Even as a young man right out of graduate school, Craig Esrael knew how to spot an opportunity.
Three decades later, the president and CEO of First South Financial still sees value in banking on a smaller scale.
“Never did I imagine I’d be in the same job for 30 years,” said Esrael, who is now celebrating his anniversary year with the bank. “I think when things are positive, time seems to go by fast.”
Esrael got interested in banking unexpectedly while still in school and found his way to First South accidentally, passing by offers from larger banks in major cities, like LaSalle Bank in Chicago.
“I knew I wanted to get into banking when I finished my undergraduate degree,” Esrael said. “I was a marketing major and was thinking about marketing research. I put off my finance classes until late in my undergraduate time. I thought it wouldn’t be very enjoyable, but when I took them I fell in love with finance and investments and accounting.”
Then the father of his girlfriend at the time gave Esrael the lead on a banking position in Memphis, and Esrael decided it couldn’t hurt to check it out.
“I came on a whim because I’d never been to the area,” Esrael said. “I wasn’t very serious. But the organization was troubled and it was a great opportunity for a young guy.”
Some might not have seen the opportunity as all that positive. The bank had reported losses for the seven quarters prior and tension was rampant throughout the organization. Still Esrael accepted the position of executive vice president.
Less than a year later, the CEO resigned.
“Coming out of school and being indoctrinated in theory, it was great to put some of that theory to work,” Esrael said. “There was so much work that needed to be done. I thought what a great opportunity to be in a senior leadership position as a young man and cut my teeth in the trenches.”
Esrael introduced automation for First South’s investment portfolio, rewrote lending criteria policies and procedures, and re-staffed much of the organization.
Because First South’s roots were in serving Naval trainees in Millington, Esrael and his staff got an education in making loans the hard way.
“We had very young people with very little money and were high loan risks at the time, so we got used to operating in a very labor intensive, low-profit environment,” he said. “At the time you never appreciate it, but I think it prepared us to live through very difficult times. Through this recession, we never missed a beat.”
In terms of growth, First South has been more of a tortoise than a hare, but Esrael said that’s by design. He expects that First South will gain market share slowly and steadily over time even though larger banks have poor service ratings.
“Our net promoter score is always over 70, which is ridiculously high,” Esrael said. “The banking industry overall is in the negative. Our customer surveys for last month were 3.99 on a 4-point scale.”
Esrael noted that the average wait time to have calls answered was 23 seconds last month. First South began offering mobile banking just last year and already has 10,000 users, adding about 300 per month.
First South now has 15 branch locations and opens 400 to 600 new accounts each month. First South also merged with a Dyersburg, Tenn., bank in the last two years.
“But people are so afraid to move their business and it takes a long time,” Esrael said. “In any other industry that would never happen. That’s part of our image advertising. We want to be on people’s lists and when they do move, we want them to think about First South Financial.”
It isn’t lost on Esrael that since he’s only in his early 50s now, he may very well be around for a 40th anniversary as well. Like the direction of First South, he hasn’t planned any dramatic career changes.
“Steady as she goes,” he said. “With our growth rate, that’s going to bring new services and new offices, but over 3,000 bank branches were closed last year. We look at any opportunity that’s a benefit to our existing customer base.”