First Financial Bank turns 160: Hamilton-founded institution emphasizes personal connection

‘Branch of the future won’t be what you’ve seen in your life,’ president says.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

The future of banking will see more digital and self-service tools for customers emerge, but the CEO of First Financial Bank also believes that future includes a deeper, personal customer connection.

First Financial Bank celebrated last week its 160th anniversary in business, being founded as the First National Bank of Hamilton, Ohio. It was granted its charter on Aug. 10, 1863, under the National Bank Act, and opened for business on High Street on Aug. 15, 1863.

The First National Bank grew over time, and as it grew and changed names ― it became The First National Bank and Trust Co. of Hamilton in 1923, First National Bank of Southwestern Ohio in 1980, and First Financial Bancorp in 1983 ― it eventually became one of the largest banking institutions in Greater Cincinnati. In April 2018, the bank finalized a deal to merge with MainSource Bank.

And now, banking is distancing itself from how people banked decades ago.

“When I started in banking, we told the customers how and when they were going to bank,” said First Financial CEO Archie Brown. “We said, ‘Here are the hours. Here’s where you come.’ Back then, we had ― I called them cattle ropes, like you had at Kings Island ― you would get in line, and you wait until you saw a teller. Or you waited until you were seen by a loan officer. That’s how it worked.”

Today, it’s a 180-degree turnaround, he said, as customers dictate when, where and how they want to bank.

“The good news is that’s how it should be, and it’s much better for the customer than it was in the ‘70s or ‘80s,” Brown said.

But as transactional interactions become more reliant on self-serve and digital tools, today’s branches will transform into a fully advising function.

“The branch of the future won’t be what you’ve seen in your life,” Brown said. “One, there’ll be fewer, and they’ll have an array of advising functions in them. It’s not just a traditional retail branch or box. It’s going to be an extension of the bank.”

That means officers who handle services such as mortgages, financial advising, commercial lending, wealth advising and commercial real estate lending will be in these branch buildings, and in turn, “I think there’s going to be a deeper connection to the personal,” Brown said.

“Consumers and businesses are still going to want the human connection,” he said, adding that they’ll continue to focus on how to help people thrive, in a deeper way, to become more financially independent.

Brown said while they are larger than what the used to be, they still focus on the “idea of coming from a legacy of community banking, which gives us the ability to be more personal, more responsible, more flexible.”

“It’s making sure we don’t forget those roots, and making sure that stays within our DNA,” he said.

Greater Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Dan Bates said it’s amazing for the city to have “a major financial powerhouse” with roots planted in Hamilton’s soil 160 years ago still intimately involved today.

“First Financial has been a great partner with the city, they’ve been a great partner with the chamber and local businesses,” he said. “But they are always readjusting where they are and they see if they can even be a better community partner, and they take steps to do that.”

Bates said Brown had previously met with him to seek his opinion on the community ― “He wanted to know, what’s important to you in this community, and what role can we take to help move that forward,” Bates said ― which is something not many CEOs of major institutions do.

Brown, who started with the High Street bank in 1984, still holds regular office hours in Hamilton, to be able to work in the community.

Having that continued presence in the city, even though they relocated the headquarters to Cincinnati nearly 15 years ago, Hamilton City Manager Joshua Smith said cities like “rely on our long-time corporations for leadership, job creation, and philanthropy.”

“Having a bank like First Financial in our community for 160 years is special,” Smith said. “Their continued presence and investment in Hamilton is appreciated.”

While First Financial Bank has grown over the years through mergers and acquisitions, Brown said short-term, and long-term growth will be focused on the client.

“We are trying to build excellence around organic client growth, that is the sole thinking we do with the company with the initiatives we have underway are all focused on that ― how do grow more core clients, how do we be client focused, and how do we focus and continue to engage in a way that maximizes and optimizes their capabilities, because if we do that, they’re taking care of the clients.”

Past First Financial Bank presidents

Micajah Hughes, 1863-1883

Philip Hughes, 1884-1892

Asa Shuler, 1892-1895

S.D. Fitton, 1895-1919

E.G. Ruder, 1920-1932

John Beeler, 1933-1946

Don W. Fitton, 1946-1961

Russell W. Thomas, 1961-1963

A.D. Fille, 1963-1966

Richard J. Fitton, 1966-1991

Stanley N. Pontius, 1991-2003

Claude Davis, 2004-2018

Archie Brown, 2018-present

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