Sponsor Spotlight - June 2020
- Story by Dena Temple
The Swetman family has seen it all here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast – growth, depressions, storms – and they are proud that The Peoples Bank has helped the community through the best and the worst of times.
Chevis Swetman, chairman, president and chief executive officer of The Peoples Bank, took time from his very busy schedule to talk with the Shoofly last week, giving us a glimpse into his life; the bank’s history; its involvement with the Gulf Coast community; and what he sees in its future.
A long, proud history
The Peoples Bank was founded in 1896 by J.W. Swetman in Biloxi. Orcenith George (O.G.) Swetman, who worked in Florida as a telegrapher for the railroad, joined his brother at the bank in 1903 as assistant cashier and later served as president and chief executive officer from 1951 to 1963.
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Swetman and his wife of 50 years, Marcia, live in his grandfather’s house on Beach Boulevard, not far from the White House Hotel. They have one son, Tanner, who is currently senior vice president and chief operating officer.
“Where People Come First.”
We asked Swetman about the bank’s slogan, “Where People Come First.”
“Funny story,” he said. “That slogan is 60 years old. Dad was in touch with another [unaffiliated] Peoples Bank in Arkansas who was using that slogan. He liked it so much he wrote to the bank and asked for permission to use it.”
We mentioned to Swetman that many of his employees have long tenures with the bank. “A lot of our employees start here in high school and never leave!” he replied. Chevis Swetman is currently the longest-term employee at 49 years, and there are 2-3 with more than 35 years of service.
“We treat our employees as family,” he said. “No one here has a bad commute, and a lot of our new employees come from referrals from our staff.” He added, “If you treat people well, you have a much happier workforce.”
Bay St. Louis resident Jeannie Deen, who worked for The Peoples Bank for 29 years, agreed. “I enjoyed going to work every day. In Hancock County, I had the most delightful customers in the world. And bank leaders allow the lenders and branch personnel to help the customers the way they see fit.”
She continued, “Chevis Swetman sets the tone for the caring, nurturing atmosphere of all the senior officers, and it trickles down.”
When asked about what sets his bank apart, Swetman replied, “We get to know our customers. Some families have banked with us for 70, 80, even 90 years, so we have to provide quality service to keep them coming back.
“Our first 100 years were spent at one location, so our customers knew we would be there for them – no matter what. We moved into other communities as the opportunities arose, and our acquisition of Gulf National Bank in 1985 gave us branches in Harrison County. From there we tried to fill gaps with other branches.”
Today, The Peoples Bank has 18 branches in Hancock, Harrison, Jackson and Stone Counties, including a trust and asset management office in Biloxi and branches at Keesler Air Force Base and the Armed Services Retirement Home in Gulfport.
Help during disasters
The Peoples Bank was instrumental in the recovery after Hurricanes Camille and Katrina. “Camille didn’t affect us too much,” said Swetman. “We had only one location at that time, so it was easier to get up and running so we could get cash into the economy by being open. Camille left most of the structures in the area intact, so people with houses knew what to do.”
Katrina, he said, was another story. “With 15,000-20,000 homes lost, even relief workers had no place to stay.”
Swetman himself was left without a home after Katrina; he moved his family into a conference room in the bank’s headquarters. The bank lost 16 branches during the storm, and Swetman brought in mobile offices to serve as temporary branch offices.
“I’ll never forget the morning after Katrina,” recalled Jeannie Deen. “I got a call from Chevis Swetman. He wanted to know if I had heard from all of the Hancock County employees. He was particularly worried about one person, who lived on the north beach in Bay St. Louis. Luckily I knew that person had made it to Hattiesburg. His house was gone, but he was safe.”
She continued, “Even though the Waveland and Bay St. Louis branches were badly damaged, they put us to work out of the Diamondhead branch. The lenders were directed to try to check in with every customer and see how we could help. I made many business loans and car loans from the floor, using a plastic box as a desk.
“Our instructions were always simple: Help each other and the customers.”
Chevis Swetman was honored as 2005 Community Banker of the Year by American Banker magazine for his efforts to provide banking service to his customers after Katrina.
The Peoples Bank has been a longtime sponsor and supporter of the arts on the coast. When the Bay St. Louis Second Saturday Artwalk was revised and revamped in the mid-‘90s, the bank became its first – and for many years its only –sponsor. Each month, it funded a band to provide live entertainment.
“Jeannie Dean, vice-president at that time, suggested we get involved with Second Saturday, to get customers into area businesses and increase area tourism.” That support continues today.
The bank is always looking for ways to be a partner in civic projects. Here in Hancock County, the bank sponsored the mural on the Waveland Library. It also sponsors the Blessing of the Fleet in Biloxi and all the programs surrounding that event. A shrimp boat even appears as a part of the bank’s logo.
Food banks are a particular pet project for Chevis Swetman. “We started over 30 years ago by supporting Loaves & Fishes in Biloxi, and now we support ten local food banks in the area.”
Suggestions come in from the bank’s employees, who volunteer at these local food banks. “It always amazes me how [food banks] are able to do so much with so little.
“Lately some people have lost their jobs through no fault of their own and just need a hand. This need means that food pantries have a lot of bare shelves and really need our help.”
A bright future
Right now, said Swetman, the bank’s focus is on getting the money from the Payroll Protection Program into the community. This is the loan program for small businesses to help them keep their employees on the payroll through the current economic shutdown.
“It’s a government program, but the money comes from local banks like ours,” said Swetman. “We manage the process from application to disbursement of funds. It’s challenging, but rewarding. And now that the program has been extended to 24 weeks, we can help many more local businesses.”
Disbursing the money is just the first part of the program. Part 2 is to get our business customers to apply for loan forgiveness. If they follow the rules of the program, they don’t have to repay the loan. Bank officers help them apply, then provide a letter attesting to their participation.
Swetman said, “We are a tourist economy, for the most part, so it’s important to get more of our people back to work. The casinos did great over Memorial Day weekend, we just need to keep that going. We’ll be better off if we can get our workforce back to work sooner rather than later.”
Beyond tourism, Swetman noted, manufacturing jobs continue to rise, and military spending is on the increase. Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula is building two more heavy polar icebreakers for the U.S. Coast Guard, and two cruise missile destroyers. Ingalls also is investing $150 million in revitalizing their East Bank shipyard, which has been dormant since being damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“These jobs are particularly important to diversify our workforce, which is heavily dominated by tourism-related jobs right now,” said Swetman.
After banking hours…
Running a bank takes a great deal of time and commitment, but Swetman tries to find balance in his life. His hobbies include fishing trips to the Chandeleur Islands, supporting the USM Golden Eagles baseball and football teams, and cheering for the Biloxi Shuckers, Double-A affiliate team for the Milwaukee Brewers. “I used to enjoy tennis, too,” he lamented, “until my knees gave out.”
His real passion, however, is Cruisin’ the Coast. He is proud to be the Chairman of the event and takes its success very personally. He visits every site and participates in every event.
“Cruisin’ the Coast is fantastic for the local economy,” said Swetman. “There are no empty hotel rooms or vacation rentals. Visitors even rent empty lots to park their hot rods.” The most popular “Cruisin’” hotspots are Bay St. Louis and Ocean Springs, he said. The 2019 event saw 8,800 cars descend on the Gulf Coast, up from 8,444 the year before.
“It goes up every year,” he noted. “The event brought in $22 million to the local economy in 2018.” And since event venues are now spread across the entire Gulf region, he said, there are fewer traffic issues than in the past, and the event runs more smoothly.
And maybe that is how you can summarize the contributions made by Chevis Swetman and The Peoples Bank: Throughout their long history, they have helped our communities run more smoothly. In times of feast or famine, their doors are open, their employees are smiling, and they have a hand extended to help.