Family-owned bank is old-fashioned but forward-looking
By Don Nelson
A newspaper photograph taken in 1988 shows 10-year-old Beau Buell Adams sitting behind his grandfather Frank Buell’s desk at Farmers State Bank in Winthrop, “trying out the chair he hopes to occupy some day,” according to the caption.
Skip ahead to 2007. In another newspaper photo, a grown-up Beau is seated at the same desk, this time as an officer of the bank that his family has owned since the mid-1960s.
Flash forward to 2015. Beau is still excited to show a visitor his grandfather’s desk, clearly proud of the family’s heritage and the community-based institution it has perpetuated.
Farmers State Bank, the Methow Valley’s surviving original hometown bank, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year — which is saying something in the volatile world of monolithic personal financial institutions. Three generations of the Buell/Adams family have operated Farmers State for half of that century.
Farmers is a rarity in today’s banking business — small, independent, family-owned, conservative, friendly, personal and accessible. At the same time, Farmers offers many of the technological services that modern banking customers have come to expect — debit cards, online banking and bill-paying, ATM access.
Over the course of a century, Farmers has developed something of a personality: tough enough to weather the Great Depression and recent recession, stodgy enough that it didn’t begin using personal account numbers until 1988. After all, they knew your name.
If you’re a regular customer, you’re still likely to be greeted by your first name — possibly by one of the bank’s officers — when you enter the stylish white building on Riverside Avenue. Lending decisions are made in the building, not by a distant, faceless banking bureaucracy running your numbers through a formula.
By its own characterization, “Farmers State Bank brings it customers the best of both worlds — rock solid security and old-fashioned customer service, as well as a cautiously progressive approach into banking conveniences of the 21st century.”
In other words, Farmers is the not the place to go looking for risky derivatives or bundled mortgage packages. But Beau Adams or his father, bank president Ed Adams, may talk to you about a business or personal loan.
Farmers State Bank was originally established to serve the valley’s miners and ranchers during the early days of Methow Valley commerce. It shared the Methow’s ups and downs over the decades, but stuck with the community through every cycle.
With $31 million in assets, Farmers State is now the second-smallest independent bank in Washington state. That hasn’t prevented it from performing admirably. Farmers has a best-possible, five-star, rating for its financial performance from Bauer Financial, a bank evaluation service. The only physical threat to the Farmers State’s assets was in the mid-1920s, when an aspiring robber unsuccessfully tried to blow up the safe.
Frank Buell had already had a long, successful banking career when he and his wife, Ann, purchased Farmers State in the mid-1960s. Frank, whose father had once owned half-a-dozen banks in Minnesota, was an executive vice-president at Seattle-First National Bank when he was slowed down by a heart attack in 1965. He and Ann moved to Winthrop shortly thereafter to run the little bank. They quickly became immersed and active in the Methow Valley community. In a 1993 obituary for Frank, the Methow Valley News noted that “Service to customers, a friendly chat or simply a wave were traits common to Frank Buell.”
Ann, who had a particular knack for remembering names, worked in the bank and was on the board of directors. She died in 2014 at age 95.
The Buells had four children, including daughter Georgia — who married a Seattle-First National Bank vice-president, Ed Adams. They moved to Winthrop in 1985 to take over operation of Farmers State. Their son Beau was that precocious kid who laid claim to his grandfather’s desk. He’s now chief financial officer. Ed is the bank’s president, and Georgia serves on the board of directors. Beau’s wife, Roxanna, is also involved in the family business.
Beau’s role in the family business was inevitable, he said in a recent interview. His first job was as a messenger. “I used to love coming to the bank when I was a youngster. I was able to see a lot of the operation … I never thought of doing anything else,” he said.
Beau has spearheaded the bank’s technological advances, an area in which he is keenly interested.
Georgia said that when Beau was in the junior high school pep band, he had a trumpet — which he sold so he could buy a Mac computer. “I’ve always been fascinated by technology,” Beau said.
Past and future
During November, the bank invited local residents to help them celebrate, offering cake, homemade cider and chocolate coins wrapped in gold-colored foil each Friday. Reaching the century mark prompted family members to dig into the bank’s history. Visitors especially appreciated the historic photos. “It’s been fun socializing and telling the story of the bank,” Beau said.
Farmers embraced Westernization in the early 1970s, merging two buildings to appear behind one façade that replicates a successful bank of the late 20th century. People still occasionally walk in thinking it’s a museum rather than a working business.
There’s no spacious lobby, no long rows of teller windows — just a small space inside the front door that practically guarantees social interaction among customers and employees alike. The old-fashioned teller cages recall banks you might see in a Western movie.
Because it is cobbled together from two older buildings, the bank is a bit of a rabbit’s warren of rooms — some of which still contain artifacts from earlier days such as safe deposit boxes, an old, decommissioned safe, and Frank Buell’s intriguing collection of antique coin banks.
The bank’s owners are comfortable with its place in the community.
“We can be unique, and do banking in a more traditional way,” Beau said. “We do have to keep up with the regulations and the technology … we can’t be everything to everybody, but we try to do as much as possible.”
“People don’t get lost in the shuffle,” Roxanna added.
“We can’t do everything for people … we understand that,” Ed said. “If there is something we can do for them, they’ll be back.”
At the same time, Ed said that as a small institution, the bank is affected by its environment — and that includes the challenges raised by wildfires the past two summers.
“We were able to keep operating with cell phones” when the entire valley lost power for eight days in 2014, Beau said. “We wanted to make sure people could keep working.”
Ed said that in some ways, Farmers has to take a more conservative business course because it doesn’t have the resources or risk-taking ability of larger institutions. On the other hand, he said, Farmers doesn’t report to shareholders who care only about the stock price. “If this was an investor-owned bank, it wouldn’t exist,” he said.
While the bank has remained steadfastly in the family, it has not been without suitors. Potential buyers “were approaching constantly until the recession,” Ed said. “That stopped it.”
As for the next 50 or 100 years?
“As long as we can keep up with technology, we can keep going for the foreseeable future,” Ed said.