First Freedom Brings Fresh Transactions

With all the headlines lately, banking, it seems, is getting a bad wrap. Some say the informational age has forced banking institutions to evolve into a more impersonal business recognizing customers only by account numbers, credit scores or liquid assets instead of first names, your child’s stats in little league or how much time you spend volunteering at the local shelter…

With all the headlines lately, banking, it seems, is getting a bad wrap. Some say the informational age has forced banking institutions to evolve into a more impersonal business recognizing customers only by account numbers, credit scores or liquid assets instead of first names, your child’s stats in little league or how much time you spend volunteering at the local shelter. First Freedom Bank is out to change all of that and put those misconceptions to rest.

First Freedom Bank was the brainchild of three men; John Lancaster, John Bradshaw and Ken Howell. With a combined total of 70 years experience in the banking industry, these three men agreed on one common goal; to assist Wilson County residents in keeping their money in the county. President and CEO, John Lancaster said by sharing the same vision, the transition from idea to institution was seamless.

With more than 20 years of banking experience, Lancaster became disillusioned with the regional banking system when more and more decisions were being made in corporate offices hundreds of miles from the customer. “It became difficult to make a decision because we were forced to rely on associates located in Atlanta or Memphis or wherever home base was, to decide if ‘John Doe’ was a good candidate for a home equity loan. It didn’t matter that ‘Mr. Doe’ had been banking with us for 30 plus years. They didn’t care about his history. It just wasn’t fun anymore.”

It all changed in 2005 when Lancaster was offered a job promotion that would relocate his family to Atlanta, Georgia. “My wife and I drove down to Atlanta to look at school systems and on the way back our conversation kept going back to ‘how are we going to get back to Lebanon?’ Our family is here. Our friends are here. Our life is here. It was like a light bulb went off and we both decided we didn’t want to move away with the goal being to get back here.”

And like Fred Smith of Federal Express, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner’s character in Field of Dreams) or any of us who have taken a leap of faith, Lancaster handed in his resignation and began to really think about his future in banking. “I had worked with John Bradshaw and Ken Howell in banking and started talking to them. We all had the same frustrations over the years. We had all run into those glass ceilings regarding our growth in the regional banking industry. As long as we stayed in a small town like Lebanon there were only so many decisions we could make.”

After agreeing that there was enough interest in starting another community bank, Lancaster, Bradshaw and Howell took on the task of selecting organizers that would ultimately get the ball rolling on what would eventually become, First Freedom Bank. The selection process was crucial to determining whether or not this bank would become a success or statistic. “We wanted to get a cross section of people that touch different areas of the community, socially, professionally and economically. We put a heavy emphasis on diversity of every type. By having the corporate expertise of a Don Turner (Retired President and COO of Cracker Barrel Old Country Store), Realtors, School Principal, Small Business Owners, Farmers and Physicians we touch on just about every area of our community.”

In the end, seventeen organizers were chosen to represent First Freedom. While twelve organizers stayed on as members of the board, five opted out of becoming members of the board of directors for different reasons, including busy schedules. Two of those (Jim Lancaster and Dr. Jim Bradshaw) were related to Lancaster and Bradshaw. They decided against staying on as board members so it wouldn’t create a conflict of interest within the board.

After the organizers were in place, it was their job to help create a buzz and invite residents to purchase stock. “The bank’s original stock offering of $20 million was raised in three weeks. At that point we knew we had made the right decision to start a community bank.”

From that point, Lancaster, Bradshaw and Howell hired a staff and opened up the main office in a temporary building on West Main Street in Lebanon. Then construction was completed on two branches in Mt. Juliet. One located on Lebanon Road, opened in April 2008 and the other in Providence Marketplace, opened in March 2009. “If someone asks why we didn’t build our main office first the answer is simple. We had already established a strong presence in Lebanon and our commitment was to establish a presence throughout Wilson County.”

They do have big plans for the main office, starting with the 10 acres that the temporary facility rests on right now. “We have quickly outgrown this building.  So as far as bricks and mortar are concerned our main branch will be the next project.” They have plans to break ground on their new 25,000 square foot facility sometime next year.

Since the banking industry has been a hot button issue for news agencies across the country, many regional institutions have stopped lending money altogether. But First Freedom sees the crisis as an opportunity. “We have not been affected as much as the larger banks because most of them have said ‘STOP’ to all lending. There are a lot of great customers being told ‘no’. We open our arms to these customers and let them know we have money to lend. That’s the benefit of a community bank.  In fact, we loaned over 7 million dollars in the month of May alone and have hired three additional employees in the last 30 days.”

As much as Lancaster and the rest of the folks at First Freedom would love to have your banking business he’s clear that he wants you to bank with a community bank. “If you aren’t going to bank with us, then bank with Wilson Bank & Trust or Cedarstone or another community bank. Most of the time their employees live in this community and whatever products they have are reinvested back into the community in some way. Community banks simply just have your best interest and your community’s best interest at heart.”

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