Macon banker takes a chance that pays off

Even though the rocky economy is particularly hard on the financial industry, Macon native Mark Stevens has no regrets about starting his own bank seven years ago this month.

Stevens, 57, is president and CEO of Macon-based Atlantic Southern Bank which opened Dec. 10, 2000.

“If there is a calm banker in Georgia, I would like to meet them,” he said. “Everybody’s nervous. This economy is horrendous. I’ve never seen the banking business this bad in my 34 years” in the banking industry.

Stevens didn’t think about being a banker growing up in south Macon.

As a child, Stevens thought he might be a firefighter like his father, but that changed when he saw that his father had to work two jobs to make ends meet.

“I said, ‘I think I’m going to do something where I just work one job, not two,’ ” he said.

Stevens’ first job when he was 16 was working for the former A.S. Hatcher Co., a wholesale auto parts dealer. He pulled parts off the shelves to fill orders from auto repair shops.

He loved playing baseball and was starting catcher for the former Willingham High School when it won the state championship in 1969. He played baseball his first two years at Mercer University but never considered going pro.

“I was a little too slow,” he said with a smile.

But playing sports, he said, taught him a lot.

“It taught me discipline, it taught me to be competitive,” Stevens said.

When he was a senior at Mercer, his father-in-law, Jimmy Waters, sent him to meet Neal Ham, who was with the former Central Bank of Georgia, now Wachovia Bank. Ham later was a founder of Security Bank.

Stevens worked with Central Bank in the collections department from 1974 until 1986 when he took a job at the former Clayton Bank and Trust as the senior lender.

After a year, Ed Loomis, CEO of the former First Macon Bank and Trust, convinced him to return to Macon to work for him. After 10 years, the bank was sold to Colonial Bank and Stevens eventually became CEO.

In 2000, he left the bank and decided to get a group of investors together and start his own bank. That was the beginning of Atlantic Southern.

“I could see that working firsthand for an out-of-state holding company, you lose a lot of control over the destiny of a local bank and decision making,” he said. “I just felt there was a real need.”

Stevens considers it one of the best business decisions he’s made.

Atlantic Southern started off with 14 employees in a modular building on Forsyth Road until its permanent building was built behind it. In August 2007, the bank opened another office and branch on Bass Road at New Forsyth Road.

Now, Atlantic Southern employs about 185 workers in 16 offices in Georgia and one in Jacksonville, Fla.

Stevens said he’s troubled by the increasing number of bank failures around the country.

“I don’t think it’s good for any bank to fail,” he said. “I have sympathy for all the people who invested in those banks.”

Atlantic Southern has not had any massive layoffs, but it has cut back on employees through attrition.

“I think the banking industry will look very differently in five years than it looks now,” he said. “There are 8,500 commercial banks now in the country. I think in five to seven years you will see half of the banks consolidated. I think we will have three or four major banks that will control 80 percent of the deposits, and the remainder will be disbursed among other community banks.”

Joe McDaniel, associate pastor at Mabel White Memorial Baptist Church, has known Stevens since high school, and he included a chapter on the banker in his book, “31206 --- The Boys of Willingham High, 1958-1970.”

“I have known him both as a church member and as a friend and he’s my banker,” McDaniel said. “He’s the most honorable man I know. He has the uncanny ability to hire good people. He’s not threatened by having older, wise, more experienced bankers working for him because he understands you will be no better than the people you surround yourself with.”

Interestingly, Stevens recently hired Loomis — the same man who hired him more than 20 years ago.

Daniels said he knows exactly why Stevens has been successful: “I think he’s bright, he’s worked hard — he came up through the banking industry. He understands it. He’s willing to take risks.”

To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.