A fourth-generation banking family

By Sarah Louise Klose

In 1910, William F. Dierberg Sr. bought Creve Coeur Farmer's Bank in Creve Coeur, Mo. The bank, founded in 1906, served residents of the small community near St. Louis. The French phrase crève coeur means "heartbreaking," but the bank—owned by the Dierberg family for four generations and now known as First Bank—has repeatedly bounced back from difficulties.

William Dierberg doled out cash to customers from apple bushels during a 1930s bank run. "It's no use hiding behind the counter. You might as well go out and face it," explains William's grandson, James F. Dierberg, 79.

On Jan. 1, 2016, Jim Dierberg stepped down as chairman of the bank. His successor is his son, Michael J. Dierberg, 47. Jim continues to serve on the bank's board.

Creve Coeur Farmer's Bank became Creve Coeur Bank, then changed its name to First Missouri Bank in 1973; it became First Bank in 1986.

Jim Dierberg joined the bank in 1966. When he took the helm, family members agreed to sell him their stock. "When you are young, you have a lot of self-confidence," he says. "I wanted it to be long-term if I was going to do it."

During his tenure as First Bank's leader, Jim acquired banks in Illinois, Texas and California following the 1970 Bank Holding Act. First Bank held 90% of the county farm loans when the 1980s recession hit, and recapitalized one bank three times. The bank downsized during the mortgage crisis and oil price plunge. "When the tide goes out, it takes all the boats," Jim says. "We had a lot of banks in Texas, and those are the ones we sold."

Chairman Michael Dierberg knows there will be future recessions. "About every 15 years, you find out if the benefit you get is commensurate with the risk you took," he says.

Today, First Bank has $6 billion in assets and 110 retail branches. The bank employs 1,500 people and generated revenue of $204 million in 2014.

Retired chairman Jim Dierberg runs wineries on family land in California. The family also owns an inn and winery in the German settlement town of Hermann, Mo. Other relatives operate Dierbergs Markets, a 30-store grocery chain in Missouri and Illinois.

Michael Dierberg started out at the bank counting canceled checks and rotated through credit review and marketing. His father advised him, "Get experience, especially if you'll run the bank at a young age," he says. He taught English in Argentina, earned a University of Texas law degree and litigated for the Office of Controller of the Currency, a Washington, D.C., bank regulatory agency.

Michael became First Bank's general counsel in San Francisco, but missed litigation and returned to Washington to work on Department of Justice trade cases. "The downside was, I didn't have the connection with the bank that I wanted," Michael says. He rejoined First Bank in 2010. "My dad's office is right down the hall," he says. "My sister's a director, so I get to interact with her, as well."

In 2014, non-family member Tim Lathe joined First Bank as CEO after top positions at National City and KeyBank. He says found "a superior veteran team who has seen the company through dark days" and is adding "a mix of new people with fresh ideas," including Shelley Siefert from National City, who joined as First Bank's first chief operating officer.

Lathe says key business lines are treasury management, residential mortgages, and wealth management. The bank also offers commercial banking and retail banking. Assets are split 50:50 between the Midwest and California. Lathe predicts organic growth and has worked to connect operations in a centralized way.

Lathe says he enjoys working for a private bank. "There is no analyst to say you zigged when you should have zagged," he says. Three Dierbergs serve on the nine-member board: Jim, Michael and Michael's sister, Ellen Dierberg Milne. "These folks know what they're doing and where they want to go," Lathe says.

"We're a family-owned bank that caters to family-owned businesses," Michael Dierberg says. "I think a lot of folks understand and appreciate that."

Sarah Louise Klose is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

Copyright 2017 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

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January/February 2017

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