When Jan Mills was in grade school, she used to visit her grandfather, who would write down names and places for Jan to explore. Intellectually curious at even a young age, she would do the research and return with pages full of notes. Grandpa was so impressed he rewarded her with dollar bills.
Flash forward to present day, and the fruit of the decades-ago exercise is a banker who respects the opportunity to learn and work with family, as well as a bank that supports education by offering cash to excelling students.
Mills, president of First National Bank of Winnsboro, Texas since 2003, is being recognized as a 2022 “Outstanding Woman in Banking” by BankNews magazine for her commitment to community, and her leadership at the $153 million family-controlled bank.
“He would ask me, who was Sacagawea? Or, what was the battle of Bull Run?” Mills recalled. “Education has always been important to me and my family. As I would get As, I would get paid for those grades growing up and that is the idea behind the bank’s ‘Pay for As’ program.”
Working with local elementary and junior high schools in the northeast Texas community of 3,500 people, the bank funds a cash prize to students drawn randomly from those who recently earned As and Bs. The program is just one of many ways the bank fulfills its mission to serve the community.
“I think the importance of a community bank in a town the size of Winnsboro is that we know our community; we are part of our community. Most of my staff was born and raised here. My vice president of operations, my senior lender and I all graduated from Winnsboro High School.
“We have a heart for Winnsboro and we have a heart for our neighbor, and you don’t get that with the big banks,” she continued. “It is not all just business when you are a community bank, but it is really all about relationships and taking care of your neighbors and friends and small business owners. When they succeed I feel like we succeed.”
Mills’ grandfather was part of the investment group that formed Etex Banco in 1964 to purchase the bank. They hired Mills’ father to be the president a year later. Today, 14 people own shares in the holding company, which owns a majority of the bank.
Mills has worked at the bank since she was 15, and has worked alongside her father, mother, sister and now a son during that span. Over the years, she has served in many roles at the bank, advancing from vice president of lending in 2003 to president, the first woman in the bank’s 129-year history to hold that title. She also is chair of the board.
Running a bank with three locations and 29 employees is an ongoing challenge, particularly with growing cyber risks, the rising interest rate environment, and a growing regulatory burden, she said.
“The powers that be in Washington, it seems like they are working overtime to come up with new and different or expanded regulations for us to follow and I don’t think they always put the thought that they should into how those regulations affect folks who are sitting in the banker’s seat,” she said. “Oftentimes [the rules] have a totally opposite effect of what [regulators] think they will in terms of helping the consumer. They actually handcuff our local community banks’ hands to where we can’t help and do the things that we want to.”
Mills said she learned leadership from her father. “Growing up, he always believed that if you had time off, you spent that time working and giving back to your community,” she recollected. “I think that is the leadership style that I have developed throughout the years, just trying to lead by example and don’t have anything that I would ask any of my employees to do that I am not willing to roll up my sleeves and do myself.
“I really do believe in collaboration,” she continued. “My ideas are not always the best ideas. In fact, they are usually not the best ideas. But by talking and communicating, I feel we can bring out the best ideas in any situation and come to the best solution for the good of the bank and whatever we are trying to tackle at the time.”
Mills said she believes in giving back to the industry which has meant so much to her. She is active with the Texas Bankers Association, and currently serves as its treasurer. She encourages mid-career women in the industry to persevere.
“I would give the advice to learn all you can,” she said. “Learn as much as you can in the various departments of the bank, how the bank is run, and not just in your immediate area of expertise but in other areas as well. Pick out a mentor and build a relationship with them and seek their advice and emulate what you see regarding their leadership style and career.