The Fall and Rise of the Local Banking Industry

The Great Recession, which first reared its ugly head in 2008, has knocked down more banks in Georgia than in any other state. But amid the rubble, Savannah is still standing. National bank failures did not happen overnight, but the end result still rocked the nation. “Everybody’s perspective had been based on historical 18-month slowdowns and then everything picks back up again,” says Jim LaHaise, president and CEO of Coastal Bank. “Nobody had any idea that everything was going to come to a screeching halt in 2008.” When the market tanked, local bankers worked all day and well into the night. They endured ulcers, premature graying and divorce—all for the sake of protecting Savannah’s wealth. For these bankers on the front lines, working tirelessly to keep Savannah afloat, there were painful days post-recession.

“It was heart-wrenching,” says Jenny Gentry, Well Fargo’s market president. “There were customers you’d been friends with, because Savannah is a very small town, so you really get to know the businesses; you really get to know them. It was tragic. People lost their jobs not through any fault of their own. The stress on them was huge.” Seven First National Bank employees faced a 35-count indictment for defrauding their employer and other banks out of millions. Although this was a regular occurrence on the national and state scene, for Savannah, this was its only true failure. Savannah banks were able to pull through with the expertise of its bankers. “They don’t call us the State of Chatham for nothing,” Gentry says. “Savannah’s been blessed with a lot of good bankers.”