First National Bank of Park Falls and Phillips will transition to Forward Bank the weekend of May 3. The change comes months after a purchase agreement was reached late last year, and following regulatory approval granted earlier this month.

The deal consolidates First National’s $145 million average holdings with Forward’s $450 million in assets, according to company representatives.

The merger ends First National’s 105-year history in Park Falls, which began when a few dozen local stockholders obtained a federal charter to establish it in January 1914, as detailed in the Park Falls centennial book “100 Years on the Flambeau.”

Forward Bank is headquartered in Marshfield with bank locations along the Highway 29 and Highway 13 corridors, including offices in Marshfield, Greenwood, Medford, Stanely, Thorp, and Withee, according to the company website. The Phillips and Park Falls locations will be the northernmost locations.

All depositors will be retained by Forward and the company has worked to inform First National customers of any changes coming to their accounts.

All First National staff is expected to be retained, with some bank officers joining Forward’s corporate officer structure.

Tom Armstrong, president at First National, will continue in his role running the daily operations at the Park Falls and Phillips office locations, which will remain intact. Armstrong said that key to the decision to merge with Forward was the bank’s interest in small communities.

“You see banks leaving the area and small towns aren’t attractive to some of these big banks,” Armstrong said in an interview April 10. “To Forward it was, and I think that was the part of the marriage, the fit, and that was one of the reasons we pushed for it. Our small communities need a little boost once in a while, and a bank like [Forward], when they come in and they want small communities, you don’t hear that every day.”

For Forward, communities the size of Phillips and Park Falls are a good fit and bank closures by Wells Fargo and Nicolet National Bank left a vacuum in the area. This vacuum, along with the opportunity to work with an established community bank, were positive signs for a bank like Forward looking to expand.

“We knew that we could provide something a little bit different than any other bank in the area because we’ve got the non-profit focus, the giving niche,” said Jennifer Sobotta, vice president and marketing director for Forward Bank. “And that can give us a little competitive advantage. And being able to partner with First National Bank and offer them the tools and have the relationships established is huge for both of us. It’s got to be a win-win for both banks and the customers in this situation.”

Forward Bank is a customer-owned, independent community bank. Without shareholders to pay dividends to, the bank is able to drive revenue back into its products and services — such as no-fee deposits, free checking, and lower rates — and give back to the communities it operates in with donations to local organizations.

According to Sobotta, last year Forward gave out over $300,000 to local charities across its network.

“There are a lot of things we could offer, but if it doesn't match up to our mission, if it doesn't tie back to ‘how do we benefit Park Falls as a community, Phillips as a community?’ we don’t do it,” Sobotta said.

“You might think it’s a sales pitch, but it’s really the mission,” Armstrong said of Forward’s mission statement. “You go in there and it doesn't matter what department you go in, they all talk the same, about the mission.”

One major area of immediate change with the switch to Forward will be the available digital tools to customers, which, due to cost prohibitive development fees, were previously unavailable to First National customers.

Forward has a mobile banking app available in the iTunes and Google Play stores. The app allows for mobile check deposit, person-to-person transfers, is Apple Pay equipped, has a light personal financial management tool, and will soon feature the ability to switch a user’s debit card on and off.

The teams in Park Falls and Phillips will also be looking at servicing the area with more loan programs such as federal home loans and other programs they may not have had the specialized expertise to offer in prior years.

First National has two locations in Park Falls: 110 Second Ave. N and 1142 Fourth Ave. S., and one location in Phillips at 366 Lake Ave. S.

(Copyright © 2019 APG Media)

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