Trend Radar: March 2007

Banking Boom: Georgia has become one of the nation’s top banking markets, thanks to population and wealth growth, industry experts say.

As a result, competition for customers is leading the state’s banks to refine their service delivery systems, says Joe Brannen, president & CEO of the Georgia Bankers Association (GBA). “Georgia ranked third nationally last year in the formation of new banks,” Brannen says. “We opened 21 new banks last year. Only California and Florida had more new banks, and that was just one or two more.”

The new chartered banks typically raise $15 to $25 million to get off the ground, and that money comes from locals. “An investor can get in on the bottom floor for as little as $1,000 or $2,000,” Brannen says. “That’s local capital, and it is a sign of confidence in the future of the community.”

Fierce competition has led some banks to take unusual steps to capture market shares. “We had a conference last summer and had the Ritz-Carlton Academy send service delivery trainers to conduct seminars,” Brannen says. “The bankers were registering in droves.”

With banking laws and regulations tightly restricting lending and money management practices, banks are focusing on how they treat customers. “What the industry is doing is trying to figure out what people want, where they want it, and when they want it,” Brannen says. “Essentially, everybody sells the same thing. They are selling money, selling loans, selling deposits, so you need something to differentiate yourself, and service is all about that. And too, the price of technology has dropped like a rock and the small bank can be just as sophisticated technologically as the largest banks in the world.”

One South Georgia bank was somewhat ahead of the curve, tapping into the Ritz-Carlton’s service expertise a year ahead of the GBA. “We were looking to improve our service standards and I got on the internet and found the Ritz-Carlton Academy,” says Carol Slappey, president of Albany’s HeritageBank. “They were sort of the benchmark for service.”

Slappey sent her training director to a Ritz-Carlton training course; the result was a new training program for the bank. “It’s all about going above and beyond to meet the customer’s expectations, hopefully to exceed the customer’s expectations,” she says.

Building Boom?: As predicted, developers are set to build 1,500 or more homes in Chattahoochee County (pop. 13,500) to help accommodate the 30,000 military men and women and their dependents who have begun arriving in nearby Columbus, a result of the Pentagon’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) decision to expand Fort Benning’s mission.

But Chattahoochee County residents are taking a wait and see approach to the developers’ plans. “We’re at the first step,” says interim county manager David George. “We are a real small community out here and we’ve not experienced the growth Columbus and the surrounding counties have.”

That first step, rezoning, is complete and, says George, “The commissioners are now discussing infrastructure needs and holding planning sessions like never before. In a nutshell, activity all over the county has increased. Everybody is bracing for what the rumors say might come. Please understand, until we actually see the building begin to occur there is a little skepticism. We have grown [accustomed] through the years out here to watch people’s feet more than their mouths.”

Roads Less Traveled: Georgia metro area road warriors longing for a slow, peaceful ride down a rustic dirt road had better hurry to the countryside. The dirt road is becoming rarer and rarer in the Peach State, and, in fact, is just about extinct in the Atlanta area. The country lanes of yore can still be found, but most wend their way through the land below the Gnat Line.

Appling County in rural Southeast Georgia has more miles of dirt roads than any other county in the state. Appling’s 650.2 miles of dirt roads constitute 60 percent of the county’s total road mileage, according to data from the Department of Transportation compiled by the University of Georgia.

With 99.8 percent of its roads paved, DeKalb County is the undisputed asphalt leader. DeKalb has just 5.6 unimproved miles. Cobb County has 15.31 miles of unpaved roads, and Gwinnett has 63.14 miles. Fulton, surprisingly, has 144.51 miles of unpaved roads.

Categories: Economic Development Features, Features