2019 Cenla-ian of the Year: R. Blake Chatelain
This article appeared in the June 2019 edition of Cenla Focus.
June 7, 2019
Blake Chatelain’s Cenla ties run deep. He sits relaxed in the Alexandria lobby office he’s inhabited for the past two decades in order to stay close to the customers who mean so much to him, reflecting on his life and career that, to this point, have seen him grow from his youth on the farmlands of south Central Louisiana to the some of the most prestigious boardrooms in the state. His outstanding business achievements, civic contributions and ongoing dedication to our community have earned him recognition as 2019’s Cenla-ian of the Year.
Blake was born outside Bunkie, is the son of Ronnie and Faye Chatelain. Though Ronnie is retired from CLECO’s St. Landry plant and Faye is a retired school teacher, much of Blake’s childhood was spent on the farm. “I grew up on the farm,” he recalls. “My grandfather and my uncle farmed rice and soybeans, primarily.” The farm life suited him well and taught him the value of hard work. “I had a great childhood, growing up with my brother, sister and cousins working on the farm from a very early age.” As the father of four sons, Chatelain knows the importance of those kinds of early lessons. “At times, I feel guilty for not raising my own children in the country because it was just a great way to grow up,” he explains. Blake attended Bayou Chicot High School, graduating in 1981. “There are a few of us proud Bayou Chicot grads around, Mike Jenkins being one,” muses Chatelain. Jenkins was, himself, the 2014 Cenla-ian of the Year. Following his high school graduation, Chatelain enrolled at Louisiana State University of Alexandria.
LSUA provided more than a place to advance Blake’s education; it greatly impacted the direction of the rest of his life. While at LSUA, Blake served as president of the Baptist Student Union, which put him in frequent contact with the school’s then-chancellor—and 2007 Cenla-ian of the Year—the late H. Rouse Caffey. During a BSU function, Dr. Caffey made a fateful introduction. “He came to one of our luncheons and introduced Belle [his daughter],” Blake recalls. The two began a courtship that culminated in their marriage in 1987. Blake departed LSUA after four semesters, transferring to LSU in Baton Rouge to complete his degree. “At that point in time, LSUA was still a two-year campus,” he explains. “Belle actually stayed in Alexandria and later transferred as well.” Chatelain completed his degree and graduated in 1985 with a bachelor of science in finance, a fitting beginning for the course of his career to come.
“When I graduated, I had two job offers, one was to go to work for Piccadilly, actually,” he quips, “and the other was to go to work for Hibernia, which had just acquired Guaranty Bank.” His decision proved to be fortuitous and Blake returned to Central Louisiana to start work in January of 1986. Two years later, Hibernia dispatched Blake to Monroe to open a loan production office with an eye toward future expansion. After a few years in Monroe, the Chatelains returned to Cenla again in 1991. “I was recruited to join First Commerce Corporation, which owned Rapides Bank in Alexandria,” Blake recalls.
“In 1998, First Commerce was acquired by Bank One, which is now Chase,” Blake explains. The transition from regional bank to the larger, national corporation meant the sacrifice of some of the benefits of hometown banking. “We felt like we were no longer going to be able to take care of our customers in the way they were accustomed to,” he recalls. “I felt like there was going to be an opportunity to start a new bank.” In June of 1998, Chatelain officially left Bank One and began to assemble the team and lay the foundations for what would become Red River Bank. The team included Wylie Cavin, Bryon and Tammi Salazar, among others. “Wylie had been involved in several bank startups—he was a lawyer by training—so he kind of knew the process,” explains Blake. The bank was incorporated as a Louisiana Banking Corporation on July 29, 1998. The team was able to acquire the necessary charter, licensing, FDIC approval and funding all in just over seven months—an astonishingly short timeline. “That process today, with the regulatory changes that have happened, would probably take two to two-and-a-half years,” he explains.
Chatelain’s belief that the community was ready to embrace a new, local bank was prescient. During the seven months of planning and preparation, the team was tasked with raising the necessary capital to begin operations. They were able to secure about $12.5 million in investment from the community. “At the time, it was the largest capital raise ever for a bank in Louisiana,” he recalls. Chatelain and his team set about the work of empanelling a board of directors and hiring the rest of the required staff in preparation for opening. Red River Bank officially commenced operations on January 14, 1999.
In any new endeavor, community support is key, but perhaps even more so is family support. Blake credits his father with instilling in him the drive to start something new. “My dad has always had an entrepreneurial spirit to him, and I think that part of business always intrigued me,” he says. Likewise, Belle’s support and contributions were both key. “She was encouraging of the idea from the start, even though it meant quitting a good job with four kids at home to take on the startup risk,” recalls Blake.
Chatelain has been at the helm of the bank as its president and chief executive officer from the beginning. In 1999, Blake was the oldest member of the Red River team at the ripe old age of 34. He’s overseen two decades of incredible growth and expansion. “January 2019 marks our twentieth year,” says Chatelain. “It’s been a busy twenty years, and we are celebrating the occasion. I think it’s important to always reflect on where you came from and that helps define where you’re going.” The way forward has followed the path of the bank’s namesake, traveling up the Red River into the Shreveport/Bossier market in 2005. Five years later, the bank expanded into the Baton Rouge market through acquisition. Most recently, Red River Bank opened its first location in Lake Charles with plans set to open a location in Covington. “We never want to lose sight of the entrepreneurial spirit that started the bank and keep that culture alive,” says Blake.
In addition to celebrating its 20th anniversary, Red River Bank made its initial public offering in 2019 and is now listed on the Nasdaq Stock Exchange. “As we reflected on twenty years, we had about 550 shareholders who owned the bank, so it is fairly widely held,” Chatelain explains. “We felt like listing on the Nasdaq offered our shareholders liquidity, should they ever need it while also creating the opportunity for future acquisitions, should we choose that option.” It’s a path that Chatelain has been following since the beginning. “We have always tried, since day one, to run the bank as if we were going to be public one day,” he continues, “so that if we ever did so, it wouldn’t mean a lot of change for our employees or our customers.”
Through all the growth, Chatelain remains adamant that the service and experience that customers have grown to know and expect from the bank will remain unchanged. “Strategically, what we’re trying to do is build a Louisiana super community bank,” he enthuses. “We’d like to continue to build out across the state. Our focus is on Louisiana. We’re not trying to capture the world, we just want to be a strong bank for Louisiana.” That focus on the customer service experience has been informed by principles gleaned from the Disney Institute, Ritz-Carlton Institute and other leaders in the hospitality industry. This kind of outside-the-box thinking gave birth to ideas like Red River’s fleet of three ice cream trucks that have been dispatched across the state to bring a little sweetness to celebrations and disaster recovery areas alike. “It’s part of our DNA,” explains Chatelain. “We spend a lot of time talking about our culture and what our core beliefs are, and we train on it constantly.” His dedication to the customer is palpable. “What I love most is when I get to meet with customers. I am the only guy who was here day 1 that has not moved offices and I am determined to stay in the lobby because it keeps me connected with the customers,” he enthuses. “As you grow your business, you never want to get detached from what makes you successful,” he continues. “For me, that’s sitting in a space where I can see our customers, I can get feedback, I can hear when we’re doing things well and I can hear when we make mistakes.”
Chatelain’s commitment to connection with the community reaches well beyond his lobby office. That is part of a set of core values that he works to instill in the culture of the bank. “We believe that bankers should be very involved in the community and that we should be leaders in trying to help our communities grow and prosper,” says Blake. “And so, we ask our bankers to find a cause they are passionate about and get involved.” To that end, he leads by example. Over the years, Chatelain has taken an active role in various organizations to better our community. That dedication has led him to work closely with the Red Cross, United Way, the Caring People’s Free Pharmacy and the Rotary Club. Currently, he serves as Chairman of the Board for the Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance (CLEDA). “Blake Chatelain is the kind of leader that any non-profit would want as its Chair,” lauds CLEDA President and CEO Jim Clinton. “He is visionary, pragmatic, patient and wise. He has been a priceless asset both to CLEDA and to me personally during our years of working together.” CLEDA’s mission is to help people prosper in vibrant, thriving communities by focusing on three major areas: major employers, innovation and entrepreneurship, and education and training. “At CLEDA, we work closely with the chambers of commerce to find ways to grow and improve our economy and bring jobs to our area,” Chatelain explains. “It’s a cause that I am passionate about and our team at CLEDA does a lot of great work in that regard.”
More than thirty years of hard work and dedication to the community has brought Blake’s life full circle in many respects. The former LSUA BSU president now serves as both a Deacon at his church and a member of the LSU Board of Supervisors. “I am grateful to have had the privilege of being a friend with Blake Chatelain for over 30 years,” says Dr. B. David Brooks, Senior Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Alexandria. “He places a high value on family, friends, and faith. His leadership is an asset to Calvary Baptist Church, our community, our state, and our world. He is a man of wisdom, vision, integrity, character, compassion, and humility. He brings out the best in others and empowers them to exercise their potential to the fullest.” Blake has served his alma mater for the last 11 years, having first been nominated by Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2008 as a representative of the 5th Congressional District. He was surprised when he first got the call. “I had never even thought about it and wasn’t looking for that kind of opportunity,” recalls Chatelain. “When I got the call, I was given about two hours to think about it,” he chuckles. Within those two hours, he accepted the challenge to represent the entire LSU system at the highest level. “I replaced Charlie Weems, who had done such a great job and was really a legend on the board. I was somewhat intimidated by the shoes I stepped into there,” he admits. Chatelain excelled in his new role. During his tenure on the Board, he has previously served as its chairman, chairman of the Athletics Committee for several years, and currently as chair of the Finance Committee. “When I think about public service, it’s certainly given me the opportunity to hopefully make a difference in an organization that really drives so much opportunity in across the state.” Nowhere is that impact felt more keenly than here at home. “Of course, here in Central Louisiana, LSUA is so important,” he says. “A university just brings so much to a community. The future of any community is going to be driven by our ability to retain our young people at home and to build the skills that are needed to help us continue to grow. LSUA is vital to Central Louisiana, and I think the growth that it’s shown over the past few years as it continues to transition to a vibrant four-year university is a testament to the value that it provides and our need for it.”
Through it all, balance is important in life for Blake. A licensed pilot, avid reader and enthusiastic hunter and fisherman, he strikes that balance by spending the majority of his downtime with his family. Blake and Belle have four adult sons—Daniel, Matthew, Zachary and Gabriel—and are the proud grandparents of a grandson, Drew, and granddaughter, Anna-Belle. As the morning sun shines through the glass windows of his beloved, bustling lobby office, he contemplates the passing decades. “As I think back twenty years ago, I’m not sure we had a vision of exactly where it would take us. But as I reflect, I do so with an incredible gratitude to this community who supported us, who believed in us and who embraced us. We are incredibly grateful; we couldn’t have done it without them.”