What Matters Most – 120th Anniversary Conversations with Gene Helbig

Today we talk with former Senior Vice President over Trust & Investments at First United, Gene Helbig. Gene chats about his tenure at the bank, his memories, his foundation (jackhelbig.org), and what the 120 years of trusted banking that First United has provided mean to him. We also realized that Gene was the creator of this podcast in its original form, as a conference call! We added that outtake portion of the conversation to the end of the recording.


​Man 1: Welcome to the “What Matters Most” podcast presented by First United Bank & Trust, That’s My Bank. Visit us today at MyBank.com.

Eric: Hello, and welcome to “What Matters Most,” the podcast all about finances, community, savings, and security for you, your family, and your business. This podcast is brought to you by the helpful folks at My Bank, First United Bank & Trust. I’m your host, Eric Nutter. And in today’s episode of “What Matters Most” is First United 120th anniversary. And for this discussion, I’m honored to be joined remotely today by Gene Helbig, former Senior Vice President over the trust and investments departments in First United. Hey Gene, how’s it going?

Gene: Just fine, Eric. How about yourself?

Eric: I’m doing really well, really well. So, I appreciate you joining me today. We’ve been having this ongoing series since the beginning. Actually, we’re recording this actually on November 16th, and the 15th was the bank’s 120th birthday. So, 120 years of First United and so we’re having this whole ongoing series where we’re talking with current and former associates just to kind of talk about the past and where we’re going and what’s been going on with First United and some of your favorite memories and thoughts about the bank. So, for you, tell us a little bit about how you’ve been? How’s retirement treating you? What’s been going on in your life?

Gene: That’s fantastic. Yeah, very good. Congratulations on 120 years. Well, you know, I retired on 11/11/11.

Eric: Wow.

Gene: So actually, I’ve been retired just over nine years now. Yeah, tell me, but I can’t believe that. So, anyway, after retirement, we lived in Oakland for a few years. And then as soon as Kathy could retire, we moved down close to our son and his family who live here in Southport, North Carolina, and Southport is just near Wilmington, and near the Cape Fear River, we’re about six miles from the beach. Retirement for both of us has been good, we’re healthy. It’s beautiful weather. We live on a little golf course and a little lake. So, we’re kind of ,like where we are.

Eric: Nice. Do you get to play a little golf?

Gene: I’m trying to learn. It’s not my best game.

Eric: I don’t think anybody claims it’s their best game. It’s just a game. It’s a game that we play.

Gene: It’s a humbling experience. It’s a humbling experience.

Eric: Absolutely.

Gene: So, other than that, I’ve always run, and I still bike. You know, so I joined the biking club, and I bike around a lot.

Eric: Nice.

Gene: So I do that. And we have an acre and a half, so we’re always out in the yard. And Kathy has a couple of gardens that she works on all the time. And then she volunteers at the library. And so that keeps it keeps us busy, now with the grandkids, we have three grandkids, we help them a good bit, as far as they all in different schools, going different times and busy. So we’re always carting them around one place or the other. And then as well, as you know, we’re involved with our foundation, and Kathy and I are both involved in that a good bit, although, COVID is kind of set us back this year.

Eric: Right.

Gene: As soon as we can get back in the schools again, we’ll be busy again with that. So that’s kind of what we’re doing.

Eric: Excellent. Well, tell us a little bit about your career at First United. When did you start?

Gene: Well, I’ve always been friends with Bob Rudy and Bill Grant, and Scott Rush. And at the time back in the early ’80s, I was a CPA and working in an accounting practice. And I just really didn’t care for the hours so much, because especially in the wintertime, we worked so long. So, I was looking for kind of a change, and they mentioned that there is an opening at First United, so I applied for it. I worked in the auditing department for about a year, maybe two years, knowing that there was eventually going to be an opening in the trust department. So, Courtney Tusing actually hired me and Scott Rush getting into the interviews and things. So, that’s how I got there. And then I worked there until 2011.

Eric: Wow.

Gene: And I was auditor and then I worked my way up through the trust department till eventually where I was in charge of the trust and investment department.

Eric: That’s cool. What other roles did you have? Was it just those two or you went straight from audit to, from trust?

Gene: Yeah, I went from audit and trust, I was always in trust, but there was a period of time back, way back before compliance was a big issue, I was the compliance officer. And I’ll tell you, that was nothing like what they do today. I mean, nothing. So, I can’t even, you know, claim that I know compliance is a huge, probably one of the bigger departments of the bank today. But no, it was just me and one other guy by the name of Bob Broadwater, we were compliance, and we both had other jobs, so.

Eric: Multiple hats.

Gene: Multiple hats, right?

Eric: For sure. How big was the bank back then in the early ’80s?

Gene: Well, I was thinking about that when they asked me to participate, and I think there were about 10, and there’s Friendsville, Grantsville, the main office, Mountain Lake Park, Deep Creek Lake, and I think that was Garrett County. And then there was Virginia Avenue, and then the main office in Cumberland, and then one in Piedmont. And I think there might have been another one between Kaiser and Western Port. So that was about it, about 10 of them.

Eric: Wow.

Gene: I think is all. I don’t know how many there are today 25, 26?

Eric: 25.

Gene: 25?

Eric: Yeah. It’s 25, which is quite a bit of expansion since back then, so.

Gene: Right. And some of these branches had been closed. So I know Virginia Avenue is closed, Piedmont is closed and I’m not sure from the others. So yeah, the expansion has been quite extensive.

Eric: Right. Yeah. A lot of change for sure as the markets shifted, as the dynamic of the different area is changed. So, you said… Go ahead.

Gene: Well, I was gonna say, I think the trust department when I took over was about $500,000.

Eric: Okay. In managed assets?

Gene: Yeah. And the bank may have been $50 million, I’m not sure. But I think the trust department today is hanging around a billion dollars.

Eric: It is. It is. And the bank is worth $1.4 billion. So, it’s certainly seen its growth over the last 30 years.

Gene: Well, Bill Grant, and I always, you know, every year I’d say, “Bill, I’m getting closer, I’m getting closer,” you know, because he was the CEO and he had the bankside and I had the trust side and every year we… Because our growth was much more dynamic, I mean, the bank doesn’t have to be biggest but the trust department does. So I would challenge him every year, “I’m getting closer, I’m getting closer.”

Eric: Trying to keep up?

Gene: Yeah.

Eric: So you said you were in accounting? You were a CPA prior to joining. And you mentioned that it was the long hours during the tax season, I’m guessing that…

Gene: Tax season. Yeah, and I had little kids, and I just wanted to do something else. And also, I’m more outgoing than an accounting firm. So, you know, I need to be around people and stuff. And so just working at the bank just in the trust department was perfect for me. And hopefully, I was good for it. But that’s why I went there. And just to let you know, I’ve had an account at First United since I was probably eight years old.

Eric: Really?

Gene: Yeah. I had a paper route when I was eight, and my mom took me down, and I remember we went down and we met with Dorothy [inaudible 00:08:55] and opened up a checking account to put my little bit of money in there that I made from my paper route.

Eric: That’s awesome. That’s really cool. And I’m curious, do you still have the same account number that you had back then?

Gene: I think I still have the same account number, but it’s evolved over the years because the accounts have changed

Eric: Right. Just the way that they’re structured and designed. Yeah.

Gene: Yeah. But no, the account number I can still quote the account number

Eric: Rattle it off?

Gene: [inaudible 00:09:21] Yeah.

Eric: That’s hilarious. Wow. That’s cool.

Gene: I think, later on, I had some money in the account and mom took me back down to see Dorothy again and I think we bought like 5 or 10 shares of First United, and then I left that in the dividend reinvestment for a lot of years. I ended up spending that to pay for college tuition, and not mine, my daughter’s. But that was kind of neat.

Eric: Nice. So you grew up around the First United name because obviously, it’d been around for quite some time at that point, too. So, what did you know about the bank, or what was your feeling about the bank, you know, starting that young?

Gene: Yeah. George Lippmann, he was the chairman and I guess, CEO back then, and I was a paper-boy all the way, so I was always around town. And, you know, First United was always the bank that we always dealt with. And back then it was down on the corner, where was Marvins and I think Malley own the rest of that building now.

Eric: It’s changed, it’s changed a lot.

Gene: Yeah, I haven’t been there for a while so, I don’t know what’s in there now, but that was the bank when I was younger, and we only live three blocks up Alder Street. So, you know, we could walk down to the bank, or whatever we need to do. And even when I was hired by the bank, I lived out in South Third Street and it was less than a mile and I walked to work many, many days. So, to me, when I got the job, I thought, “Wow, this is a chance for me to live the American dream where I can raise a family in the town that I grew up in.” Because as you know, my kids couldn’t stay there because they’re just, in their fields there were just no jobs in their fields there. So they moved way. But I was able to stay there and it was a great place to raise kids, and I’m sure, you know, if things work out, we’ll probably move back at some point in time.

Eric: Yeah. Well, it’s certainly a great small-town feel [inaudible 00:11:46] Yeah.

Gene: Yeah, there’s no doubt about it. And I think First United was always a big part of the community. You know, it’s sort of a community bank. And I just didn’t know the people at the other bank that well, so that’s why I was there.

Eric: Yeah. That’s cool. Well, let’s talk a little bit about the community bank aspect. So First United has been that trusted community bank for 120 years, we’re celebrating our 120th anniversary, we actually have contests going on and as soon as it’s safe to do so with COVID going on, we’ll have events and that sort of thing in the branches over the course of this year as we celebrate. But, you know, we pride ourselves in a lot of things, creating solutions for people, them having a trust in First United. What does 120 years of trust mean to you?

Gene: Well, the way I put… I always thought First United was very loyal to its employees, loyal to the community, and loyal to the shareholders. And with that, again, I was hired by Courtney Tusing and I don’t know if you ever met Tusing?

Eric: I didn’t.

Gene: Or met Courtney. But he was just a stand-up guy, you know, very loyal, very straight, very kind, and very passionate about the community, about banking. And I think he had set the tone, certainly for me and for the bank. And as I see it, that continues to endure today through, you know, I think after Courtney, then there was Dick Stanton and Bill Grant and now Carissa Rodeheaver and then all those people have the same qualities that I place in First United and I learned from Courtney Tusing. The other thing I always felt it is First United always put the customer first and the customers are part of the community. And I felt that if you took care of the customer, the other things are going to fall in place.

Eric: Exactly.

Gene: Yeah, you’re going to have the margin that will allow you to support the employees and the employees will do a good job which supports the shareholder. So, all the stakeholders benefit by taking care of the customer first. And just throw out a little thing, you know, I live 500 miles away from First United but I still bank with First United, still have a checking account. My investments are still with the trust investment. Well, I guess it’s well…

Eric: Investment and Wealth Management now.

Gene: Well, what’s it called now? Wealth Management? Yeah. I’m still remembering what I called I was there. And I can do all that through my phone, through my computer. And you know, this is really an accolade to Candy, but the customer service center is probably one of the best. When we moved down here, I opened a little bank in our little town here just so I had something handy. And since then, they’ve been bought by a large bank out of Pennsylvania. Now, I’ve had to call their call center a couple times, and I’m going, “Oh, man, this is so not good.” And when I call First United, it’s just like, they just take care of you.

Eric: You know, you’re gonna get a person and you get to speak with you who you…

Gene: Absolutely.

Eric: …you’ve dealt with for so long. I mean, that’s the other thing, they have a long track record of people. I mean, we had an interview in episode with Candy, actually and she’s been at the bank for 43 years. So, I mean, the stability of that group is really strong and that’s really important to our ability to be able to help.

Gene: If you see her, tell her I still think that the call center is the best.

Eric: I will let her know, for sure. Gene, tell me, if you could narrow it down, maybe you have more than one and we’ve got all day, you can talk about whatever you want. But what was one of your favorite memories working at First United?

Gene: Oh, my. Well, other than the skits you and I did.

Eric: We did a few of those.

Gene: That was just funny. But the one… You know, the thing… I don’t know if there’s one particular moment that I remember about the bank, although I was always proud of it, I always was proud to wear my First United pin. And anytime I heard an ad or saw the First United name, I was always proud to see that. But what I really enjoyed was walking out in the lobby and talking to the customers. I just enjoyed that because every time I walked out there, I would see somebody in there, one of the customers and end up talking to them. And I just totally enjoyed that. So, that’s one of my fondest memories. And if you ask me what I miss from working, it would be that. It would be meeting with all the customers…

Eric: That’s cool.

Gene: …and who were friends, friends, relatives, neighbors, and “The community.” So I think, you know, most of the community banked at First United and we ended up seeing them there.

Eric: I have a couple that if could I’d like to mention.

Gene: Sure.

Eric: One is still to this day, Gene. i mean, I know you retired in 2011, still nine years later, I’m not the only one, several people will refer to your 17 times. Anytime we’re trying to learn something, you know, “Don’t forget, we have to repeat it 17 times like Gene says.”

Gene: That’s right.

Eric: That is a constant. Do you remember where that came from?

Gene: I was at a Cannon Trust class and the gentleman’s name, I can’t remember his name right now, but he mentioned that in the class. You know, we were talking about marketing or whatever, he said, “17 times.” And I wrote that down. So I actually stole it from, not stealing, but I borrowed it from somebody else. And I used that, I even use it today in our little foundation. I said, you know, people need to see your name 17 times, they need to drive past that sign, you know. This summer we put up billboards for our foundation about water safety and drowning prevention, things like that. And we had to make it time, so I said, “People have to drive by it 17 times before they’ll actually see it and recognize it.” I remembered. So yeah, that was important. And I guess the other thing if you’re gonna bring up will be the “Green Eggs and Ham.”

Eric: Yep. Yeah.

Gene: Which is one about sales we go through.

Eric: Sales works all time. That’s right. That’s right. You gotta ask 17 times if you’re gonna eat the green eggs and ham. So yeah, absolutely. I remember… So you had mentioned the skits. That’s kind of when those started. It was, we would have these company-wide meetings, usually once or twice a year, and we’d bring the entire company together and we’d have to get up in front and do different things just they were team building activities or exercises something like that. And I believe you got up and read, “Green Eggs and Ham” to everyone.

Gene: Right. Yeah. Bill Grant was cringing [inaudible 00:19:41] But everybody remembers that.

Eric: That’s right.

Gene: Everybody remembers it.

Eric: That’s right. The other thing I remember is it was one of the first meeting so I had just started, maybe I might have been there for a little over a year at the time. And you and I had a meeting together, we were talking about marketing, and something came up about retirement, and you were telling me, you know, “I know it’s far off for you but…” And I believe I asked, somehow the conversation went to, “How much money do I need to have to be ready for retirement?” And you said, a number that made my eyes get big and I was like, “Oh, my goodness. I definitely need an advisor in my life.” I believe it was $2 million, you said to me, and I still remember that. I still quote that, “You’re gonna have to have $2 million as you retire. That’s what Gene says.”

Gene: Oh, yeah. I mean, that’s probably too real and it might be even a bigger number today. And the other thing that I remember is, there was a period of time where I would get to meet with new employees, and I would tell them that here we have this 401k plan. And I would run out the number and say, “Look, look at this compound here.” I said, “If you put $10 in today, it’s going to grow to this. If you stay here 30 years, or whatever, this is what it’s going to grow to.” And I said, “You can retire a millionaire if you just invest this and let it set.” And some did, some didn’t. They have other needs. But, you know, the other thing I always preached was there are wants and needs. You know, everybody wants to have a new car, but you don’t necessarily need one. If you need one, you have to buy one, but you don’t do the $3,000 jumper? And if [inaudible 00:21:35]

Eric: Right. Knowing the difference. [crosstalk 00:21:36] knowing the difference between those two get you to retire [inaudible 00:21:42]

Gene: Yeah. Wants and need. Right.

Eric: Tell me a little bit about, so while you were here, was there something you look forward to every day when you came to work? You know, what got you out of bed? Got you going?

Gene: Well, what got me out of bed, I guess, you know, we always had projects going on, we always had, working in the trust department, my clientele were usually pretty good people, not that we didn’t have some problems here and there, but they were usually sophisticated educated people, you know, who had wealth, and so it was always just a pleasure working with them and finding ways that they can conserve their assets or set their assets up for their retirement, or if they’re, most of them were already retired, how to manage it for their kids and their future generations. So, you know, trust investments, we always had problems and it was always fun, I don’t say problems as in problems, like you’d have a problem and finding the solution to get these people to where they wanted to be. And even today, you know, puttering around the house and whatever, I like solving problems, you know, they don’t bother me.

Eric: It’s just another challenge [inaudible 00:23:01]

Gene: Another challenge, yeah, I just like the challenges. But I guess that’s what it was, and to meet with the good people, and again, I just I like everybody I work with and had all just a good group. And, yeah, and as I said, I like to meet new people. I like walking downtown and running into people and talking to people, and that’s the one thing I still miss.

Eric: Yeah. Well, Gene after 120 years of helping people, what do you think the future holds for First United?

Gene: Well, that’s interesting. I certainly don’t know, but I guess I’ve been in the main office since, I’ve seen the changes made to the main office, but I haven’t seen the other ones, but I have seen them online on Facebook. But I know that First United has made a major conversion as to how they deliver their products or customer service. So, that tells me that they’re, “Changing with the times.” So as long as First United continues to evolve, like that, and as I said earlier, meets the needs of its stakeholders, i.e the customers, the shareholders, and employees, you know, continue on for another 120 years. Bill Grant used to say, “Capital is like a landing strip, you know. You can never have too much of it.” So, as long as the bank remains well-capitalized, and the bank has always been fairly, I wouldn’t say conservative, but wise and prudent about how it invests as far as loan, underwriting, and things like that. So I would think as long as they continue to do that, they’ll succeed. And I see the qualities of the CEO, there’s no flaws, so there’s no reason that Carissa can’t continue to run the organization as Courtney Tusing ran it 30 years ago.

Eric: Absolutely. Yeah. Well, and hopefully some period along there maybe I’ll be getting interviewed for when I retire.

Gene: Yeah. I think banks are going to have to do, there’s so many different avenues today, you know, the PayPals, and I don’t know how many… There are some things I see in the budget, I would rather pay less attention to them. But there’s a lot of ways to transfer money around now. And again, I can do all my banking from my little thing in my hands oron my phone, which, you know, the checks I get I can deposit from here. So it’s just amazing. So, your customers can be nationwide, they don’t have to be in the community. But [inaudible 00:26:09].

Eric: It’s pretty amazing, the technology changes.

Gene: They still want to have the bricks and mortar. Customers still want to have a brick and mortar. Although they may never go in there, they still want to have it.

Eric: Well, and I think that that’s a testament to the kind of service that we’re trying to deliver. To your point, you know, most of I would say, all of our people, our culture, our brand is all about delivering things in that personal way that you described and wanting to have that personal interaction. And so we certainly hope that people continue to want to come in and see everybody and talk to everybody.

Gene: Right. Yeah, once this COVID thing is [inaudible 00:26:51]

Eric: Once this COVID thing ends.

Gene: Just a little bit on that, you know, our small businesses down here, I mean, our town, our county is similar to Garrett County, and that’s one of the largest counties in North Carolina. There’s a lot more people here, but it’s spread out, and our little town that we’re closest to maybe that 10,000 people, 12,000 people, and it’s all tourist-driven, the small businesses are just hurting. I mean, it’s just, you know, I feel sorry for them. So, hopefully… You know, I know what I saw at First United did with all the PPP… I just read the news recent earnings announcement in the number of PPP loans that they did. So, that’s certainly a credit at First United. I just, once this COVID’s over, hopefully, we can all, you know, get back to doing things we used to do.

Eric: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah, we’re praying for the end of that soon. Gene, before I let you go, I’d be remiss to not give you the opportunity to tell us a little bit more about your foundation and how people can find out more if they want to support it.

Gene: Oh, okay. Well, thanks. Thanks for asking about that. Well, as you know, our grandson drowned, actually down here on the lake, it’s about a mile away from where my house is. And he was four years old, Jack Helbig. So, it took a few years, but finally his mother, Kelly, has got this foundation up and rolling and we all work on it. And it’s called the Jack Helbig Memorial Foundation. It’s on Facebook or jackhelbig.org, jackhelbig.org. I won’t say that 17 times, but it is jackhelbig.org is where you can find all the information on. And our mission is to prevent drownings and of course, provide swim safety and swim water education. So, when school is in, we go around all the kindergarten classes in the county, and we have a mascot, Josh, the Otter, and we go in there and we talk to the kindergarten kids about having, about water safety, always having a, you know, somebody with you, have a life vest out of your life, you know, things like that. So then we hand out books and little things for them to be aware of water safety. And then we provide free swimming lessons at our local community college at the pool there to anybody that wants swim lessons or who can’t afford them. And then we do a swim for life program. So we were really rolling until COVID hit. We had done, we had a class in April of ’19 where we had 60 students, you know, for four days teaching them how to swim and then we went to all the high, all the elementary schools and things. So, things were really doing good. But then COVID, we can get in the schools, we’ve done a couple of Zoom meetings but it’s just not the same. It’s just not the same. We have been doing a little…

Eric: Well, I’m sure that will get back on track soon.

Gene: Yeah, yeah. Hopefully, that. So anyway, thank you for asking, but that’s what our foundation is about.

Eric: Absolutely. Yeah, we’ll link to it in the show notes, that way, if anyone’s interested they can check out jackhelbig.org, so…

Gene: Thank you.

Eric: Absolutely. Gene, I want to sincerely thank you. Thank you for joining me today and talking through the past and the future and the present with me as far as First United goes, and your career here. So thank you for your time. Thanks for joining me.

Gene: Well, it’s been my pleasure. Thank you for asking. I appreciate it.

Eric: Absolutely. After the interview had ended with Gene, we realized that Gene was actually the founder of this podcast, and we kind of sidebarred and talked about that. But we caught a portion of it in the recording, and I wanted to make sure that we included that here. So, listen in to some of the history of “What Matters Most” and what it became.

Gene: The technology was certainly new. We would have to have people dial in. People would have to dial in to the number.

Eric: That’s so funny. So, you started that as a phone call for clients, and you called it the “What Matters Most” conference call series…

Gene: Right.

Eric: And then that continued for years and years and years. I mean, it literally continued until January of this year…

Gene: Oh really?

Eric: …of 2020.

Gene: Oh great.

Eric: So, it was usually every month or every quarter. It depended on the timing of things, they would record that. And at some point in time, I want to say it was probably two years ago or so, one of the guys in the Wealth area, Sean, Sean wanted to… He said, you know, “Can we make this a podcast? Can we put it somewhere that people can listen to it instead of calling in?” So we started converting it to a recording? And then after about two years of that, or two or three years, maybe of that, I was looking at the statistics of how many people listened in and I was like, “Well, we could probably amp this up if we started talking about other things as well, and had more than just one voice on there.” And made it more of, you know, interview style. So I went to Keith and said, “Can I steal your podcast?” And I said, “You guys can still be on it, like every month, we’ll have somebody from Wealth.” So that’s what it’s become. So “What Matters Most” podcast is is still those calls. It’s just more [inaudible 00:32:54]

Gene: Scott and I, we used to write the script down. And it would took us more time and then once in a while, we don’t have to… You know, you can tell when people clicked on, we hear them click on and sometimes they’d be on and they click off. And then we got up to where, you know, sometimes we have 10, 12, sometimes we have two or three. But we said we need to keep it going. You know, if you’re not consistent, people really won’t pay attention to it. Yeah.

Eric: Absolutely. Well, that brings us to the end of our show. You can always find more episodes by visiting MyBank.com/podcast or find us on your favorite podcast app. And we’re on basically all the podcast apps there are, so find us on your favorite one. So give us a subscription there and maybe give us a five-star review that helps other people find our podcasts so that they can find this helpful content that we’re providing. You can also leave feedback, ask questions, or request a topic for us to discuss by sending an email to podcast at MyBank.com. Thanks again for listening. We’ll be back next week with more helpful content. But until then, we wish you the best and focusing on “What Matters Most” to you.

Man 1: In 1900, the United States population top 75 million for the first time, William McKinley was re-elected president and work began on the New York City subway that same year, First United Bank & Trust was founded, that was 12 decades ago. Today, we’re proud to celebrate our 120th anniversary. But we’re most proud of our legacy of partnering with this community. Help us celebrate our anniversary join us at MyBank.com/120.

Man 2: First United, My Bank for Life.

Man 1: Member FDIC.

Eric: This recording is for informational purposes only. Any references in this recording to any person, organization, product, or service does not constitute or imply the endorsement, recommendation, or affiliation with First United Bank & Trust. First United is not responsible for your use of the information mentioned within this podcast. Please consult legal or tax professionals for counsel as needed.