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March 22, 2014

EDITORIAL: Banking on the future

When being first means mixing community interest and smart business

TERRE HAUTE — The largest and most influential bank in the two-state region centered in Terre Haute seems to have a historical affinity for years ending in the numeral 4.

It was 180 years ago, in 1834, that 29 citizens of Vigo and Parke counties raised $80,000 to establish the Terre Haute branch of the Second State Bank of Indiana.

Through the next century, that bank would transform through a series of names — and see a succession of leaders — and also trade its state charter for a national one, becoming the oldest national bank in Indiana and the fifth oldest in the United States.

In 1932, amid the fearful time of the Great Depression, the descendant of Second State Bank united with the descendant of another bank to form an entity whose name is still fresh in our collective memory: Terre Haute First National Bank.

That is the bank Donald E. Smith would inherit in 1974 — another year ending in 4 — when he became the company’s top executive. In 1984, the bank’s parent, First Financial Corp., became Indiana’s first multi-bank holding company.

Through his skill, energy, convivial community connections and personality, Smith saw the bank — which would later be renamed First Financial Bank — advance throughout the region and grow in assets, community involvement and influence. Last spring, Smith was named president emeritus after having served as a very public face for the bank and corporation as their top leader. He enjoys the thanks of thousands for the role he has played not only at the bank but in the community as a booster, a mover, a shaker.

Among the most lasting contributions First Financial made with Smith at the helm was the decision — in the 1980s — to build a massive new bank on what had been a dusty, vacant lot at the corner of Sixth Street and Wabash Avenue. (And at the same time, it made a decision not to demolish its historic old building just to the east of the new bank.)

As we have stated before, that vote of confidence remains the linchpin of the decades of sometimes painfully slow development of a lively downtown that, just in recent years, the community is seeing take hold. Activity is back downtown, fun is in the air several times a year, good food and drink can be found, retail is returning, hotel rooms invite visitors, tenants increasingly are living downtown, the legal and financial communities have coalesced. But it began with First Financial, which just as easily could have built its new bank off the interstate or in a sprawling area off Indiana 46. But it stayed downtown. It led the way.

And now, in 2014 — yep, another year ending in a 4 — the enterprise’s current leader, Norman L. Lowery, is talking openly and progressively about changes that must come, he says, to the bank and the corporation.

The most obvious change is the expansion into the downtown bank’s fourth floor, which was originally left unfinished and was a forethought toward future growth. That change will allow First Financial to move staff from other buildings and floors and to simultaneously consolidate people into closer working relationships and spread out some of the current Wabash Avenue operation.

As Lowery — who carries the dual titles of CEO of First Financial Corp. and president/CEO of First Financial Bank — told the Tribune-Star in a story last week, more emphasis will be made of that building being home to the corporation. That can help remind the community that First Financial is the only publicly traded company to have Vigo County as its headquarters — and that First Financial employs more than a thousand people and reaches out into community activities throughout the counties it serves.

The corporation also faces a major decision about what to do with the Chanticleer Building on Sixth Street, which now houses its Forrest Sherer Insurance agency. It’s a tough decision because of that building’s age, but we hope it can avoid demolition, and we imagine Lowery and the First Financial board do, too.

In talking candidly about changes his organization faces, Lowery sets an example for leaders in all sorts of businesses and organizations that being the biggest and most powerful alone does not guarantee survival or continued prosperity. Adjustment, correction, redirection, consolidation — those are the signs of a progressive enterprise.

Some will always find fault with the fittest who have survived in any endeavor — the biggest bank, the only daily newspaper, the leading TV station, the eminent law firm, the best sports team. Somehow, Americans sometimes decry success. In the face of what can be the irrationality of critics, every institution can profit from constructive criticism and from introspection; to ignore either can be debilitating. That’s what is most encouraging in what Lowery and his colleagues at First Financial are doing as they move forward.

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