From Army recruit to CEO, banker connects the dots

Jill Castilla

Editors’ Note: Jill Castilla is president and CEO of Citizens Bank of Edmond, Okla. She is immediate past chair of the Community Bankers Association of Oklahoma and serves on the board of the American Bankers Association. Castilla wrote this essay for after sharing her story at a conference hosted by Eide Bailly in Mankato, Minn.

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. – Steve Jobs

Some of the best situations in life come out of the darkest, hardest times.

I grew up in a small, low income town in eastern Oklahoma where college wasn’t an expectation. My single dad was a probation and parole officer and the town was rich with his clients. Very early on, the matriarch of the local community bank family encouraged me to look past my circumstances and pursue higher education – if I was in our local paper, you could count on her to send me a kind note with the article and a few dollars. If an opportunity came available in academics or athletics that I couldn’t afford to attend, she would, without fanfare, ensure that the opportunity wasn’t missed. She changed the trajectory of my life. Without financial support, either from financial aid or my family, I set off for Oklahoma State University. I had worked at our local grocery store in high school and was able to secure a transfer to Stillwater – I was certain that I could support myself and pay for college on my minimum wage salary.

While at OSU, I worked full-time on the night shift carrying out groceries while pursuing a chemical engineering degree in the day and engaging in campus leadership in the afternoons. I didn’t sleep and could barely afford to eat. By the end of my second year, my savings were running dry, the cupboards were bare and I had reached the end of my resources, mentally, physically and financially.  Just as hope was running out, my life was changed again when I carried the groceries out for an Army recruiter. He told me that, if I enlisted, I would be considered an “independent student” and could apply for financial aid – I signed up for the Army the next day.

The military experience absolutely shaped me into who I am. For example, as a construction surveyor building a road in a remote, rural area, I was issued a “chain gang” of local incarcerated men who were armed with machetes, axes and chainsaws. For six weeks, it was just me, another skinny private and these six men. I learned that trust and building relationships were keys to team building and success in any situation. I also learned that I was pretty darn tough.

While I was in the Army, I had all of my pay direct-deposited into my hometown bank. A private just doesn’t have many expenses. When I returned, I found that a family member going through some difficult times had emptied my account and that I, again, had no money.  I didn’t know that I could have worked with the bank to recover the fraud, but rather headed to the public library and cold-called universities hoping to land a scholarship. I bummed rides to a university in South Texas and walked onto a campus where I knew not a soul and had never visited. Marcus was the first person I met – we quickly became best of friends and married a year later.

Marcus received his Army commission and we headed to Hawaii.  I had intended to take only a semester off from school and then return to finish my senior year in my engineering program. However, when you’re a 20-something with the opportunity to live in Hawaii for four years, you quickly try to find a way to stay there! I was working full-time at Crazy Shirts, a local T-shirt shop in Waikiki. My boss encouraged me to try out a business program; she thought that the local private university would be flexible with me. Intent on finishing my degree, I took 33 credit hours a semester while working full-time. Tuesdays and Thursdays were my work days off. I would go to school on campus with 18 credit hours on those days then take 15 credit hours at night on their military campus.  With that pace, I finished a degree in finance in one year and just days before we had our first child, Ryan.

After our stint in Hawaii, we moved back to Oklahoma where I got a bookkeeping job at my stepfather’s family’s bank, Citizens Bank of Edmond. While there, I applied to the Federal Reserve Bank’s management training program. During the interview, I shared that Army “chain gang” experience and it won me the job. At the Fed, I gained invaluable experience managing areas of facilities management, public affairs, cash management, financial management, check automation and human resources. My youngest son was even born on Check 21 conversion day, Oct. 28, 2004.

The Fed paid for my master’s degree in economics and offered me an opportunity to go to a graduate school of banking where I fell in love with community banking. A classmate from Grand Rapids, Minn., offered me a position to lead his bank’s finance function and join the senior management team. I loved coming back to a small town and appreciated the opportunity to work at a bank very similar to Citizens Bank of Edmond. I had hoped that, one day, I would be able to return to Citizens.

Within two years of working in Minnesota, my stepfather called and said that Citizens was in trouble. After a heartfelt in-person conversation, I took a leap of faith to return to Citizens Bank of Edmond, tasked with keeping its ownership structure the same and maintaining its independence. When I returned, I found fraud, mismanagement, erroneous financial statements and a bank in shambles.  I’m still learning all of the nicknames that staff and community members had for me during that time. As I look back on the experience, the “toughness” garnered from the Army was absolutely essential to our recovery and my ability to survive it. We became one of the fastest turnarounds in the nation without adding capital. After a long and hard fought battle, I was challenged in rebuilding trust in a bank that had been on life support and rebuilding my own reputation both in the bank and in the community.

Regulators released us from our Written Agreement in 2012. At that moment, I had paid my own way to attend the ICBA convention and was sitting in a session on social media. I had previously seen the power of social media when I moved to Grand Rapids. I would meet someone on the street, send them a Facebook friend request and the next meeting would be like we were old friends. The speaker discussed how using social media can drive your search engine results to what you want others to see. At that time, if you googled “Citizens Bank of Edmond” or even “Oklahoma Bank,” you would see negative stories about our bank. During the session, I received a call from the State Banking Commission announcing the release from the Agreement and I joined Twitter that same day.

In 2013, we made the decision to sell our branch locations to ensure the long-term independence of Citizens. We decided that we could retain the personal banking service by providing a video-enabled ATM machine close to those locations that we sold. As we got closer to the sale, it was clear that a vendor was not going to deliver on the interactive teller machines as promised. We worked with two local tech firms with less than a few weeks before deadline to develop an interactive device at the ATM. Rather than purchasing the six-figure ITMs, we were able to produce our version for less than $20k and now we resell the product to other community banks. We utilized YouTube videos and social media to explain the branch consolidation and had no net customer loss with the change.

At the same time, social media for the bank was taking off. I had signed up for Twitter, watched how others interacted and quickly found that there were quite a few people tweeting about my bank. If you searched for “Citizens Bank sucks” at that time, you’d find quite a few results and almost all of them were about “my” Citizens. I was proactively contacting these complainers and surprisingly found that they would in turn become advocates for the bank once they realized they were being heard. Now, they are one of the first to jump on a negative post about us and tag me because they know that someone on the other side is listening and helping with any issues they may have. It’s not uncommon for us to be resolving customer issues at 4 p.m. on a Saturday. In addition, when doing a search on Citizens Bank, it’s not uncommon to see “model community bank” or “community banker of the year” as top search results.

To celebrate Small Business Saturday in 2012, we hosted our first cash mob at a stationery store called Chirps and Cheers, located in Edmond. We gave $5 to each employee and told them to share selfies and photos of their purchases on social media while tagging Citizens Bank and the business. Chirps and Cheers had posted a sign “We love Citizens Bank” and that photo turned up on the front page of the Business section of the Oklahoman, the largest statewide daily newspaper. Staff morale, community perception of Citizens Bank and my reputation in the community were being quickly repaired.

Our social media presence has grown to a reach of more than 100,000 followers, fans and views across 13 channels. It became a digital extension of our team and bank. Cash mobs and our music videos were showcasing our personality as a locally owned bank that’s not afraid to have fun. I had been observing Bank of Ann Arbor, Mich.’s music festival, Sonic Lunch, and had hoped to host something similar in our downtown. We had also become a sponsor of the largest food truck event in the country, H&8th, located in Oklahoma City and many of Edmond’s citizens were contacting us saying that they would like something similar in Edmond. Citizens Bank of Edmond was quickly becoming the leader in our affluent suburb of Edmond to make Edmond cool again. So, we started “Heard on Hurd,” our version of a customer and community appreciation day on our street in downtown Edmond.

Heard on Hurd is meant to celebrate everything local including shopping, eating, music as well as banking. It’s similar to how a local community bank would host a customer/community appreciation event; ours happens to bring about 20,000 people to our bank in downtown Edmond. Through Heard on Hurd, we’ve had numerous features in the local press, tons of small business owners including pop up shops and food trucks switched to banking with us, and many people have stopped me during the festival to thank Citizens Bank for all they do for Edmond. It’s truly a sight to behold: thousands of people in the streets, kids playing with bubbles, thousands of likes, posts, shares and re-shares on social media and seeing the community come together to celebrate.

This is just the beginning. The turnaround of Citizens Bank was just the disruption we needed to change our story and look for ways to innovate and better our bank to serve the community for many years to come. We’re a small, but fiercely independent, locally owned community bank that’s 115 years young and unwilling to settle for the status quo. We recently completed a renovation that revamped our lobby, situated at the intersection we were founded on in 1901. The building’s original features include the terrazzo flooring with polka dots and vaulted ceilings. The lobby features an open concept with teller pods where a banker can help a customer with a quick transaction and then can switch over to café seating to discuss finances or open an account. The bank provides free Wi-Fi, coffee and refreshments and is a place where the community can gather for meetings or just a cool space to work remotely. We’ve also heavily invested in technology to continue to be relevant for the future.

Looking back, it’s easier to see how all the dots connect. Seemingly random situations led to choices that resulted in where I am today. Our oldest son is now following in his parents’ military footsteps to West Point; my bank and downtown are deeply influenced by my experience in Grand Rapids; the recovery of the bank would not have been possible without the lessons learned at the Federal Reserve and U.S. Army and I get to channel a bit of the community banking matriarch that influenced my life so many years ago.

I’m living my dream job as president and CEO of Citizens Bank of Edmond and I’m deeply grateful for where this journey has taken me.