Published 12:00 am Monday, June 18, 2007

By Maggie Blackwell
For the Salisbury Post
Paul Fisher sat beside his dad in the car on the way to school in eastern Rowan County. They had gotten up early in the morning, milked the cow, bottled the milk, eaten breakfast, and dressed. Now, on the way to school, they were delivering milk. J.E. Fisher, Paul’s father, pulled up to the back doors and Paul ran to the porches with the milk.
As they passed the little Farmers & Merchants Bank in Granite Quarry where J.E. worked, he would reach over and smack Paul’s leg.
“Over there to your left, son, that’s a fine institution,” the elder Fisher said.
Paul always made it to school on time, and feels his first job taught him many life lessons ó about hard work, commitment, and how to treat customers.
Like many others in the county, the Fishers raised beef, pork, eggs and milk. J.E. had grown up on a farm, attended a one-room school, and attained a tenth grade education. He spent the remainder of his life educating himself. He learned banking by mail and by book, and proclaimed himself a student of the school of hard knocks.
As a young man, J.E. started at F&M Bank as a teller, honest to the nickel. He rose through the ranks to run the bank.
He was so honest, Paul recalls, that during the depression, when President Hoover made the announcement for all banks to close immediately, J.E. did not even stop to write a small check for his family’s expenses. He closed the bank, drove to a friend’s house, and borrowed $10 to tide the family over until the bank could reopen.
The federal government began the process of licensing banks for FDIC coverage, and F&M was one of the first to qualify and reopen.
“He was honest to a fault and went out of his way to avoid even the appearance of doing anything wrong,” says Paul, now the bank’s chairman and CEO.
J.E. had high expectations, for himself and for others. Paul carries the same trait, says Steve Fisher, his family’s third generation to work at F&M bank.
“How tall was Grandpa, Dad?” Steve asks. “Five-eight? And you’re five-ten? Here I am at six-three, and they stand so much taller than me.”
Steve flashes his trademark smile.
Father and son share the same priorities.
“A community bank is different from other banks,” Paul says. “The other banks, while they certainly do a fine job, focus on technology, on other things. We focus on people. People want to be valued.”
Steve agrees. “My grandfather taught my father, and my father taught me, it’s the ABC’s ó Attitude, Banking, Character.”
“The little bank on the corner was a place for people to express their hopes and desires,” Paul says. “We could help most of them so that they walked out with their hope intact.
“Dad was a ‘character lender.’ He would look into the eyes of the person and assess if they had integrity, and make the loan based on that.”I remember in 1933 Dad was approached by Eli Saleeby. He had come from Beirut, Lebanon, by way of New York and South Carolina. He wanted to borrow $600 to start a wholesale fruit business.
“Dad looked him in the eye and gave him the loan. Eli took pride in paying back his loans early. If it was a 90-day note, he came in to pay it off on day 87, then took out another loan to continue the business. He continued doing business with F&M and grew to be very successful, delivering fruit to Food Lion and other places. He was able to acquire Food Lion stock as well. “We always thought he was Santa Claus,” Paul says. “Every Christmas he came to the house with boxes of fruit for the family. He was not tall, and had a little round belly.
“In 1964, when dad passed away, his relationship transferred to me. We became good friends through the years. At one point, he asked me, ‘What can I do to repay your father’s giving me that first loan?’
“Well, I had a vision of starting a YMCA in East Rowan. Usually Y’s are located in the middle of cities, but I wanted one in East Rowan. I asked Eli to help. He gave me $2 million toward the project, and I was able to raise the remaining $5 million in six months.”
“That’s another thing Dad and Grandpa have in common ó vision, an idea, and the culmination of that vision,” says Steve. “They can look at the horizon and keep their eyes on the goal. I scramble every day to keep up with them.”
Of the five parks in Granite Quarry, three are owned by F&M. The Chamber of Commerce building was an F&M project, as was Easy Street, the Waterworks building, and the East Y.
The inevitable disagreements between the two ó “loud debates,” as Steve puts it, are tempered by their respect for one another.
“One thing worse than having a boss who is always right is when it’s your father,” says Steve, chuckling.Paul’s brothers and sisters all completed college and pursued non-banking careers. When Paul was in high school, he approached his dad about working at the bank with him.
“Dad didn’t have a college education, and I figured I didn’t need one, either,” Paul says. “I saw him sitting at this desk, writing things down, and figured he just needed to show me what to do.” He gives a wry smile. “It didn’t work out that way.
“Dad said if I wanted to go into banking, Chapel Hill had the best finance program, and I would go there.
“Mom and Dad drove me to Chapel Hill and set my suitcase on the sidewalk. I had come from a graduating class of 37, 38 kids at Granite Quarry High, and there I was at Chapel Hill.
“I was so homesick! The first month I wrote Dad a letter and said, ‘Why have you done this to me?’ ”
When Paul graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he was awarded the Wall Street Journal Scholastic Achievement Award for having the highest grades in the school of finance. His father gave him back the letter he had written that first month.
Paul started at the little bank in Granite Quarry in 1960 as a teller, working for his father ó who transferred his strong work ethic to his son. That work ethic might explain why the Fishers have 30-plus handicaps in golf.
“Back then, banks were closed on Wednesday afternoon; for whatever reason, they always were,” Paul says. “My buddy invited me to go golfing with him, and we packed up our bags and headed over to McCanless Golf Course. I was just teeing off when I saw a white head coming toward me over the hill.”‘Has something happened?’ I wondered. Dad came up and told me I did not have the afternoon off and to get back to work. I’ve just never cared for golf since.”
Like his father, Steve attended the University of North Carolina, although his route to banking was not as direct as his father’s.
“Dad told me I could go to any school I wanted, as long as it was in the city limits of Chapel Hill. My choices were Chapel Hill or Carrboro Tech. I chose Chapel Hill.”
Steve earned his bachelor’s degree in business from UNC, then went on to receive a law degree and an MBA from Wake Forest University.He and his wife, Robin, moved to Atlanta. They now have three sons.
“I told Dad I never wanted to live in Salisbury again,” he says, smiling.
After five years in Atlanta, he was offered a partnership at his law firm.
But, he says, “I just wasn’t making a difference in Atlanta. I missed that.”
He talked to his dad about coming home to work in the bank. Afraid the senior partner would convince him to stay, Steve sold the house in Atlanta and moved his family to Salisbury before telling him. He’s now F&M’s executive vice president and general counsel.
“It’s funny how God pushes you in the direction you should go,” he says.
Paul reflects on the importance of role models.
“Dad was a humble man, a little shy, and a Christian gentleman of the first order,” he says. “Dad died when I was just 26. My role model disappeared. I needed another father figure.
“I latched on to Enoch Goodman, a great man. He did not know it at the time, but he was. I had a chance to let him know before he died.
“Later in life, I latched on to another ó Jimmy Hurley. He was kind and taught me so much, especially about fund raising. I had two great role models, although I’m not sure they knew I was following their character. Everyone needs a role model.” Steve is clear about who his role model is.
“Following the footsteps of Paul Fisher is a daunting task ó it’s like following King Kong. You just scurry along and try not to fall in the footprints.”
He pauses. “I don’t know if one of my boys will ever come to work at the bank. I’d love for them to, but I won’t ask them.
“I do know this. Every day when we drive past the bank, I turn to them and say, ‘Son, on your left there, that’s a fine institution.’ “