Smart About Money: “It’s A Wonderful Life” … but why exactly?

 

Community bankers often hear that their bank reminds customers of the Bailey Bros. Building & Loan from the classic 1946 movie, It’s A Wonderful Life. Which is a great compliment. What was it about the Bailey Bros. Building & Loan that people still remember it so specifically and so fondly seven decades years later? A couple of things.

For one, customers and the Bank staff trusted and respected each other. Which let people believe George Bailey (played in the movie by Jimmy Stewart) when he explained how selling in a panic during a run on the banking system would hurt them all. “I beg you not to do this thing,” he tells the people gathered in his lobby.

That wasn’t what they wanted to hear. At all. But they trusted George Bailey’s judgment and were better off for it later. As were their neighbors and the whole town of Bedford Falls. Mortgage loans weren’t called. People didn’t lose their homes.

A lot is different in 2016 from 1946. Runs on banks are almost unheard of now. But the principle is the same. Community bankers welcome the opportunity to try to convince a customer to reconsider a decision they may regret later. They see that as both their duty as community bankers, and an honor. Because community banking is about helping customers succeed.

As a banker, George Bailey was also good at explaining financial realities in plain language. “Your money’s not here,” he tells one customer during the run. “It’s in Joe’s house.”

And that’s another thing the Bailey Bros. Building & Loan did right. They stuck to what they did best – pooling savers’ funds to make mortgage loans.

“Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5000 to buy a home?”, George Bailey asks Mr. Potter. Potter (played by Lionel Barrymore) is presented as the villain of It’s A Wonderful Life. He’s certainly not a likeable man. But there are many – then and now – who would applaud his idea of trying to create a monopoly so he could profit from the “monopoly pricing” that would go with it.

George Bailey saw things quite differently. The Bailey Bros. Building & Loan helped people buy homes on a reasonable re-payment plan without predatory terms and conditions. “So as not to have to crawl to Potter” was how George Bailey’s father had put it. And he was right. Because competition among lenders is always better than monopolies.

At the Bailey Bros. Building & Loan, it wasn’t about extracting every possible dollar from customers or “getting rich.” It wasn’t about “growth at any cost.” Probably because – unlike Mr. Potter or the Wall Street-driven bankers from Wells Fargo today – community bankers have always understood that the “at any cost” part is never good for customers.

What made the Bailey Bros. Building & Loan and the other stores in Bedford Falls special in 1946? As it so happens, it’s the same thing that makes so many independent local banks and other local businesses special today.

Independent local businesses are not interested in taking over the world. They focus on being trusted and dependable in their own area. And they really care about customers, who they see as human beings, as neighbors and friends. Not as “cattle,” as Mr. Potter saw them. Or “next quarter’s report to Wall Street.”

They wouldn’t trade places with Mr. Potter for all the money in the world. Because, as George Bailey knew then and as all independent local businesspeople know now, success is not about money above everything else. Customers recognize and value the difference. They think it’s wonderful.

Nick Maffeo is the President & CEO of Canton Co-operative Bank in Canton. “Smart About Money” is a regular column he writes for the Canton Citizen. Have a financial question you’d like to ask? Email to info@cantoncoopbank.com.

 

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