Charlie Cross considers himself a competitor. It’s a trait that’s served him well in nearly 25 years as a community banker, the past 20 leading the growth of one of the last family-owned banks in Arkansas.
“Competition has never bothered me,” he said. “I am a very competitive person, and the more there is, as a bank, we’ve really seemed to rise up and meet those challenges and do well.”
Cross, 47, has spent the past 20 years at Eureka Springs-chartered Cornerstone Bank, a $202 million-asset lender with 65 employees and four branches in Carroll County, another in Madison County (Huntsville) and a loan production office in Shell Knob, Mo., near Table Rock Lake.
Cross’ family has owned the bank since 1929 when his great-grandfather, former Third District Congressman Claude A. Fuller, bought controlling interest in what was then called Bank of Eureka Springs, founded in 1912.
After beginning his banking career in Tulsa in 1992, Cross returned to his hometown as vice president of the bank, an heir apparent to his father John Cross, the bank’s longtime president (and now chairman of the board).
By 2001, the younger Cross was in charge of the bank’s day-to-day operations and was recognized as a member of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal’s Forty Under 40.
Over the past 15 years, the bank has been on a steady growth path, in terms of both brick-and-mortar and assets, and Cross has remained a leading figure. He was named president of the bank in May 2002 — coinciding with the groundbreaking of a new financial center in Eureka Springs — and added the title of CEO in 2008, overseeing an organization with $122 million in assets at the end of the year.
That same year, though, the bank made a significant change when it rebranded to Cornerstone Bank. Cross said the decision was made with the long-term goal of expansion in mind.
“When I approached our board and our stockholders about taking on a decision of that magnitude, it was strictly about setting our franchise up to grow into other markets,” he said. “Having the name ‘Bank of Eureka Springs’ may not resonate in other places, so it was important to get a more generic name, for lack of a better term. It has been a very good move for us.”
Cornerstone’s assets have grown nearly 30% the past three years, and the bank had income of $3.1 million in 2015. It has also made good on plans to enter new markets, opening full-service branches in Berryville (2009) and Huntsville (2015), and also the LPO in Shell Knob (2015).
The Huntsville and Shell Knob locations are the first Cornerstone locations outside of Carroll County, and there are imminent plans for future expansion. Cross said the bank has a piece of land under contract in Harrison in adjacent Boone County, and is expected to close on the purchase before the end of the year.
“We’ll start construction as soon as possible after the first of the year, and we’re excited about that,” he said. “Every de novo branch we have [opened] so far has exceeded our expectations, quite frankly. Huntsville is performing ahead of our forecast. We’re growing at a really strong clip, and we hope that trend continues.”
Cross said he doesn’t consider himself “a real political guy,” but he senses the results of the presidential election will be good for community bankers moving forward. President-elect Donald Trump has said he would rescind, or at least scale back, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which was signed into law in July 2010.
“I do think economically speaking, there’s no doubt the [Trump] policies line up better and are more advantageous to the banking industry in general,” he said.
As for future expansion, Cross said Benton and Washington counties are certainly plausible areas for growth, and are markets the bank keeps an eye on.
“It’s a competitive market, and we want to be mindful of that as we go forward. But it is intriguing to us,” he said.
Cross, who has three children, is a board member of Ozark Guidance Center in Springdale and also advises the board of the Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce.