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Tales Of A Pioneering Big Bank Refugee

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As banks have gotten bigger and badder there's been an increasing urge to go elsewhere, to send business to community banks and local credit unions, so when it comes to the Huffington Post's move your money campaign you can count me in. Indeed, you can follow me.

I don't usually claim to be a pioneer, but when it comes to leaving big banks for smaller ones history should record my place toward the front of the line. How far ahead? The article below was written originally for the Washington Post -- and published in 1997. (See: Checks and Balances; It's Time to Hold Impersonal Banks Accountable)

Enjoy... and move your money.

In the eyes of big banking I'm a sinner of the first magnitude. My offense is not over-drafts or bounced checks, but rather the undeniable fact that I am self-employed.

I last held a job in 1971, and since then have managed to cobble together a reasonable existence as an author and consultant. Clients and publishers pay for my thoughts and words, and I gleefully deposit their checks.

This was a fine arrangement and everyone seemed pleased until a few weeks ago when the huge financial institution where I have banked for nearly 15 years suddenly decided they could not accept my deposits. The problem, it seems, was that some checks were made out to the business name I use in trade and not the name on my birth certificate.

"These checks were good last month," I said to the banker. "In fact, this bank has been taking these checks for more than a decade and not one has bounced. I operate a sole proprietorship. I have no partners and no shareholders. There is no difference between me and the name on this check."

"Well," explained the bank officer, "You operate a business and thus require a business account. You can deposit this check into the business account and shift it into the personal account. I can sign you up for a business account right now. The cost is only $13 a month, plus a fee for checks."

"You mean you will only take my money if I give you $13 a month?"

"Yes. That's our policy."

My Policies

Well, okay, two can play this game. Depositors of the world unite -- you have nothing to lose but excess fees and indifferent service. If bankers can have policies, so can consumers. Here are mine.

First, I don't do business with any bank that has more personnel than the Norwegian Army. What used to be my local bank has been bought, sold, absorbed, and downsized to the point where it is now a minor outpost of some distant financial colossus. Since I don't need $500 million to open an electronics plant in Thailand, it's fairly plain that my status as a desirable client is in question.

Second, I don't do business with any bank where the president cannot be reached with a local phone call. With the old bank, the president seems to have moved over the years from downtown, to the suburbs, to another part of the state, and finally to a different time zone.

Third, I don't do business with any bank that plays employee roulette. For years on end I could go into my bank and know the officers and tellers. It was good to see people starting as tellers and working their way up the system. They knew me and they knew my business. Now my big bank seems to have a new branch manager each month, and neither the tellers nor officers can identify me without a computer printout, photo ID, and thumbprint.

Do these principles work? You bet. While big banks are getting bigger, more distant, more expensive, and less useful, there are plenty of little banks that actually want my business -- and your's.

Rejection -- and Redemption

After being rejected by my big bank, I went to see if I could do better at a smaller institution. In about six minutes I found one that was a hundred years old, had about local 20 branches, didn't have a company jet, and was glad to see me.

"Can I open an account here so I can cash my checks?"

"Sure," said the branch manager at the little bank.

"But it's made out to the name I trade under," I said, testing the waters.

"So what," said the manager, as she handed me a Norman Rockwell appointment calendar. "There's no difference between you and the name on this check."

"I think I heard that somewhere. What will it cost to set up accounts?"

"You'll need a business account," said the manager, my hopes quickly fading. "But we can open one at no charge and waive all fees for the next three years. We'll give you a $50 credit so you can get some checks to start. And then we can provide a personal account as well."

But as good as all of this sounded, I still had one lingering question for the branch manager at the little bank.

"You think anyone will buy this place in the next few years?"

"Not a chance," she said, "our president doesn't know anything about financing electronic plants in Thailand."

I'm now in the process of moving various accounts and services to my new bank -- checking, savings, credit, children's accounts, safety deposit boxes, everything. My new bank has lots of parking, short lines (or no lines) drive-in windows, ATMs, credit cards, and Saturday hours. Most importantly, they want my business.

As to the big bank, they don't seem to miss me. I haven't heard from this month's manager. Perhaps next month the new person will call.

Postscript: I'm still with the same community bank, they still know my name and I can still reach the bank president with a local phone call.

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