Small’s Transition to CEO Is ‘Final Integration Step’ for Premier

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – When Gary Small adds CEO to his title on March 31, it will be the “final integration step” in the merger between what was once Home Savings Bank and First Federal Bank of the Midwest.

Since the two institutions joined to become Premier Bank, Small has served as president, while Don Hileman, the leader of First Federal, has been CEO. Effective at the end of the March, Hileman will become executive chairman of Premier’s board and Small will become president and CEO. The move has been part of the plan since the merger was announced in 2019, though the exact date was only recently disclosed in Premier’s quarterly earnings report.

“Don and I were the folks working to bring the organizations together without losing traction,” Small says. “We co-managed and have a wonderful relationship in doing that. What that meant for the leadership team is that often, they were speaking to both of us so we didn’t speed past one another.”

Over the past 15 months the pair has worked on “strategic, tactical things” to gain “a full understanding of both organizations and their impact as we moved along,” Small says. From the Home Savings side, that meant looking at the bank’s residential mortgage portfolio that’s been “well respected in northern Ohio” and figuring out how to expand that model across new territory in western Ohio, Indiana and southern Michigan. 

“There were commonalities between our two plans and differences because we had different streams of business,” he continues. “We had to figure out how to meld those so the strength of both was spread through the entire footprint of the new organization.”

Small’s transition to president and CEO of Premier Bank won’t have an impact on the bank’s day-to-day workings, he says. 

“We’ll continue to deliver on our community bank model, delivering leadership locally and making decisions locally. We each brought that to the table and that’s been maintained even though we’re a larger organization. We have a decision-making process that’s biased toward the local market,” he says. “It doesn’t mean changes relative to anyone downstream. Frank Hierro is still the local president and his team’s day doesn’t change because of this.”

The biggest change – if it can be called that – will be that Small will now the sole executive, rather than part of a pair. Throughout the past 15 months, the bank’s management team has been reporting to both him and Hileman. Now, there will just be one person.

“A lot of times when banks come together, they pick the name and brand of one and the change affects half the organization,” Small offers as an example of the combined leadership team working together. “For Don and I, we spent a great deal of time working with the marketing team to come up with a whole new brand statement and a name that reflects that brand.”

Any merger is no small fear, Small says, especially for two banks of Home Savings’ and First Federal’s size. An extra wrench was thrown in with the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting impact on business, both for Premier and clients.

“Bringing two banks together in any situation is a huge undertaking. Then let’s throw in rebranding. And let’s take 80% of our nonbranch personnel and have them work remotely while managing our customer experience because of COVID’s impact on the branches. Then let’s implement PPP and work with our customers through that,” Small says. “We had all these things going on at once when we thought it might be one or two at any given time.”

But he says, the circumstances of 2020 helped accelerate the transition from operating as two institutions to working as one.

“As an organization, the two teams came together much more quickly because there was a lot to do. Sometimes in merger activity, you get into picking out your best operating model and slow down making decisions, which is natural,” he says. “Now, there was a mission we had to address as one unit and it brought us together, even if it was remotely.”

Pictured: Gary Small will add CEO to his title on March 31. He’s been president of Premier Bank since the institution was created by the merger of Home Savings Bank and First Federal Bank of the Midwest.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.