By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 18, 2008
TIGHTWAD, Mo. -- When Ellen T. Lindsey picks up the telephone in this flyspeck town, the first question, more often than not, is "Are you a real bank?"
Lindsey, the new manager, assures the callers that the institution is, indeed, real.
Tightwad Bank may be quirky and unproven, but it is a genuine bank with a real charter and a real vault and a pair of real bankers in charge. For good measure, the business cards say: "Tightwad Bank. Member FDIC."
"We're seeking the customers with a sense of humor," said Donald S. Higdon, 54, who opened Tightwad with his business partner in May after they grew bored with running a sober-sided bank in neighboring Kansas. "We thought the downside was limited, the possibilities were reasonable and the amount of fun was limitless."
If the concept does not work out -- this is the second attempt at making a bank called Tightwad profitable -- Higdon jokes that he can turn the place into a drive-through liquor store.
Coming from Kansas City, about 90 miles to the northwest, you have to drive through Peculiar to get to Tightwad. The next town east is Racket.
Not far away are Blackjack, Wisdom and Fair Play.
"Everybody just asks where it got the name," said shopkeeper Mark Huey, 37, whose family owns the Tightwad C Store on a main drag so short that "if there wasn't a curve in it, you could see both city-limits signs."
The story told by Huey and everyone else starts with a postman who coveted a watermelon. It was the early 1900s, and the mail carrier, making his rounds, made a deal with the grocer to set it aside until the end of the day. But when he returned, the melon was gone -- sold to someone who agreed to pay 50 cents more.
As lore has it, the postman called the grocer a you-know-what, and the name stuck.
The first Tightwad Bank opened in 1984, the same year the town was incorporated. In fact, it was a branch of the Citizens Bank of Windsor, established first in a parked trailer with a safe bolted to the floor, and then in the formidable one-story brick building that is still standing.
Twenty years ago, Tightwad residents saw riches in the development of nearby Truman Lake, imagining a lively resort, maybe an amusement park or a water show. The bank would be well positioned to profit, but the boom never happened. To this day, the city-limits signs say "Pop. 63." Triple digits seem a long way off.
The Tightwad branch counted assets of more than $2 million at its peak, but managers closed the lobby in the late 1990s after two robberies. With the novelty worn thin and only a single drive-through window staffed, it did not take, well, a tightwad to see that the numbers no longer made sense.
The bank, then owned by UMB Bank, closed in January 2007.
Higdon heard the news one day when he was watching the local weather.
"The proverbial light bulb went off. I thought that might be fun to play with that name a little bit," explained Higdon, a career banker who had teamed with partner Jeff McCalmon to buy the 100-year-old Reading State Bank in nearby Kansas. He called his wife and McCalmon, expecting them to say it was the nuttiest idea ever.
They didn't. So Higdon contacted UMB about buying the building. He also set out to register
the Internet domain name tightwadbank.com -- only to discover that someone else in Kansas City had experienced his own proverbial light bulb. When they were unable to come to terms, Higdon reserved tightwadbank.net instead.
Higdon and McCalmon, who had built the Reading bank's assets from $4 million to $12 million, needed approval from state and federal regulators. They also needed a strategy, not to mention a bank manager, computers -- and customers. Until the feds signed off this year, the bankers remained true to the Tightwadian code by refusing to spend money on new signs.
Along the way, the partners took another big step: They renamed the Reading bank, too.
"I thought, let's step out on a limb here and name the bank Tightwad," said Higdon. "To be really frank, the customer base in Reading, Kansas, was not too excited."
As Higdon was telling his story, he spotted a man and a woman climbing off their motorcycles to pose by the Tightwad sign. They turned out to be Lyndon and Debra Abell, D.C. residents touring the back roads.
"The Tightwad store was okay," Lyndon Abell said, explaining the photograph, "but the Tightwad Bank was too good to pass up."
That is what some of Lindsey's callers say, too. Like their predecessors during the bank's previous incarnation, they want to know how to open an account and draw checks on Tightwad Bank.
Higdon's challenge is to convert curiosity into cash.
To supplement the take from deposits, which have grown from zero to about $1 million, the bank sells Tightwad gear -- $14 hats, a $9 mug, a $30 polo shirt.
The next product will be a Tightwad Bank gift card, designed for "your favorite uncle, also known as Cheapskate Charlie."