Not many banks are in a celebratory mood this year given the upheavals on Wall Street. But one small Chester County bank with three women at its helm is not only toasting its 125th anniversary but also five generations of family involvement in bank operations. And to top it off they are having a very good year.
“We have flourished in this economy. People have been pulling their money out of Wall Street and putting it with us,” says the National Bank of Malvern board chairman, Lydia Willits Bartholomew.
In an industry that is male-dominated, Bartholomew and her sister, bank president Barbara Shipp, run the family-owned bank with daily guidance from their mother, 95-year-old family matriarch Lydia Willits.
“My mother always says: Let the big banks take care of the big customers; we”ll take care of the smaller accounts. Being a small bank is what we’re about,” says Bartholomew, whose grandfather was the bank’s first cashier.
A fixture on King Street in quaint Malvern for well over a century, the bank has gone from horse-and-buggy customers to drive-through depositors; hand-written ledgers to computerized banking; and has weathered the financial panics of the Depression.
“If it hadn’t have been for the people of Malvern, the bank would have had to close during the Depression,” says Shipp. But, “they kept their money here and didn’t pull it out.”
Malvern’s main street was a dirt road when the nationally chartered bank opened for business in 1884. Lydia Willits” grandfather was one of “32 leading men of the community” who founded the National Bank of Malvern, according to the original minutes book.
Three years later, the brick Victorian three-story building on King Street was built opposite the train station. The bank has retained its vintage appearance with the original vault still in use today. Antique tall case clocks keep time and memorabilia is on display.
“We debated about modernizing in the 1970s,” says Bartholomew, “but there’s so much history here.”
The second floor was laid out as apartments in case the bank failed. Lydia Willits was born in one of the apartments above the bank. By then, Malvern had become a flourishing town and her father, Charles Corson Highley, was working his way up from cashier to bank president.
Willits, a birthright Quaker whose ancestors sailed to America shortly after William Penn’s arrival, attended Swarthmore College, where she captained the women’s swimming and track teams. After college she went to New York City and worked in the organization of activist Margaret Sanger in her efforts to promote birth control.
After returning home, Willits began working in the bank along with her late brother, George Highley, who eventually became bank president. As part of the Depression generation, they ran the bank very conservatively.
“They worked hand-in-hand for years, with no salary, to have the bank survive,” says Bartholomew. “My mother still works here and she still doesn’t take a salary.”
With many of its customers living in rural Chester County, the bank has been a great supporter of land preservation. “We’re a leading lender for preservation of open space and farmland,” says Bartholomew. “We have over 1,000 acres financed in Cheshire hunt country.”
Bartholomew, who owns Lucky Hill Farm in East Bradford Township and rides with the Cheshire Hunt, gets up early to tend her horses before heading off to the bank. She can be spotted in the parade of carriages at such area race events as Winterthur and Radnor. Usually accompanied by one of her four children, she drives a single-horse, two-wheel Meadowbrook carriage built around 1890.
Grooming the next generation to lead the family bank is an ongoing process. A rite of passage for younger family members is working as a teller during the summer. Jamie Bartholomew Aller, 28, a Harvard-trained lawyer working in New York City, says working in the bank taught her a lot about the dedication it took for earlier generations of women to succeed. “My grandmother is very hands-on and willing to dive in and work. And my mother [Lydia Bartholomew] is very good at personal relationships and expanding the customer base.”
Being surrounded by strong women is a plus, according to Barbara Shipp’s son Bill, 35, a bank director. He explains: “The reason this bank has survived and the reason this bank is successful is because of the tenacity of the women who manage this bank.”