Banking that feels like family

Community Bankers Council Chair Jeremy Callais views relationships as the sector’s greatest strength.

By Walt Williams

Jeremy Callais came from a banking family, but his first career wasn’t in banking. He started as a teacher and coach before making the jump to information technology. The career change ultimately led to the Louisiana community bank headed by his father, where he applied for an entry-level IT job.

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He almost didn’t get it.

“I applied then and then it narrowed down to two (candidates), and they offered the other guy the job,” Callais says. “He was the right person, probably. Luckily for me, it didn’t pay enough for him, so I ended up taking the job.”

That foot in the door roughly two decades ago set Callais on a new path. Today he is president of Peoples Bank of East Tennessee, a $360 million-asset community bank with its home office in Madisonville, Tennessee. He is also the 2023-24 chairman of ABA’s Community Bankers Council, a position from which he seeks to speak for community banks at a time when they are facing an increasingly challenging economic and regulatory environment.

Despite those obstacles, Callais is optimistic about the sector’s outlook. He believes the community banks’ greatest strength isn’t necessarily the “bank” part, but the “community” part.

“Community banks are much smaller and are in several communities, and can focus on those communities,” he says. “It’s not, ‘How can I help the USA?’ It’s, ‘How can I help Madisonville?’”

From teaching to banking

Callais grew up in Patterson, Louisiana, about 20 miles from the Gulf Coast. Southern Louisiana is Cajun country, and a big part of the culture is extended family relationships, with parents and grandparents raising children together, Callais says. “I think that is one of the reasons I got into community banking. The way you think as a community banker, it is all about relationships. It’s not about accounts.”

Callais’s father, Larry Callais, was a banker who eventually became CEO of MC Bank in Morgan City, Louisiana, where the younger Callais would later land his first banking job. But he didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps, at least not right away. A love for sports led Callais to instead pursue teaching and earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education. For a time, Callais was a teacher and coached high school football, basketball and tennis. After he and his wife—Casie, also a teacher—started a family, it became apparent the profession wouldn’t provide the economic security they needed. The couple has three daughters: Sinclair, Charlotte and Evangeline.

“I was working three and four jobs as we started a family, and in the end, I was working around the clock just to keep our heads above water,” he says.

Callais went back to school and earned several IT certifications, leading him to MC Bank. At the time, the bank had a single computer with internet access, so one of his first jobs was expanding the institution’s network capabilities. Callais knew almost next to nothing about banking, so he worked closely with each of the departments to learn about what they did and what they needed. “Tellers were about to start using this new software, so I learned to be a teller first,” he says. “Every department that I could, I learned how to be an employee in that department.”

The project was successful, and Callais walked away with a newfound appreciation for community banking. “The culture and atmosphere were huge to me,” he says. “It was a very close-knit staff—I wouldn’t say initially that it was banking, but it was that community bank environment where everyone knew when someone was having a kid at that bank, or whenever someone’s kid had a birthday, or when someone had an anniversary. It’s just a larger family for me to be involved with.”

Callais rose through the ranks at MC Bank, becoming COO and later CFO and then president. However, he had previously met Peoples Bank CEO Chris White while serving on the CBC. The two became friends and were soon bouncing ideas off one another, their thoughts on community banking running on parallel tracks. That partnership led Callais to agree to move to east Tennessee as part of a phased executive transition, with Callais currently set to become CEO in the coming years.

“I was in no way shape or form looking for a job at all,” Callais says. “A lot of times in my career, divine intervention has happened. We are happy, we love east Tennessee, and the people I get to work with at Peoples Bank are absolutely amazing.”

Emphasizing community

Peoples Bank has nine branches in addition to its headquarters in Madisonville, covering a large swath of eastern Tennessee near Knoxville and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with one additional branch in North Georgia. Much of the region is rural, with consumer lending and deposits comprising most of its business. In many of its markets, Peoples Bank is the only bank in town, so while on paper it may be unusual for a bank its size to have as many branches as it does, it just makes sense given what its customers are seeking, Callais says.

“We’re starting to get into a little more urban markets in a couple of areas, but we’re keeping that focus,” he says. “We do not want to get into areas that we cannot be involved in the communities. Sure, we do some business in larger cities, but we are a bank that’s going to be in markets where we can immerse ourselves in the community.”

That immersion gives community banks like Peoples Bank more flexibility in working with customers, Callais says. Whereas a larger lender may require customers to meet specific requirements before receiving a loan, Peoples can rely on its knowledge of the community. “We deal with a lot of people who don’t necessarily check every box for other banks and that’s where the relationship comes in,” he says.

Callais fully supports and has nothing against banks of any size, but he views a healthy banking environment as one where banks of different sizes coexist to serve different customer bases. But he notes that the number of community banks has shrunk in recent years, and the challenges are mounting in the form of higher interest rates, possible regulation and increased competition from nonbanks. These are some of the issues he hopes to address during his term as CBC chair, but in the meantime, Callais believes community banks will push through if they focus not only on relationships, but business innovation.

“In order for us to stay relevant, we have to realize that every step of the way we’re going to have to be adaptable … I think we’re just going to have to constantly reinvent ourselves if we’re going to survive,” Callais says.

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