CEO Conversations

Colony Bank Dares to Lead Differently

As a community bank, Colony Bank depends on the success of the communities they operate within. Their business is tied to the ups and downs of the larger community. As a company, they understand that financial success is not the only measure of success and so the Colony Bank business model involves a broad understanding of service. Service as a business and service to meet broader community needs.

We had a chance to sit down with Heath Fountain, President and CEO of Colony Bank. Colony Bank is a $2.70 billion dollar financial services company with 41 locations throughout Georgia and Northern Alabama and is the largest Georgia based community bank headquartered outside of Atlanta. And while you may think of community banking as a traditional business mold, Heath shared several innovative and even thought-provoking approaches for generous leadership.  

Finding Your Company’s Voice on Social Issues

I think the people drawn to our industry are very service oriented, servant leadership is very important to us.

A lot of change happened through the pandemic and it changed the way we interacted with our customers and the past two years have brought a sharp focus to what businesses do outside their walls when it comes to community issues and concerns. We are a publicly traded company and there’s been a lot of attention placed on much larger public companies in terms of what are you doing.  At Colony Bank we historically chose to take a more humble servant approach. We simply served as an expression of who we are as a company and we did not do a good job of promoting our efforts internally or externally.

To me I worried that sharing our contributions or efforts would simply be bragging. But we’ve found that if we’re not talking to our team about our values and contributions, if our customers don’t know the things we are doing, if shareholders and other stakeholders don’t know, then the presumption is that we are not doing anything.

It’s been a really big change for me. But we’ve found that as we talk more about what we are doing, how important it is and the ways we serve the community, it brings people a sense of pride.

We really are trying to take what they want to do and focus on it. In our company, we have a culture document we call the Colony Manifesto. Within that we talked about what are the things that are important to us? One thing as a company that we’re trying to do is to be proactive instead of reactive. We have decided to focus most of our efforts on financial literacy and youth development because they are two ways we can be proactive about and help improve outcomes down the road.

For instance, we started that with just the question, what is something that we can do across our footprint that is giving back? As a result of those conversations, we launched The Colony Leadership Academy. We take 30-40 youths in their junior or their senior year of high school and put them through a leadership program all across the state. We provide a small scholarship to them if they complete the program. We do four destination leadership weekends across the state and we have some virtual meetings for them in between, but that has really been just an unbelievable program.

It’s an expensive program, but it’s so worth it. I think despite the hard time I give about the budget for it, we’re going to get back way more than that financially. We’ll end up with some kids that come to work for us. Some of these kids, we really want to be customers, because there’s some future billionaires in this group. I promise you. But it has really been fantastic, and I can’t go anywhere in the state anymore, without some parent coming up to me saying, my son or daughter was involved in this, thank you so much for what you’re doing.

It’s an expensive program, but it’s so worth it. I think despite the hard time I give about the budget for it, we’re going to get back way more than that financially.

The purpose wasn’t for accolades or financial benefit. But I think what it shows for business owners is just take a leap of faith. It’s going to work out, do some things and you’ll be rewarded for that. Again, that’s not the purpose, but it’s been a great program for us. We’re going to keep these kids connected, it’s also building a sense of community around the state for areas that might not get opportunity to know very much about agriculture or other things we have going on in the state.

Ahead of the Curve on Flexibility and Employee-Centric Care

Flexibility is a great tool. Back in 2007 I had some real trepidation about it, when a top-notch employee approached me about working remote. But I said, you know, let’s give it a try. But it worked out, so I’ve been a promoter of the idea for over a decade. Right now, about 15% of our team members work remote. I certainly did not predict that embracing a remote option so long ago was going to be an important part of what we do. But our team saw that we embraced it ahead of having to and they have really appreciated willingness to test and try it out. I know a lot of other businesses have looked at remote work and flexible schedules as something they have got to do or frankly have been pushing hard to bring people back in, but I think you’ve got to have a balance. There’s definitely some challenges to over come but its important and possible to find the balance.

The other thing we’re trying to do is really spend time with our team members. We are taking the time to learn about their career path and what they want to do, what are their objectives.

Instead of focusing on their performance alone in a particular job, we are rolling out a talent management focus that includes having one-on-one meetings on a regular basis to understand the employee’s goals, offer coaching, mentoring, really focusing on developing people.  Of course, we hope that this will benefit the business, but the primary focus isn’t how does that benefit Colony Bank. It’s on developing our people and fostering relationships.

The Workplace as a Trusted Place for Hard Conversations

We have not been overtly asked, but we try to create an environment where you can have discussions about social issues. We have roughly 500 team members, not to mention our shareholders, our customer base, you know it’s a very diverse group. For the company to take a solid position on some issue doesn’t seem appropriate because a good bit of my stakeholders probably don’t feel that way. But we create environment where we can talk about those issues. I talk about the things that are going on and I express to our team my personal opinion versus a company’s stance.

I’d love to see fewer companies coming out and making a stand on controversial issues and more companies having dialogue internally about that issue.

I’d love to see fewer companies coming out and making a stand on controversial issues and more companies having dialogue internally about that issue. The workplace is a trusted place, we’re trying to create that safe space because in many public arenas where you come out and have an opinion, that opinion is pushed down quickly because that’s not the correct approach or opinion. We want our people to feel comfortable that we can disagree and it’s okay. These issues, a lot of times, are very complex. People have different opinions. And I think it’s important that we allow that discussion to take place.

Biggest lesson, as a leader, you’ve learned?

Embracing change is really huge for what we’ve been through. I think one thing that we’ve had to do is just make decisions without all the facts and just make a decision and move forward. I will probably misquote badly, but it’s attributed to Teddy Roosevelt who said, anytime you have to make a decision, the best thing to do is the right thing. The next best thing to do is the wrong thing. And the worst thing to do is nothing. Sometimes you just have to make a decision and move on and you’ll be able to correct and adjust and later.

“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

-Teddy Roosevelt
Heath Fountain
CEO, Colony Bank
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