giersburgs moved to the U.S., and Batchelor “had the joy of standing with them when they took the oath of citizenship,” he says.

While Batchelor attended what’s now the University of North Alabama with plans to become a teacher, he quit college to become a partner in an auto dealership. The move was well-timed. “After the war, the demand for new vehicles was tremendous,” Batchelor says.

A few years later, Batchelor left the dealership to manage an appliance store—also a fortuitous move. “We were selling appliances like no tomorrow,” he says, a result of pent-up demand from the war, along with the electrification of rural Alabama.

During this time, Batchelor also became involved with numerous civic organizations, including the VFW, the YMCA, and the Chamber of Commerce. He represented Franklin County, Alabama, on the board of trustees of the District 1, 142-bed Tuberculosis Hospital for years, until effective more treatments made such facilities unneeded. He continues to serve on the board of trustees with Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, Tennessee.

In 1963, Citizens Bank and Savings Company recruited him to its board of directors. Eight years later, he assumed the role of board chair—just as the board was considering selling Citizens to First National Bank of Birmingham.

Batchelor had a different idea. “I vowed to buy enough stock to prevent the sale of the bank,” he says. “The bank had a lot of history and it was our challenge to make it what it ought to be for the communities we were serving.” That meant combining deep knowledge of the communities Citizens serves with cutting-edge products and services.

To meet this goal, the bank had to expand. Along with de novo expansion, Citizens began purchasing smaller community banks. Over the past forty-some years, the bank has made nine acquisitions. As it grew, it ran into other banks with the same name. In 2008, the bank officially became CB&S Bank.

Batchelor identifies several factors critical to a successful merger. One is “treating each acquired bank employee with the same consideration we do for our employees,” Batchelor says. To that end, all employees who want to remain with the new bank are kept on, and their length of service is calculated from the day they started with the acquired bank. Attrition gradually reduces any excess personnel.

Training is similarly important, as it helps to drive growth, Batchelor says. While much of the material focuses on products and services, instructors also emphasize the need to be good listeners, so employees can understand and meet customers’ needs.

Like all banks, CB&S also must change as technology advances and upends the industry. “It’s a testament to the board’s leadership that we embrace change and make the investments needed to remain convenient to customers,” says Mike Ross, CB&S president and CEO.

The very success CB&S enjoys prompts yet another challenge: maintaining its culture. Doing that requires understanding the dynamics of small towns, the role agriculture plays in the local economies, and the importance of serving the communities, both through products and services and philanthropic efforts, Batchelor says. “We are a small-town bank and plan to remain independent. We just happen to be a large small-town bank.” He adds, “our staff is due the credit for all the growth and success of our banks.”

Karen Kroll is a regular contributor to ABA Bank Marketing.