If one of your first acts as a young, up-and-coming banker is slamming a bank director’s hand in the drive-through window box, you might think it was time to consider another career choice.
Joe Bruce did the deed, accidentally, but never gave up on being a banker. Today, 45 years later, he still counts on the two lessons he learned from that incident to help him lead Citizen’s Bank of Blount County.
Bruce was just starting out in the banking business in April of 1964 and was working at First National Bank of Cookeville at the drive-thru window. The bank was owned by the Witson-Carlin family, Bruce said, and one of the directors was a no-nonsense family member by the name of Jere Witson. Witson came to the bank every day at noon, wanted fast and efficient service and little chit-chat.
Bruce methodically counted his deposit before giving him his slip the first couple of times he came to the drive-thru window, until his supervisor told him that perhaps he could just take Mr. Witson’s deposit, fill out the ticket and let him be on his way.
Determined to give him good customer service, Bruce was ready when Witson pulled up in his pink Cadillac. He quickly opened the manual window box and pushed it out to the customer/director.
“He put his deposit in there, and I did a real quick pull back. I caught his hand in the drawer.”
Bruce apologized then, the next day “and everyday at lunch for the next 90 days,” Bruce said with a laugh. “If he told president, he never said anything about it.”
Bruce said that was just one moment where he learned the importance of taking care of customers, even the difficult ones. He also learned that you have to be alert and conscious of what you are doing. “But I found you can be a little too quick on the trigger,” he said.
Strong work ethic
Bruce was born to Anna Beulah and Landon Bruce in Putnam County, 3 miles from Baxter, Tenn., and was raised in the Cedar Hill Community.
“We were all delivered at home, not by a doctor, but by a midwife,” he said. “My mother was a mail carrier with an eighth grade education, and my dad basically had a sixth grade education.”
Bruce was born on a farm. “We raised tobacco and, over the years, the government reduced the allotment down. We just lived off the land. I wasn’t born with a golden spoon in my mouth,” he said. “We came through some difficult times. You didn’t have but one pair of shoes, and you had two pairs of jeans - one for church and one for school everyday. That was the allotment.”
Bruce had three sisters and one brother, and his parents divorced when he was 11. His mother had taught his dad to be a mail carrier, and he continued with that while his mother went to work in the lunchroom at the elementary school. After and before school, she and Bruce were janitors at the elementary school and at the church, Cedar Hill Baptist Church. They lived within 100 yards of both the church and the school, he said.
Working came natural to Bruce, he said. He said he was taught to be industrious when he was very, very young.
“My mother was a driven person. I always said she was the best financial manager I ever met. I still say that,” he said. “She taught me my work ethic and values of life, to say ‘Yes, Ma’am’ and ‘No Ma’am.’ I couldn’t skip Sunday school or church. I come from a very simple, country background, and I wouldn’t give anything for it.”
Bruce said when he was 7 years old he was picking blackberries to raise money. One summer he picked 42 gallons of blackberries, mowed neighbors yards for $.35 with a push mower, hulled walnuts and sold them for $1 a bushel, picked strawberries for three cents a pint, sold scrap iron and had a Grit newspaper route. In high school Bruce worked for Johnson’s Nursery in the summer and on Saturdays.
Bruce said he always tried to have a job of some form or fashion. “When I got in college, I worked at a limestone quarry and drove an old truck,” he said.” It was dangerous work.”
Gridiron dreams of coaching
Bruce’s family’s house burned Thanksgiving morning of 1957 when he was a senior in high school. The family moved to Cookeville and lived with his oldest sister and her husband, and Bruce finished high school there.
“I’m the youngest of the five,” Bruce said. “I was the first one to actually graduate from college. My brother completed his degree after he got out of the Marines.”
What Bruce wanted to do was coach football.
“I think that came more from identifying with my high school football coaches. I wanted to be a football coach -- that was my ambition. They encouraged me. I had a partial football scholarship at Tennessee Tech, and I went to Sewanee Military academy for the first semester just to further my ability in football.”
The scholarship helped pay for school tuition and Bruce lived at home with his mother.
“I only stayed on campus during fall and spring football camps. Otherwise I lived at home.”
After his first two years at Tennessee Tech, Bruce gave up on football and concentrated on his studies and working. “I was only getting playing time on the scout squad,” he said. “I needed to work more, and I wasn’t getting to play, but I was getting banged up all the time.”
Work took him to the Shanks Hotel, the only hotel in Cookeville. “While I was there, I got to meet Bear Bryant. The Football Coach’s Association met at Tennessee Tech during the summer and football coaches from SEC schools came through. That was quite interesting.”
Bruce made extra money selling for the Pyramid Life and Accident Insurance Co. for commissions while also working at the hotel. Bruce finished his degree, a bachelor of science in business administration. He would later go on to School Bank of the South at Louisiana State University and earn the equivalent of a master’s degree now.
After getting his bachelor’s degree, Bruce thought perhaps the insurance business was a good fit for him. He wrote quite a few insurance companies and gave them resumes.
“When I struck out on that, then that’s when I started trying to go into motel/hotel management,” he said.
A family friend, Billy Carlen at the First National Bank in Cookeville, was trying to help him land a job with an insurance company.
“This was in 1963. Finally, the banker called me in and said, ‘I’ve got a position here at the bank if you would be interested.’ Of course I was interested. I didn’t have a job except selling insurance part-time,” he said.
Entering the banking business
Bruce went to work at the bank on April 15, 1964, at First National Bank of Cookeville. “There were two banks, Citizen’s Bank of Cookeville and First National Bank of Cookeville. They were strong competitors and locally owned,” he said. “I got a position at the drive-in window at First National.”
Bruce worked the window for nine months before he was promoted to bookkeeping operations where he worked for two years before he was promoted again.
In 1966, he became an assistant casher. “That was my first officer position. I didn’t get a raise. I got a call, and someone said I had been promoted. I was still in my 20s. I got married in 1964, and my first daughter was born in 1966. In 1970, we had a second daughter.”
Bruce continued to work his way through the banking positions -- to lender, then to asset liability management and investments for the bank. In 1967, the Carlin family had a major death in the family and sold the bank. Bruce was one of 29 individuals who went together and bought the bank.
“I was the youngest of the group, and I was the cashier so I handled the stock transaction and worked with tax people on tax returns. This was a great opportunity. I got to do everything in the bank,” he said.
Bruce said they paid about $22 a share for the bank, and he bought about 800 shares.
When the group went to the bank where their bank had their investments, the bank refused to lend them the money to buy the bank. Bruce and his partners talked to Commerce Union Bank in Nashville, which agreed to lend them the money for the transaction.
They promptly removed all their assets from the bank that had turned them down and sent Bruce to get their money.
“There I went, walking out of that bank with two suitcases, headed down to Commerce Union.”
The new owners grew the bank and actually took it public and sold stock Bruce said. In 1972, bigger banks started buying up banks and the bank president and CEO Tommy Lynn decided it was time to sell.
Bruce wasn’t too keen on the idea of selling the bank, but the transaction moved forward. At the same time, a group of Maryville businessmen who were friends with a marketing executive at First National named Earl Barber came to see Earl about a community bank they wanted to start in Maryville. Barber gave them Bruce’s name and First National CEO Tommy Lynn gave Bruce permission to speak with the group.
The group met with Bruce at the Holiday Inn in Cookeville. Bruce still remembers the group: “Joe Downey, Ben Robertson, Leon Shields, Jake Clabough, Bud Coleman, Charlie Womac and Hugh McNutt,” he said.
Bruce jumped at the opportunity to get on board a new community bank in Maryville, but the new bank was still in start-up mode. He stayed on at the bank in Cookeville until April 15 of 1973 when he started with what would become CBBC. Initially his family stayed in Cookeville because his children were still in school.
“It was just me. Eventually I got a secretary -- Bud Gilbert’s mother. I finished up my schooling at LSU on Memorial Day weekend and got a call the day after the holiday that the bank charter had been approved. I was really excited then,” he said.
“I came back (to Maryville) and started contacting everybody who put in applications to purchase stock,” he said. “We were oversubscribed about two times what we were going to sell. We had to cut back on the number of shares people could have. We sold 90,000 shares at $23.25 per share and raised $2,092,500. It was no problem at all selling stock. Once we got the stock collected, we actually opened in a trailer.”
The small, 12 feet by 48 feet mobile home office opened on Sept. 24, 1973, and had a drive-in window on the end. The temporary bank office was located across Church Avenue from where they built the bank’s home office.
“We stayed across the street in that trailer until 1975 and moved into this building Aug. 18 of 1975,” he said.
Bruce said they grew their capital of $2,092,500 and made money from Sept. 24 to the end of that year. “We made right at $12,000 and, after taxes, we had $7,000. I asked the board to do a cash profit sharing because I believed if you’re going to be successful, you’re going to have to have good people and be good to those people,” he said. “The board approved that, and we paid out 5 percent of our profits - $350.”
Those first employees included Gaynell Lawson, a drive-in window teller, and two inside tellers - Carolyn Gilbert and Carl Wyatt -- and Bruce himself. In 1978, the bank chose to add another 5 percent to go into an employees’ 401k fund.
The bank started in a trailer and when the new home office opened, they moved the trailer to Midland Plaza.
“We were very frugal,” Bruce said. “I came up in a frugal family. Our efficiency ratio and overhead rate are among the top 5 percent in the country. We are now basically about a $330 million bank. We have made profits, and we’ve been profitable for 35 consecutive years.”
Bruce said CBBC now has 12 locations, nine of those in Blount County and one in Monroe County and two in Knox County. Bruce says the lessons he learned as a young man first breaking into the banking business are still part of his philosophy with CBBC.
“What we’ve tried to do over the years is know customers by name and give supreme customer service. We try our best at every location to give the same type service. You’re going to be greeted with a smile and a greeting,” he said. “This is the way we built our bank. We also believe that if we take care of our employees and treat them well, they’re going to treat our customers well. That’s a philosophy we’ve always established from the very beginning in 1973.”
Relaxing with marathons
When Bruce says he is “on the run,” he isn’t always talking about the banking world. Bruce and his good friend Dr. Charlie Raper began training to run their first marathon in 1978, the Oak Ridge Marathon. “There were 119 people who ran that day in February of 1978. There was 5 inches of snow on the ground.”
Bruce said he and Raper were lucky. “We knew nothing about training. We ran 20 miles on the Maryville High track. That was 80 laps,” he said.
The amateur runners ran in sweats. “It was 12 degrees that morning. We were not elite runners for certain. We got over there early and hide candy bars and drinks along the trail. The only watering place was at the 13-mile mark and by the time we got there, they were gone,” he said. “We were among the last few who finished, and the crowds who had been at the convention center where the race ended had already left. We had blisters on our feet. We couldn’t find our drinks and candy bars after we hid them,” he said.
It was problems with his knees and not that first experience that led Bruce to give up the running, however. “I’ve had problems with my knees and my feet aren’t as good. So I fly fish, kayak and bicycle and split wood. I like to be outdoors, and I live in the mountains on the Little River in Townsend,” he said.
Bruce went through a divorce in the mid- 1980s. “I’m not married now. My daughters are here, and I have two grandkids. They’re wonderful. I spoil them and then take them home,” he said.
Bruce’s older daughter, Leann Hicks, works at CBBC. His youngest daughter, Mary Jo Willocks, is a teacher at the Union Grove School.
Bruce said he’s happy where he is and has no plans to go, but is confident in the team he’s built at CBBC. “I don’t have any plans to retire,” he said. “As long as I’m healthy and enjoy what I’m doing, I’m going to be here.”
Bruce said when he came to open the bank, he knew he wanted himself and the staff to be heavily involved in the community. That first year CBBC gave to Maryville College and the United Way. Since then, Bruce has been campaign chair for United Way and served on the board at various times. He also served as president of the Chamber of Commerce, been on the board of the Maryville Kiwanis club, participated in the Boys and Girls club, been campaign chair at Maryville College and was on the foundation for the Blount County Library.
“I’ve stepped down from lots of commitments personally, but I told my folks, ‘If you accept a management position, you should also be willing to give back to the community,’” he said. “I feel strongly about giving back to the community that’s been so good to me and to our bank and board. I can’t think of a better place to live or a better place for a business to exist. The people in Blount County - if you’re honest and you give them good service -- they will support you.”