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Laurie Beard's Small Town Values

Laurie Beard learned about community-oriented business growing up in her hometown of Virginia, Illinois (Population: 1,700). Her father owned the town drug store/pharmacy, and when she was old enough, Beard worked there in a variety of capacities — soda jerk, clerk and pharmacy assistant.

In that town, at that time, everyone shopped at that store — not only because it offered good value and good service, but also because the store played an important role in the life of the town. To travel any length to patronize a different drug store was unthinkable.

Half a lifetime later, Beard is now president of Founders Bank & Trust in Grand Rapids, where she follows a similar philosophy. She believes the bank should seek to enhance life for the community and those who live in it. And if it does, the community will reciprocate by patronizing the bank.

“The drug store meant something to the people in that little town,” says Beard. “It was a warm and nurturing place, and that was a good feeling. There’s no question that’s influenced me in terms of what it takes to run your own business — not just in the hours, but in the sense that you made a difference to somebody.”

The headquarters building of Founders, located at 5200 Cascade Rd. in Cascade Township, would never be mistaken for a small-town drug store. But it does share some of the same characteristics by design. No one, not even Beard, has a private office. Everyone works in open space. Most conference areas have more in common with a booth at a coffee shop than with a corporate meeting room. Natural light bathes the entryway and serves as the primary source of illumination in every corner of the three-story building.

And much like a community center, the Founders building has workout and shower facilities – since a company that might ask people to put in a little extra effort for the cause of customer service might as well make the environment for doing so a little more pleasant.

Becoming a banker
Beard arrived in Grand Rapids in 1976 as an investment broker for Paine Webber, and later A.G. Edwards – the St. Louis-based firm that had handled her father’s investments back in Virginia. For her, working at A.G. Edwards (now Wachovia Securities) was a homecoming in its own right. She was happy, had a growing book of business and felt no particular need to make a change.

But in 1991, a group seeking to establish a new, community-owned bank was determined to get her on board.

“It wasn’t an instant yes for me,” Beard remembers. “It was a hard decision at first, because I did love what I was doing and I had a strong book of business I was very loyal to. So it was a bit scary to think about leaving what I loved to do something that was unknown.”

But the opportunity to be part of a community institution, much like her father’s drug store back in Illinois, was too appealing to turn down.

“It was that entrepreneurial spirit that said I want to be a part of something new — of creating something that I can be a part of, a local community bank the way I envision it should be. What a rare opportunity to be on the ground floor of something like that.”

Seventeen years later, she says she has no regrets. That comes in part from following a philosophy that doesn’t necessarily make you the biggest, but puts you on solid ground and keeps that relationship between bank and community strong.

“We have 17 years of being strong, giving back in a way to this community,” Beard says. “The future’s very bright for us. I’m very excited about our role as the local economy – whenever it’s going to be, I don’t have a crystal ball – but as we move through this next period of hopefully stabilizing things and maybe recovering.”

Why community banking works
Founders did suffer some during the recent financial crisis, but less than the average, as the community bank never relaxed its lending standards during the mortgage boom. As Beard made that point, she looked across the street at Founders’ original headquarters – subsequently occupied by a mortgage company that has since perished like so many others. It affirms her belief that not everything that can make you a buck today is a good idea.

Rather than having to regret such directions, she talks with pride about how her employees have the option of buying stock in the bank each quarter, and how they do so with a participation rate of 75 percent.

“That’s what’s known as having skin in the game,” she says.

By letting employees purchase stock, but still keeping the bank privately held and locally owned, Beard keeps it true to her philosophy of functioning as a community asset, and hoping the market will respond in kind.

She applies the same community philosophy to her work on the finance committee of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, as well as for several local nonprofits, including the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, which is working with her assistance to open a new facility at Fulton  and Division downtown.

Although her father died two years ago, he did have the chance to see her put his business philosophy into action in her own career.

“He was very proud,” she says. “He served on the board of that little bank we had in Virginia, so he knew something about banking from that perspective.”

The drug store is gone now, but that doesn’t break her heart as much as something that speaks to an even greater passion – shared by Beard and her dad – than the drug store, the bank or just about anything else.

“He never got to see the Cubs win a World Series, and that breaks my heart,” Beard says. It is perhaps her love of the Chicago Cubs, gleaned like so much else from her father, that shapes Beard’s character and philosophy most of all. Growing in southern Illinois, she was surrounded by St. Louis Cardinals fans. She had to learn to deal with being in the minority. And of course, waiting for a Cubs championship would test anyone’s patience.

Both have proven useful virtues in building a community bank, making tough decisions and sticking to her guns.

“The drug store since has closed, and they say you can never go home again,” Beard says. “I don’t know. I still value the way I grew up. The community I grew up in was very nurturing and very kind to me.”

So she looks to bring the same approach to her customers while enjoying the rewards that have come to date, and waiting for more. If she can persevere as long in banking as she has with the Cubs, maybe she’ll end up getting both rewards.

Dan Calabrese is the co-founder and editor in chief of North Star Writers Group and previously owned a West Michigan public relations firm by the same name. He has written for the Macomb Daily, the Royal Oak Daily Tribune, the Journal Newspapers in Wayne County and the Grand Rapids Business Journal. He previously wrote for Rapid Growth about furniture maker Jeup Furniture.


Laurie Beard in the Cascade branch of Founders Bank and Trust

Exterior of the Cascade branch

Laurie Beard chats with a Founders client.

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

Brian Kelly
is a commercial photographer and filmmaker. He has been Rapid Growth's managing photographer since its inception. You can follow his photography adventures here on his blog.
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