Derek Williams is, he says, excited, honored and humbled to make his debut as ICBA chairman at ICBA LIVE. A banking stalwart described by outgoing chairman Brad Bolton as “a passionate community leader and a staunch leader of our industry,” Williams has built a career by immersing himself in the community banking world. He has also served on ICBA’s executive committee for many years, including a term as treasurer from 2016 to 2018.
He has served as president and CEO of $365 million-asset Century Bank & Trust in Milledgeville, Ga., for eight years. But, unlike many in the industry, this profession wasn’t in his blood. Asked if there is a history of banking in his family, he laughs—something he does often.
“That’s an interesting story,” he says. “It’s kind of an anti-banking history!”
Williams grew up in Barnesville, Ga., at the time a small town of about 5,000 residents. It was something of a humble start, he says. He was raised by a mother who stayed home with her four kids and a father who built houses.
“He was a craftsman by nature,” Williams says of his father. “So the most experience I had with banking growing up was him as a bank customer. I knew the bankers in town because my dad knew them, and I learned a lot just from being around them and watching how dad dealt with them. He had a great relationship with banks and bankers, and that attracted me, just from the standpoint of what they did to help my dad.”
That said, Williams left the University of Georgia, Terry College of Business, in 1984 with a BBA in finance, determined to get out of Barnesville and become “the next great corporate financier.” But the world had other plans. He graduated into a recession, one of two that would have a profound influence on his career. During that time, at an interview for a job as a stockbroker, he asked one of the brokers how well his office performed. The response he received reshaped his career. “I don’t have any idea what the office does,” the broker told him. “I only worry about what I do.”
The implication was simple: The broker didn’t care about anybody he worked with, which was anathema to Williams. “So many of the jobs that I looked at in the corporate finance world, and certainly the stockbroker world, were very much like that,” he recalls. “I was used to family, I was used to teamwork, and I need that. I needed camaraderie.”
So, he joined a training program at what was then Citizens & Southern National Bank, once the largest bank in the southeastern U.S., now part of Bank of America, before moving to Griffin, Ga., in 1987. “I went to work for a community bank, kind of by accident, and found the job love of my life,” he says. “I got a job with First National Bank of Griffin, and I’ve been a community banker ever since.”
That love of community has defined his career. “One thing about community banking that I love is we get paid to be active in the community; that’s part of what we do,” he explains. “We’re committed to the community, not just from the standpoint of its financial health, but community banks, especially in small towns, are really their financial centers. They’re where everybody gathers, where people come in the morning.
“I like that, and I like the idea of being able to be active in the chamber and active on the local boards. This was a job that not only allowed me to do that but encouraged me to do it.”
Williams has a passion for relationship building, whether it’s sitting on the boards of local museums or fundraising for Relay for Life, and he admits he’s always the first person to stand up and take on those roles as a way of getting to know the neighborhood he’s working in.
A rapid ascent
Williams set himself a goal of becoming CEO of a bank by the age of 40. He achieved it at 34 years old at First Peoples Bank in Pine Mountain, Ga., where he stayed for 15 years, from 1998 to 2013. During that time, he took the community bank through the Great Recession of 2008–09.
“That’s when the bottom fell out, and Georgia was markedly hit,” he reflects on the tumultuous period. “We lost 90-plus banks to failure in between 2008 and 2013. So, it was a very, very difficult time.”
What drives Williams—and what got him through that time—is “an absolute belief in and a love for the model of community banking.” As chairman of the Community Bankers Association of Georgia during that recession, he would remind others of the importance of their roles.
“I told them, ‘Guys, what we do matters, what we do works and the model works,’” he recalls. “‘And yes, we’re having some exceptionally tough economic times right now, but there’s always going to be a place for local banks to take deposits from people they know, live with and work with, people they understand, and loan that money to people that they know and understand—local community.’”
It’s a belief he still holds. “There’s always going to be place for it, no matter how big the big banks get, no matter how automated they get, no matter how much things change. There’s always going to be a place for that model.”
We use the word ‘family’ a lot. We’re serious about it at Century. We believe in it. We believe in each other.”
Williams believes there is great potential for a resurgence in community banking, thanks to shifting demographics. He describes acquaintances in their twenties and thirties choosing local coffee shops over big names like Starbucks, local hardware stores over Lowe’s or Home Depot—so why not, he suggests, choose a community bank over a national bank?
He recalls serving on FDIC’s Community Bank Advisory Committee years ago and being introduced to a group of millennials who worked there. All but one of them had the same checking account they had opened in high school. When asked what they wanted from a bank, they told him, “If you’ll give us the technology, if you’ll give us the ability to bank on our phones … but assure us that Ms. Sally who we used to talk to at the bank is still there if we need to talk to somebody, then you’ve got us for life.”
This approach is key to Century Bank & Trust’s success. “If we can get them in the door, we can keep them,” he says, “because we can blow them away with the service that we provide.”
And that means putting ethics front and center. “We use the word ‘family’ a lot. We’re serious about it at Century. We believe in it. We believe in each other,” he says. “I had an HR attorney tell me one time, ‘Derek, I want you to remember something. Just because something is legal, doesn’t mean it’s right or ethical.’ So, I always think about that. When we have situations, I know [my team is] going to respond with what’s best for the people who work at the bank and what’s best for our customers.”
Community banks have a great reputation with legislators and regulators because of our track record of safe and sound performance and our support of consumers and small businesses.”
It’s his confidence in Century’s culture and in his team that has allowed him the freedom to work closely with ICBA. As CEO, he says, his job is “to create a culture and to encourage and to motivate and to live at the 30,000-foot level, trying to make sure that everybody else has an opportunity to do their job as effectively as possible.”
Keeping the flame burning
Williams foresees a challenging year ahead, with issues from inflation and interest rates to the ripple effects of the pandemic, but he plans to spend his year as chairman lending support to ICBA president Rebeca Romero Rainey and her team, as well as reminding bankers that the community banking model works and to take pride in what they do every day.
He believes ICBA’s advocacy work in Washington D.C., is critical to shaping the industry and affects all community bankers in profound ways. “Community banks,” says Williams, “have a great reputation with legislators and regulators because of our track record of safe and sound performance and our support of consumers and small businesses. We just want that track record to be acknowledged and considered so that regulations can be tiered to fit the risk profile of the institutions.”
He believes passionately in the ThinkTECH Accelerator, saying it’s at the forefront of bringing technology to community banks and is making it possible for those millennials he met, plus the Gen Zers coming up behind them, to bank locally.
“There are some brilliant, brilliant people who are doing some really cool things with not only advocacy on the hill but from an education standpoint and also from an innovation standpoint,” Williams says. “ICBA is cutting edge on that. They’re working with technology firms to come in and not try to take our business away from us but help us do it better and more efficiently. Community banks can now provide technology that’s just as slick, mobile apps and all the technology that the big banks have, but we back it up with personal service.”
March will be a busy month. Century Bank is celebrating 125 years in business, and he kicks off his term as chairman with a speech in front of a large crowd of bankers at ICBA LIVE in Honolulu.
But that’s not fazing him in the slightest. He recalls a conversation with Aleis Stokes, ICBA’s senior vice president of communications, at last year’s convention, when she warned him that she would need the first draft of his speech by November.
He laughs, “I said, ‘Aleis, that speech has been written for 10 years! This is something I’ve always wanted to do.’”
Derek Williams has many strings to his bow, but ask him how he likes to spend his time most, and the answer is simple: with his family. He and his wife, Karen, just celebrated 37 years of marriage, and she has stayed by his side as he built his career, a fact he is keen to acknowledge, given the frequency of their moves from bank to bank as he advanced his career.
“Her dad is a retired lieutenant colonel in the army, and she still jokes that I moved her around more than he did,” he laughs. “That’s pretty bad!” The couple have three daughters and spend as much time as they can with them, whether it’s boating near their home on Lake Sinclair or playing with their three granddaughters.
Century Bank & Trust turns 125
Century Bank & Trust originally opened as Merchants and Farmers Bank on March 1, 1898, in Milledgeville, Ga. In 1993, it rebranded to reflect its evolving role in the financial services industry. Today, the $365 million-asset community bank has two branch offices in Milledgeville, plus a loan production office in Greensboro and a diverse team that reflects its community.
Community service is as much a pillar of the community bank as it has always been. In October 2021, the bank raised more than $13,000 for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, and in March 2022, the bank made a $10,000 donation to John Milledge Academy to help provide scholarships for K–12 education in the local community. On March 1, 2023, it celebrates 125 years in business, with Derek Williams at its helm for the last eight.