Thatâ€™s not a CAMELS rating, just a trio of camels crossing the welcome sign for Quartzsite, Ariz., where the Banker on Wheels Larry Marik and his wife Mary Ann found a branch of Horizon Bank, a dedicated community banking institution. Youâ€™ll find the connection between Quartzsite and camels later in this blog.
We have wanted to visit Quartzsite, Ariz., since before we became full-time mobile home travelers. Here, free spirits of the RV fraternity â€śdry camp,â€ť which means none of the water, sewer, or electrical hook-ups enjoyed in places like our usual winter quarters, Palm Creek Golf and RV Resort. Instead of living in a neatly groomed facility, they choose to park willy-nilly on open land outside Quartzsite thatâ€™s under the control of the Bureau of Land Management.
We were on a â€śreconnaissance run,â€ť using our car only in a foray from Palm Creek, planning a future trip in our Winnebago Journey motor home. We drove to this gypsy haven close to the western edge of Arizona. At the height of the Quartzsite season (January and February), there are over 300,000 RVs parked on Bureau land and an additional 30,000 to 50,000 in RV parks within the city limits.
All this in a town with a population of 3,500.
Hundreds of thousands of motor homes and other recreational vehicles come to Quartzsite, Ariz., annually to â€śdry campâ€ť on public lands. Dry camping--operating off the fuel, electricity, and water contained in your vehicle instead of from hookups--is also called â€śboondockingâ€ť by RV veterans.
Quartzsite is home to several annual flea markets. Itâ€™s quite an experience wandering past vendors selling things you didnâ€™t know you needed. We chose to visit during the annual RV show, and we did find a couple of things that we needed â€¦ and a few we didnâ€™t.
We can usually find ice cream, and this trip was no exception. We asked the lady in the ice cream shop about local banks, and she recommended Horizon Community Bank.
Horizon is not a â€ś9 to 5â€ť bank; itâ€™s an 8:55-5:05 bank.
â€śWe never want to have a customer look at their watch or be listening to the radio and find that we are not open at the appropriate opening time. So our plan to open 5 minutes early and close 5 minutes late turned into the unique hours,â€ť Jerry Ernst, the bankâ€™s president and CEO, told us. (See the bankâ€™s hours page online.)
The bankâ€™s office in Quartzsite is one of the four branches of this $160 million-assets bank that was founded nine years ago in Lake Havasu City. The other three branches are in Fort Mohave, Parker, and Lake Havasu City, where Ernstâ€™s office is located.
Jerry Ernst is a veteran community banker with over 20 years of CEO experience in both established and de novo banks. While he came to Horizon from a post in Florida, this job was a return to old roots. During the 1990s Ernst was president and CEO of a Lake Havasu City startup that he took into the black in five months.
Jerry told us that Quartzsite was the third office to be established, and itâ€™s the only one of the four that is not on the Colorado River. Quartzsite is just a â€śpit stopâ€ť for part of the year, but during the winter season business booms. That was obvious to us when we walked into a very busy lobby in Quartzsite. Tourism is a very major part of the markets of Quartzsite, Lake Havasu City, and Fort Mohave.
Parker lies in the Colorado River Indian Reservation, and here agriculture is a large component of the economy. Some of Horizonâ€™s customers are agricultural vendors who deal in fertilizer and pesticides. Jerry told us that the area was all cotton for a long while, but that some years ago farmers got away from cotton and went into alfalfa, peppers, and melons.
Now, with the situation in Egypt, there is again a demand for cotton. The area is now about 80% cotton and 20% wheat because of farmersâ€™ ability to forward contract the final product.
Jerry told us that Horizon is a typical community bank: â€śWe give our time, money, and talents to the communities we serve.â€ť A recent project in Lake Havasu City is a good example.
Because of the downturn in the economy, the city lost population, and consequently was forced to close one of its two middle schools. â€śArizona State University told us that if we could raise $2 million to help retrofit the school building, that it would establish a campus here,â€ť Jerry explained, and he and his wife were leaders in the drive.
The campus will open in 2012, so the communityâ€™s challenge is evolving. â€śNow weâ€™re shifting gears and raising scholarship money,â€ť Jerry said. â€śASU is by far the biggest thing since London Bridge came 45 years ago.â€ť (Robert McCulloch, entrepreneur and founder of Lake Havasu City, bought the actual bridge from London for $2.46 million in the 1960s and the relocated bridge was dedicated in 1971. Read more here.)
Like all community banks, Horizon encourages its employees to be active in local service clubs. The day we talked to Jerry, we were a bit pressed for time because Jerry was on his way to his weekly Rotary meeting.
The economies in the communities that Horizon serves had been tourist and construction-based, but the last good years were 2007 and 2008. Horizonâ€™s goal is to help these economies turn around. Real estate has been and continues to be a major piece of the economic engine.
Quartzsiteâ€™s "Hi Jolly" pyramid
Why is there a pyramid, topped by a one-humped camel, in the lonely, sandy cemetery of Quartzsite, Ariz.? It marks the grave of â€śHi Jolly,â€ť one of a number of camel drivers brought to the area to handle the imported animals that the U.S. Cavalry once thought could supplement the horses they relied on. Except that â€śHi Jollyâ€ť wasnâ€™t his name at all. That was a bad pronunciation by Americans of â€śHadji Ali,â€ť the name of the camel driver. Except that wasnâ€™t the birth name of the driver, either. Before his conversion to Islam (â€śHadjiâ€ť marks one who has made a pilgrimage to Mecca), â€śHadji Aliâ€ť was Philip Tedro, a Greek immigrant who went on to minor celebrity in the annals of the development of Arizona.
Stone pyramid marks the grave of â€śHi Jolly,â€ť the camel driver, centerpiece of the Quartzsite municipal cemetery.
By being creative and portfolioing real estate loans, Horizon was able to put together a loan process which put life into a real estate market that was struggling. They portfolioed loans that would normally have found their way to the secondary market which at this time didnâ€™t exist.
â€śWe could sell some of them if we wanted to, but right now keeping them inside helps the community and helps us. Our innovations were able to stabilize the real estate market, and Iâ€™m proud of that,â€ť said Jerry.
One example of Horizonâ€™s can-do philosophy: The bank was able to provide a house loan to a client with an excellent professional position. He had been turned down by another bank because he only had a two-year contract where he was employed. To Horizon, it wasnâ€™t that black and white; they knew there was a good loan to be made.
â€śCompliance has doubled the cost of a real estate loan,â€ť Jerry said with regret. â€śThe problem mortgages in this state were to the lower socio-economic group. Rules were made to protect them, but itâ€™s hurt everyone. The choice was to turn these loans down or risk a lawsuit.â€ť
One place the government has come through is the Small Business Administration. This has been vital to Horizonâ€™s relation with small firms. Without the SBA programs, some deals may not have been workable.
Horizon has found a creative way to handle compliance by using a risk manager. She helps support the CFO, but she is mainly in charge of compliance. Jerry said, â€śShe has done her very best. She attends webinars and goes to seminars. We were kind of lucky. Before I got here, she was not utilized to her fullest. She has a great peer network, and sheâ€™s done a lot to make sure our policies are current. Liaisons from each department meet regularlyâ€ť
In spite of the compliance burden, Jerry is a banker who clearly loves being a banker.
â€śI took this job because it juices me up and excites me,â€ť said Jerry. His parting words: â€śIâ€™m glad to talk to someone else who has community banking as a religion.â€ť
Larry Marik, with his emblematic sax, takes a few minutes for a jam session in a used book store in Quartzsite, Ariz.