Business First opens with commerce focus

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Another first came to the Tri-parish region last Wednesday with the official opening of Business First Bank in Houma.

An FDIC-insured organization, Business First differs from other banking institutions in that it is focused on a small business-customer base. There are no tellers, no drive through window, no ATM outside.

“It is like a regular bank. We just don’t try to get retail or the general public,” said Business First Regional President Don Hingle. “We do deposits and loans. We have checking accounts, savings accounts, CDs and things like that.” Business First also offers business plans and cash management services.

Hingle explained that while larger commercial banks tend to approach businesses with a cookie cutter manner, his institution is one that works with individual clients to offer what can be customized to each situation.

“We can give more personalized service to meet the financial needs of a customer instead of trying to fit them into ours,” he said.

Business First was established Feb. 1, 2006, with its initial location in Baton Rouge. During the past four years offices have opened in the Shreveport and Bossier City area, Northshore, Lafayette, Lake Charles and now a sixth location in the Houma-Thibodaux corridor as what is being called the “Bayou Division.”

Business First was founded by former Louisiana Gov. Charles “Buddy” Roemer, who now works as the bank’s CEO. Total assets range from $675 million to $700 million. It is the 15th largest and fastest growing bank in Louisiana, and the only one of its kind in the state.

“We have no branches. This is a 21st century bank. We do digital and fax deposits. We have no [specific] ATM, but we give our clients a card and they can use any ATM in the world and we pay their fee,” Roemer said.

Business First is owned by investors who commit themselves to doing business with the bank and to referring business back to the institution. Hingle confirmed that their approach is one of personal networking.

“We are owned by Louisiana residents. There are 350 of them across the state. We have almost 40 owners in the Houma area,” the former governor-turned-banker said. “This is a specialized market.”

Roemer said their small business approach should attract professionals from a wide range of fields and provides services they might not be able to afford on their own.

“Small businesses don’t have their own lawyer in house or their own accountant in house,” Roemer said. “[So, we provide] products that small businesses really need.”

“This one location serves three parishes,” Hingle said. “The reason we can do that is that if you are in business, you don’t deal with cash. You can fax checks in as a deposit. If you need a loan or to set up an account, we come to your office and do that.”

Roemer, in addition to his political background, carries a history in finance. He pooled experiences from the two together when he served on the U.S. House of Representatives Banking Committee in the 1980s.

Hingle has been in the banking business for 30 years and was regional president with Whitney Bank for 10 years before joining Roemer a year and a half ago.

During last week’s grand opening celebration at their 435 Corporate Drive location, investors and guests were entertained by the band Jazmine out of Thibodaux and had food and drink catered to them by Castalano’s of Houma.

The highlight of the evening was the official ribbon cutting followed by statements from Roemer and introductions of the local staff.

“We just started and before we’re through, this location will be one of our main locations in Louisiana,” Roemer told the crowd. “Houma-Thibodaux is healthy. It’s entrepreneurial. It’s interesting. It’s diverse. It’s just the kind of people that you build a bank with.

“We think the best part of America in terms of economic growth is somewhere between Texas and Florida [and] somewhere between Memphis and New Orleans. The gulf south region of America will be the fastest growing region for the next 25 years.”

Roemer stressed that while there are a lot of good banks in the state, theirs is uncommon in the industry. “Our goal is to build a couple of billion dollars in resources in Louisiana and serve our state from top to bottom,” he said.

“We are a unique bank,” Roemer said. “We’re faster, more flexible, more focused on business. And I like to think we’re friendly.”