What a Wonderful Life.
Jill Castilla first wanted to be a banker because of the George Bailey-like bank in her hometown in Okmulgee. Now, as president, CEO and vice chairman of Citizens Bank of Edmond, she credits a lot of the same philosophies to how she financially turned around the bank and funded redevelopments around town – all while making a national name for herself and the bank.
When Jill Castilla was a 16-year-old growing up in Okmulgee, she bagged groceries at the local Homeland. Often, she’d carry out the groceries of the local bank chairman Lurlene Mabrey.
“The reason I wanted to go into banking was because of the chairman of the local bank in Okmulgee,” Castilla said. “She had such an ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ George Bailey persona. That’s why I’m a banker – I got to see that George Bailey bank in action.”
Jill Castilla is now president, CEO and vice chairman of Citizens Bank of Edmond, a local, community bank with more than 100 years in the community, working to recreate that George Bailey bank in Edmond.
She took command of the bank eight years ago and has shepherded its financial turnaround and community takeover since. That turnaround has occurred outside the typical model of community bank growth of acquiring smaller banks or being acquired by bigger banks. Instead, Castilla put the focus on community development and employee engagement with an employee stock ownership program. This approach both stabilized the bank that she had to work out from under a federal regulatory enforcement order review when she arrived, and it also has led to significant and steady growth during the last decade.
“We have just seen time and time again, if we do good, we will do well,” she said. “If we do the right thing and then the next right thing, and we really do have the intention to help the community, the bank will benefit financially. Whenever you do this good, other people and customers are attracted to you and they want to do good too – and everyone has a financial result as well.”
That approach has lead Citizens Bank of Edmond now to have $354 million in total assets, an increase from about $250 million when Castilla took over. In addition, the bank produces a 1 percent return on its assets and keeps liquidity for its shareholders.
“But these stable earnings leave a lot of room to do good for our community,” Castilla said.
Doing good through community development
Doing good for Castilla means finding ways to develop parts of the community around her. The bank started Heard on Hurd in 2014, a street festival in downtown Edmond featuring more than 60 retail and food vendors, pop-up shops and live performances. The festival started after the bank consolidated branches to focus and remain at their original location in downtown Edmond. Castilla said she wanted to work to revitalize where the bank started. This year, Heard on Hurd will have nine sessions, and sits among a downtown that now boasts more than 75 businesses.
“When we started Heard, downtown was really struggling,” she said. “We thought, ‘How can we make downtown Edmond be seen as a destination?’ And it has exceeded any expectations that we had. We serve this community. This is about building community and serving and creating the neighborhood block again. We want to be the neighborhood hero. If our neighbor is in need, we need to be the one that is helping.”
The helping-your-neighbor philosophy spills beyond the bank’s Edmond neighbors and into Oklahoma City, as well. Citizens Bank of Edmond also financed the first commercial project on the northeast side of Oklahoma City in 40 years – and funded projects many other financial lenders would not agree to fund.
“Thirty banks had told the Eastpoint project no,” she said. “We told them, ‘We’ll find a way to get to yes.’ It was really special to us. The people and projects are so motivating to our entire staff. And for us to see so many in our community impacted and for us to spend our resources to see that wide range of revitalization – it’s been lovely to be a part of.”
Being present in the gaps presented by inequities is a theme for Castilla. Recently, she saw an upcoming event for a Federal Reserve workshop about supporting black female entrepreneurs. She showed up and she was the only banker there.
“Black women small business owners have trouble with communication from the bank for both perceived and real barriers,” she said. “We need to make sure we are present in different communities, and if there are gaps, we want to understand their challenges with their bank and try to ensure those barriers are removed.”
Taking it to a national audience
Stabilizing the bank, revitalizing downtown Edmond and funding redevelopment projects in northeast Oklahoma City were just a warm up act for Castilla to have an impact on a national level. When COVID hit, and many of her clients began struggling almost immediately, she went into hyperdrive.
“I got a call from the Tower Theater, and they were seeing some cancellations with their shows; this was early on in March 2020,” she said. “We met really quickly with Tower, and we could see it happening. That meeting was so impactful and spurred us to start thinking about, ‘What solutions do we need at a federal level so small businesses don’t get crushed?’”
She then learned the first round of stimulus checks would be delayed.
“I filled up five whiteboards to see how I could get liquidity to these small businesses,” she said. “I called every single business customer to see if they needed deferments.”
Then things took off: Venture capitalist Mark Cuban, of Shark Tank and Dallas Mavericks fame, tweeted that he needed a “very agile FDIC, SBA preferred lender bank” that he could work with to get “cash advances into people’s hands ASAP.” Contacts started bombarding Castilla telling her she was the banker Cuban needed, and after she emailed a pitch of what she thought could be done, Cuban was on the phone with her to make it work.
“Mark called me after I emailed him a solution,” she said. “He didn’t like my first solution because I was trying to solve all the world’s problems, and he just wanted me to serve my community.”
So, she did what she’s been doing for years: She implemented her plan locally and banks started flooding her with requests to do the same in their communities.
“Three hundred banks and credit unions contacted us for our approach,” she said. “We were the matchmaker for thousands of loans for banks across the nation. Mark and I were conversing nonstop, and he would amplify any message I had to his audience.”
The two collaborated again when they streamlined the loan forgiveness application later in the pandemic. The application was 11 pages long and complicated, she said.
“Mark texted, ‘We’ve got to find a solution for this,’” she said. “I responded, ‘On it.’”
Eleven days later, they deployed a website, ppp.bank, that automated the application and created a PDF to provide to lenders. More than 250,000 businesses used it in the first week. Later, data collection companies offered to pay tens of millions of dollars for all the data that ppp.bank collected, but she never sold.
“We knew these businesses were trusting us with the data,” she said. “It was invigorating to see what an impact you could have and be able to mobilize resources of like-minded partners. It was really special. And I really believe that like attracts like, and you will get partners that have that same mindset.”
Castilla, who enlisted in the Army at 19 and married a now-retired Lieutenant Colonel, and who has raised three children – a West Point graduate and Army officer, a U.S. Naval Academy midshipman and a high school senior just named to the NextGen Under 30 Recognition Program – the kind of life she’s lead and the bank she’s transformed are just what you do.
“The challenges of life are what create the opportunities of life,” she said. “The challenges of the bank were to overcome its darkest days and transform itself into something very special. Those challenges make you understand it wasn’t those fancy names that helped us; it was those individuals that keep their deposits here that make us who we are. They will come running to you just like you would come running to them.”
How very George Bailey, indeed.