1st F&M marking century of banking

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

COLUMBIA - First Farmers & Merchants Bank will mark 100 years of banking and community service throughout Middle Tennessee on Sunday.

Two days earlier, on Friday, area residents are invited to visit any of the bank's 17 branch offices, according to John Tomlinson, chief administrative officer, First Farmers & Merchants Bank.

Civil War re-enactors, antique cars and a bank history display will be at the bank's Mount Pleasant branch, near the bank to which the current institution traces its roots.

"So few businesses these days achieve such longevity, especially banks," Tomlinson said, "We owe our success to customers and shareholders who have trusted us and believed in us for generations.

"So, we've invited them - as well as citizens throughout each of the communities we serve - to drop by our branch offices so we can say 'thanks' while also commemorating this milestone."

Festivities start at 10 a.m. at the bank's Mount Pleasant office not far from the original bank where the modern-day First Farmers & Merchants was re-chartered in 1909 as Farmers & Merchants.

The lobby will be decorated in the 1900s era, the Mount Pleasant High School band will play and another live band will perform music from the '50s and '60s.

At about 10:30 a.m., bank officials will speak and Mount Pleasant Mayor Richard Hendrix and Maury County Mayor Jim Bailey will designate the day "First Farmers Bank Day."

Observances at all other branch offices on Friday start at 11 a.m. and conclude at 1 p.m. Door prizes and light food will be offered.

At 1:30 p.m., bank officials will officially open the new Northside Financial Center in Columbia with a ribbon cutting. The 12,000-square-foot Northside Center offers drive-through services as well as Saturday banking, a coin counter for customers and other banking conveniences. It opens with a staff of eight employees.

An exhibit on the bank's 10 decades (1909-2009) will be on display at the main branch office location in Columbia. It will offer a colorful peek into the bank's history, which began years earlier.

A native of Giles County, John Polk Brownlow established the Mount Pleasant Bank and Trust Company in 1891, after a 19-year banking stint in Missouri. In 1894, he opened a second bank in Columbia and changed the name of both to "Farmers & Merchants Bank" and placed his son, Cecil A. Brownlow, in charge of the original Mount Pleasant bank.

Upon retiring in 1909, Brownlow sold the Columbia bank to Maury National Bank and C.A. re-chartered the Farmers & Merchants Bank in Mount Pleasant, thereby laying a foundation for today's First Farmers & Merchants Bank.

Brownlow's son led the bank through World War I, the county's phosphate rush and the Great Depression, eventually placing it in the management hands of Clarence Whelchel in 1944. He began the bank's expansion in 1946, opening a second office in Spring Hill and a third, in 1950, in Columbia.

The next two leaders, Virgil H. Moore, Jr., and Waymon L. Hickman, expanded the bank's footprint with new offices in Lawrence, Marshall, Dickson, Hickman and Giles counties. They also established the bank's Trust & Financial Management Department, coaxed Saturn to the county and implemented other technology and banking conveniences.

Current chairman and CEO, T. Randy Stevens, continued the bank's expansion with a move into Williamson County in 2007 and, last year, he led the bank to its best year on record in terms of loans, assets and shareholder equity and its second best year ever for net income and deposits.

"The folks of Middle Tennessee have been good to us," Tomlinson said. "And while there's no way to know what our next century will look like, I can't think of a better place in which to spend it."