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First Bank looks to make big splash in Triad banking scene

Michael Mayer

Michael Mayer
In a day and age of mega bank mergers and multitudes of credit unions popping up everywhere and for every group, you’d think that the traditional community bank might be getting squeezed out of the marketplace.

It’s not happening yet, if North Carolina-based First Bank has anything to say about it. Growing from their original digs in Southern Pines, the quick-growing First Bancorp (NASDAQ: FBNC) has recently landed in the Triad area with the intent of being a long-term player in the region. Recently, they swapped banks with a Virginia-based First Community Banks to pick up four new banks in Winston-Salem, which have now been rebranded as First Bank locations.

First Bank President Mike Mayer said the company had also just signed a definitive merger deal with Carolina Bank Holdings, Inc. which will bring that company’s Carolina Bank operations and locations under the First Bank banner. The merger is still awaiting regulatory approval and must also be approved by the Carolina Bank Holdings shareholders.
“We hope to close this transaction by the end of the year,” he said.

“This (and the First Community Banks acquisitions) will give us an instant footprint in the Triad,” Mayer said. “And we hope to continue to grow along the I-40 and I-85 corridors.”
First Bank itself, Mayer explained, began 81 years ago in Southern Pines and was a community bank that found itself in a strong and steady position during the banking upheavals of 2007-2008 as the mortgage bubble burst. As banks of all sizes failed around the nation, opportunities arose for banks that had not been heavily leveraged to sweep in and buy or save these crashing institutions.

Mayer said that in 2008 First Bank bought the Cooperative Bank chain based in Morehead City, N.C. that had been working in central and eastern North Carolina. The bank’s branches were brought in under the banner of First Bank and were able to continue providing services to the former bank’s long-time customer base. The next year, First Bank also purchased the failing Bank of Asheville, giving them basically a statewide reach.

“We believe that since then, we’ve had very organic growth” Mayer continued. “Until recently, we’ve had what could be considered a more rural footprint.”

The opportunity to come be a part of the Triad was something that hadn’t originally been part of their plans, but when it developed it was something the company just couldn’t pass on.

So how does a bank like First Bank survive in today’s banking marketplace?

“The big banks are not our competition,” Mayers said. “We’re never going to be a mass retailer bank like those big name companies. Our strength is in offering a community bank that works closely with small businesses and depositors who want that local connection.”
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The newest First Bank locations, beginning with the former First Community banks, are located in Winston-Salem in the Knollwood, Jonestown, Oliver’s Crossing and Wake Forest areas. After the merger with Carolina Bank goes through, an additional eight banks will be picked up in High Point, Greensboro, Burlington and Winston-Salem. The company will also pick up three additional mortgage loan offices that operated under Carolina Bank’s banner.

Mayer admitted that the new bank additions and the merger is making for one of the busiest years imaginable for the corporation. Integrating the locations and personnel is quite a task, but they must also work through all of the regulatory requirements and bring together the computer networks that handle all of the transactions and bookkeeping. The company’s prior experience should serve them well through the transition, though.

When asked about future plans for additional acquisitions, Mayer said, “Our plate is pretty full right now so we aren’t actively hunting. However, the phone does ring a lot with people calling with opportunities for us. It’s the kind of thing that is always ongoing in one way or another.”

Overall, First Bancorp through First Bank operates 87 different branches (six of which are in South Carolina). They have been continually in business since 1935. If you’d like more information, stop by their website at www.localfirstbank.com.

Rich Lewis is a father, husband, writer and cook who makes his home in Greensboro, NC.

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