Interview with Ja Hillebrand

Natasha Munshi

Episode 2: James Ja Hillebrand is a Bellarmine Alumnus, CEO of Stock Yards Bank & Trust, and recently elected chairman of the board for Stock Yards. Newsweek Magazine recently named Stock Yards Bank & Trust one of America’s best banks for 2021 and named them the Best Small Bank in Kentucky. Listen to Jim and Ja discuss issues related to COVID’s Impact on our economy and where we go from here.

Founded in 1904, Stock Yards Bank & Trust is based in Louisville and expanded to Indianapolis, and Cincinnati. Stock Yards is a publicly traded company (SYBT on the Nasdaq). Stock Yards has approximately $4.3 billion in assets. One thing that makes them different from other community banks is their wealth management and trust department which oversees approximately $3.5 billion. Ja explains how and why the bank decided to expand to its current regional presence.

What Does the Term Community Bank Mean?

Ja discusses the many things that makes a community bank different, and he states that the key difference can be seen in the service style. This means keeping decisions local, listening to customer needs, and taking care of them first. It’s about building true relationships with their customers. The regulatory oversight is the same as that of other banks. Localized decision-making enables Stock Yards to make decisions more quickly regarding customer needs.

Stock Yards is primarily commercial bank. The bank can handle commercial real estate loans, equipment leases, lines of credit, merchant services and other financial opportunities. Relations typically expand into personal banking services and retirement plans for the company owners, managers, employees and their families.

How Did SYP Handle the CARES Act/PPP Loan Activity?

The environment was extremely fluid. SYB processed roughly 3,400 PPP loans ($650 million). They kept the loan processing local to enable SYB to react to the situation. It was all-hands-on-deck for the team. For 29 days in a row, the team was inputting loans 24-hours a day.

Stock Yards Bank gave priority to its current customers for most of the round-1 money. Later, they were able to expand to handling loans for business that didn’t have a previous relationship with SYB.

What Might a New Round of Stimulus Involve?

There are still funds available from round-2 of the PPP funding. The next round of stimulus is currently being negotiated. 

Ja explains why the program needs to focus on the small businesses (i.e. restaurants and hospitality) are seriously struggling. The challenge right now comes down to politics. If more relief funding isn’t made available, we could see many more small businesses failing in the second quarter of 2021. Going forward, businesses may be required to show how they’ve been harmed during the COVID crisis in qualifying for the funds.

Industry-wide, company balance sheets are fairly healthy. Currently, there doesn’t appear to be a significant issue with past-due accounts or credit problems, but the fear is that it may happen in the near future.

What are some of the Challenges and/or Changes Going Forward?

Ja discusses the challenge businesses have with getting clarity regarding the economy. He encourages business to continue to watch expenses and watch for strategic opportunities to surface. Rates are low, so reevaluate your loans. Is there an opportunity to restructure?

Margins for the banking industry are pretty low. This is a very competitive time for banks to try and obtain good solid businesses and as a result there is little to no room for mistakes.   

For consumers, mortgage rates are at a low. Review your household finances, consolidate debt and plan to pay it off earlier. This is the time to take advantage of the low rates.

Ja’s gut feel is that 2021 will be tough. However, 2022 has better potential for a recovery. 

How Can Stock Yards Bank Help?

There are a lot of ways to use technology to use banking services. It’s that personal relationship with a banker, just like your accountant, attorney and insurance agent that can make a difference for a business owner.

It’s time you start building a relationship with a banker, and if you do not have a banker, call Stock Yards. 

Ja Hillebrand’s Advice for Someone Considering a Career in Banking

Don’t neglect the value of putting in the work. Stock Yards has a management training program. Ja went through one. It was a way to learn the various operations inside a bank. It's a great training ground for a college graduate. 

If you’re an undergrad, consider a summer job at Stock Yards Bank, as a bank teller. There are part-time for opportunities available during the school year. This is also a good springboard for the management training program.

Careers at Stock Yards Bank:

At the end of the day, it still comes down to being willing to do the hard work. Don’t forget the soft-skills that need to be honed. These include picking up the phone to actually speak with people and sending thank you notes. You’ll stand out from many of your peers.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed during the Bellarmine on Business podcast do not necessarily reflect those of Bellarmine University, its administration or the faculty at large. The episodes are designed to be insightful, thought-provoking and entertaining.


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