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At Home Federal, the customers bank on familiar faces, service



Published: Sun, May 26, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The average employee at the one-branch bank has been there for more than 20 years.

By DON SHILLING

VINDICATOR BUSINESS EDITOR

NILES -- Bars aren't the only place where everybody knows your name.

Sometimes, it's a bank.

Martha Gilbert is one of many longtime customers who feel that way about Home Federal Savings and Loan, a one-branch bank that is a throwback to a different era in banking.

She drives into downtown Niles to do her banking even though other banks have branches that are closer to her Mineral Ridge home.

She comes because after 45 years of doing business there, everybody really does know her name. She even went to high school with the bank president, Bill Stephens.

"I refuse to leave," she said. "I think they're just wonderful. The service is just absolutely perfect."

Last around here

Home Federal has chosen such a different path that it is the last bank in the Mahoning Valley to have just one branch.

Other small banks have either expanded or sold out to larger banks that are driving to blanket the region with strategically placed branches.

Some of these larger competitors have come up with catchy names such as Sky or Key or First Place to help them build market share in new areas.

Home Federal isn't having any of that. Its name is the same one that was chosen when the bank first opened in 1897.

If that makes it seem like something from the 1950s, it's no accident.

"We try to do things the old-fashioned way," Stephens said.

Stephens' office in the lobby of the Main Street bank makes him accessible to customers, or as he says, "They can grab the horse by the tail."

He doesn't need a secretary, and he and George Swift, bank vice president, take all mortgage applications.

Employee longevity

Both of the bankers have been working there for 50 years, but Stephens said it's the longevity of the other employees that is the bank's success.

The average employee has been there for more than 20 years, and no new tellers have been needed for more than three years.

That allows customers to feel comfortable, he said.

"Chances are, when they walk in, they know someone. If they don't, they'll soon get acquainted," he said.

Nancy Chamberlain, who banked at Home Federal for four straight days last week, said the tellers are like family to her.

"I've been here ever since I was born. I used to come with my mother and father and my aunts and uncles," said Chamberlain, 51, of Niles.

Another of Home Federal's trademarks is keeping banking products simple. For example, there's one option for checking accounts -- if the account has a $300 balance, it earns interest.

Investors are supporting Home Federal's approach.

The stock of its holding company, First Niles Financial Corp., began trading at $10 a share in 1998 but now trades at $15.75, despite the company's returning $6 a share to shareholders in 1999.

Shareholders have been rewarded with dividends of 46 cents a share last year, compared with 41 cents a share in 2000 and 37 cents a share in 1999. The first-quarter dividend this year was 13 cents, which was the highest quarterly dividend that the company has paid.

The bank earned $821,000 last year, up from $807,000 the year before.

Stephens said bank officials keep a close eye on the stock price because of the stake they have in the company. Executives and directors own 386,000 shares, or 23 percent of the company stock. They also have options to buy 131,000 additional shares.

The bank's employee stock ownership plan holds 210,000 shares, or 14 percent of the stock.

No serious offers

Stephens said other banks have asked about buying Home Federal but haven't made any serious offers.

"They are looking for bargains," he said.

Stephens and the Home Federal board of directors aren't in any hurry to sell or grow larger.

They've looked at adding a branch outside Niles but haven't thought the added business would justify the cost, Stephens said.

Stephens, 70, who expects to retire next year from his $155,000-a-year job, said Home Federal has larger per-branch assets than some bigger banks.

"Bigger isn't necessarily better," he said.

Gilbert said she's happy her bank is satisfied to be small. She has watched as other area banks have been acquired and changed names, and she said she doesn't want any part of that.

"This is the best bank around," she said.

shilling@vindy.com




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