In one sense, April Russell Perry launched her business career as a youngster when she would accompany her grandfather, local bank president Charles Russell, to an empty, quiet office on Sunday afternoons.
“I would sit there and pretend to wait on all the customers,” she said, recalling how she would practice speaking through the microphone. “I set my sights on being a drive-through teller.”
It’s fair to say she has wildly exceeded her childhood dream. Today the two-time Eastern Kentucky University graduate is the board chair and CEO of Kentucky Farmers Bank (KFB), the same locally-operated, Ashland-based institution her grandfather once helmed. As the 2018-19 Executive-in-Residence/Distinguished Speaker for the EKU College of Business and Technology, Perry recently addressed current students, sharing her life story and secrets to success.
When she was 15, Perry accepted her grandfather’s offer to work at the bank, at first to help answer calls. Feeling underutilized as she waited for a call, she turned to “Papa” for a task to fill her time. She was handed a stack of cards representing those who were late on their loan payments and asked to write notes to each.
“Each card,” she said, “was somebody’s life, somebody’s debt they owed. People started calling, saying, ‘I need to meet with April Russell.’ I was the first collection officer for Kentucky Farmers Bank, making $2.77 an hour.”
Hearing the customers’ stories stirred in the teenager a desire to serve others, to make a difference. “That’s where I found my passion to want to help people with their finances,” she said. Years later, she would help develop a Bank On financial literacy program for northeast Kentucky, a first for a largely rural area. “The program has started to take off. We’ve reached a lot of people.”
Perry chose EKU because “it seemed like home” and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1986 and an MBA degree exactly one decade later. “I had a fantastic experience and made many lifelong friends, including my husband, Don Perry.” Mr. Perry, who earned degrees from Eastern in 1986 and 1995 and had previously worked with Ashland Oil, is now senior vice president and investments manager with KFB. Both are actively involved with their alma mater, Ms. Perry serving on the Foundation Board and Mr. Perry on the School of Business Advisory Council. Their two children, Connor and Kendall, are also EKU alumni.
When Ms. Perry assumed her current KFB role in 2006, she and her husband returned to Ashland after living for a time in Lexington, site of a KFB loan production office in addition to its three locations in Boyd County.
“We decided if we were going to do this, we were going to do it right,” Ms. Perry said. “We wanted to be a part of the community and help our community be a better place.”
In spite of the financial crisis of 2008, which Ms. Perry called a “baptism by fire,” the bank grew significantly over the next few years.
“Banking has changed tremendously since 2008,” she noted. In addition to an increase in regulations, small, locally-owned banks around the Commonwealth are fewer in number.
“Community banks are still very important,” she said. “We tend to be relationship-oriented, and that fits my style better.”
For the Perrys, those bonds are often formed away from the bank, out in the community and region they love. Ms. Perry serves on the boards of the Paramount Arts Center and the Ashland Alliance, and is a member of the Paramount Woman’s Association and the local Rotary Club. She and her husband support entrepreneurial activity as active members of the Tri State Angel Investment Group.
Ms. Perry urged the EKU students to find their passion and follow it and never stop learning. “Hopefully, when you leave this place, you’re a lifelong learner,” Ms. Perry said. “Your diploma is a license to learn. It doesn’t mean you know it all.”
“Papa” would be proud.