Banking on Tallahassee: Prime Meridian's Sammie Dixon
Banking on Tallahassee Prime Meridian Bank may be the new kid on the banking block, but CEO Sammie Dixon is determined to succeed through tenacity and an emphasis on customer service By Lilly Rockwell Originally published in the Feb/Mar 2010 issue of 850 Business Magazine
Sammie Dixon likes the old adage “I would rather be lucky than good.”
His decision to open Prime Meridian Bank in February 2008, at a time when real estate losses were mounting at banks across the nation, and some banks were even failing, was pure luck, he says. Had he invested earlier, his bank might have been tempted to take on bad loans, just as many others had.
“Our timing was perfect,” Dixon said of his first effort to start his own bank, a lifelong dream for the ambitious 40-year-old Florida State University graduate.
Prime Meridian, Tallahassee’s newest bank, raised $12.8 million in start-up capital and has grown to more than $70 million in deposits. It turned a profit in late 2009.
Dixon oozes energy, joking that “everyone always tells me I’m just hyper.” Jokes aside, the Southern-accented Dixon isn’t your stereotypical stiff, number-crunching banker. He jumps from describing the mortgage lending process, adding six-figure sums in his head in seconds, to a 15-minute, teary-eyed account of taking a poor, motherless child under his wing when Dixon lived in Georgia. (That child is now a Marine serving in Afghanistan).
Originally from Tifton, Ga., Dixon started his career in Charlotte, N.C., at Nations Bank, and was sent to Fort Lauderdale to work with companies with assets of $25 million and up, also known as “middle market” companies. He left in 1999 to help start Citizens National Bank of Southwest Florida, now called Bank of Florida, where he was vice president of commercial lending. In 2003, Dixon left Florida to return to his home state, where he was hired to be the CEO of the troubled Bank of Thomas County in Thomasville, Ga.
When he decided to leave Thomasville in 2005, Dixon mulled over his options. His choices included bigger cities such as Atlanta and other metro areas in Florida.
“But I sat down and thought about it, and Tallahassee was the perfect fit for me,” Dixon said. He liked Tallahassee’s family-friendly values, stable economy and proximity to the coast.
His experience as chief executive helped Dixon get approval from regulators to start his own bank. First, he sought the advice of a seasoned banker, who urged him to work for a regional bank in Tallahassee to get to know the market. “Don’t go work for a community bank,” he told Dixon, “because if you do leave to go start a bank, then there’s going to be feelings hurt.” Dixon worked as a senior vice president at Regions Bank before leaving in 2007.
Finally, it was Dixon’s turn. Given Tallahassee’s competitive banking market, with 19 banks and 10 credit unions, he had to figure out how to stand out.
He decided to focus on customer service. Every customer is greeted promptly when he or she walks in the door and is offered coffee or fresh-baked cookies. A plaque on Dixon’s desk reads, “Let’s think of a few reasons it CAN be done.” He says this is his attitude about banking. He seeks to discard the usual stringent policies and procedures in favor of helping the customer, as long as it’s ethical, legal and helps the customer and the bank.
“We look at it like this: If we can’t do something for you, just saying no isn’t good enough. Why can’t we do it? What is it going to take for us to be able to make that loan?” Dixon insists that this doesn’t mean giving loans to unqualified people, but rather thinking creatively, such as securing a loan backed by a certificate of deposit from family or friends.
“The one thing I do have is tenacity and passion, like a square-jawed bulldog,” Dixon said “That bulldog, once he grabs, he ain’t going to let go. And I use the word ‘ain’t’ intentionally. That’s the way we are here about what we’re doing.”
Dixon likes to buck the trends in other ways, too. While most bankers have a reputation for working strictly 9-to-5 hours, Dixon puts in plenty of overtime.
“There’s a lot of people that have jobs and careers,” he said. “But I love what I do. I cannot wait to get to work.” He points to his computer screen, which displays a daily report of the previous day’s bank activity. “It came through this morning at 4:31 a.m. You can bet your bottom dollar that there’s a good chance I’m going to see it by 4:35.”
He hopes to grow the bank in Tallahassee, opening additional franchises in the future.
While starting his bank in 2008 may have been a lucky break, Dixon credits his success with old-fashioned hard work.
“I’ve worked my tail off,” he said.