The Common Good
January-February 2000

Sowing in the Corners

by Ryan Beiler | January-February 2000

Founded by a handful of Oklahoma farmers in 1903, family-owned First Bethany Bank &
Trust recalls some of the finest traditions of small-town business.

Founded by a handful of Oklahoma farmers in 1903, family-owned First Bethany Bank & Trust recalls some of the finest traditions of small-town business. While corporate giants often combine the worst of old and new—exclusion of minorities and ruthless modern efficiency—Bethany nurtures the best: community trust with enlightened social concern.

"Instead of shareholders, what we have are stakeholders," explains First Bethany’s president, Peter Pierce. So instead of answering to purely profit-motivated third parties, Pierce says, "we can sacrifice short-term profit for long-term goals."

These goals include the success of women and Latinos. Such groups often fall victim to corporate America’s attitude, says Pierce, "that if you don’t look, think, and act like them, you’re not credit worthy." Acknowledging that 38 percent of businesses and 50 percent of capital in the United States is controlled by women, and recognizing the hard-working, family- and faith-centered values of the Latino community, Bethany nurtures their dreams out of enlightened self-interest.

"There are going to be success stories," says Pierce. And those successes create contagious customer loyalty. Some customers, such as the Carmelite Sisters, switched to First Bethany in recognition of the bank’s social conscience. But others come because Bethany understands their needs, because its involvement in the community (including relationships with women’s business organizations and the Latino Community Development Agency) has built a trust that can’t be found elsewhere.

To further encourage community involvement, First Bethany annually surveys its 60 full-time employees for their total number of volunteer hours. The bank then multiplies that total by $10, thus creating its charitable budget—with a cap at 10 percent of the bank’s net earnings—a corporate "tithe" of sorts. First Bethany then invests those funds exclusively at the grassroots level, ranging from scholarships for local students to group homes for people with AIDS.

Pierce explains First Bethany’s community focus with the metaphor of a modern farm. The tilled fields resemble ovals as huge machinery makes wide turns and can’t reach the corners. "I want the corners," says Pierce. "I want the unserved and the underserved." Though this style of niche marketing may be necessary for Bethany’s survival among giant competitors, Pierce lays down First Bethany’s bottom line: "Our real treasure is people. Money is just inventory." —Ryan Beiler

RYAN BEILER is the news/Internet assistant at Sojourners. First Bethany Bank & Trust, N.A., 6500 NW 39th Expressway, Bethany, OK 73008; (405) 789-1110; www.firstbethanybank.com.

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