Merit Bank to Open Headquarters in Huntsville

Merit Bank will open its doors this month as a newly established financial institution headquartered in the Huntsville market.

In less than 60 days, Merit Bank raised $25 million from hundreds of investors with diverse backgrounds from across North Alabama. In that same time, the bank gained approval from all three regulatory agencies – the Alabama State Banking Department, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Federal Reserve – to rebrand and relocate its headquarters from Valley Head to 659 Gallatin Street. Merit Bank had acquired Citizens Bank of Valley Head.

Merit Bank is led by an executive team with decades of experience and success in the Huntsville market, including President/CEO Hill Womble, COO Frank Aldag, and Executive Vice Presidents Mark McIntyre and Will Heaps.

In addition, the Board of Directors, representing a vast range of industry and investment experience across North Alabama, will help shape the vision and growth of Merit Bank.  Board members include Chairman Kevin Heronimus, Steven Cost, Chad Falciani, Jeff Huntley, and Brent Romine.

“In any industry, including banking, success starts with the people,” said Womble. “We have built a team of established bankers with proven track records and highly successful board members.  The overwhelming response to our initial private stock offering shows we have the confidence of investors. 

“We are committed and poised to do big things for our clients and our community.”

With Huntsville’s continued growth and repeated accolades, funding and investment in this market is critical. Merit Bank will specialize in commercial lending and private executive banking, expansions, capital improvements, and agricultural lending, among other opportunities.

“Obviously, Huntsville and the North Alabama market is an ideal setting for commercial banking,” said Heaps, executive vice president of commercial banking. “Merit Bank will focus primarily on providing a high level of service and support to our clients, along with a secure, easy-to-use platform for efficiency.  We are excited for this opportunity to support economic development and growth in our community.”

Operations of Citizens Bank will not be interrupted and former President E.N. “Buz” Jones will continue overseeing Valley Head operations.

AAA Credit Ratings Prove Huntsville an Economic Engine for North Alabama

For the 11th consecutive year, Huntsville has received the highest possible “AAA” credit ratings from the two major credit rating agencies Standard & Poors and Moody’s Investors Services.

The agencies cited several factors as the driving force behind the ratings including financial stability, a strong regional tax base, substantial reserve funds, and Huntsville’s strong economy as a steady economic engine for all North Alabama.

Out of 22,250 U.S. cities and counties, less than 1 percent receive this top rating.

“The city has also been reinvesting in its community with deliberate and effective urban planning and design efforts. With a combination of pay-as-you-go financing from excess revenues, tax increment revenues and debt proceeds, the city has been able to undertake multiple projects,” S&P said in a statement.

“The tremendous growth in Huntsville, our ability to work together strategically, efficiently and collaboratively has made this success possible,” said Mayor Tommy Battle. “We’ll use these high credit marks to borrow money at exceptionally low interest rates to fund projects in the city’s capital improvement plan.”

Budgetary management and a low debt-to-citizen/debt-to-GDP ratio also played a large role, the reports said. The ratings give Huntsville a lot of financial leverage including the ability to borrow close to $85 million for city and countywide projects.

Among them is $25 million to complete the Greenbrier Parkway in rural Limestone County, which was annexed to Huntsville as part of the infrastructure needed to support the Mazda-Toyota Manufacturing USA auto plant.

Another $50 million has been earmarked for capital building and improvement projects at John Hunt, Merrimack, and Brahan Spring Parks; for recreation centers; libraries; greenways; and a public safety training center and police firing range. An additional $10 million has been put aside for downtown parking garages.

4 Big Retirement Risks—and How to Prepare for Them

By Brad Cardwell

Some common retirement mistakes – such as overspending, investing too conservatively or veering away from your plan — are easy to avoid with a little discipline and forethought. Other risks, such as a health crisis or a market downturn, cannot be avoided, but they can be managed. Here are four of the most common dangers to your retirement strategy, and steps you can take to prepare for them.

1. OUTLIVING YOUR MONEY

Thanks to medical advances and healthier lifestyles, Americans are living longer than ever. That is great news, but it also creates the very real possibility that you might outlive your retirement assets—especially when 40 percent of people underestimate their own likely life span by five years or more, according to a 2017 Merrill Lynch study, “Finances in Retirement: New Challenges, New Solutions.”

What You Can Do:
Think about delaying the age at which you claim Social Security.
“By claiming at age 70 as opposed to 62, your monthly income could go up by 76 percent,” said Nevenka Vrdoljak, director of Retirement Strategies at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Though you sacrifice income early on, knowing you will have higher Social Security payments in your seventies and beyond is like having “longevity insurance,” she said.

Find out whether an annuity might be appropriate for you. Investing in a lifetime income annuity could help you avoid the risk of outliving your retirement savings by providing a path to income for as long as you live. Because annuities come with certain costs and risks, be sure to talk to your advisor about all the pros and cons.

2. CHANGES IN MARKETS

If there is a significant market drop shortly before or early in your retirement—just as you are starting to tap into your assets—the value of your investments could shrink to an extent that undermines your retirement security. Even if the market subsequently improves, “If the first four or five years of your retirement are bad, it can be difficult to recover,” Vrdoljak said.

What You Can Do:

Take a second look at the way you invest. As you near retirement, shifting to a more conservative investment approach may help protect against market downturns. At the same time, it is important to consider maintaining some exposure to stocks to create a suitable balance.

3. INFLATION

Although quite low in recent years, inflation—even a modest percentage—reduces your spending power over time. People living in retirement are especially vulnerable. Over a 10-year period, a relatively low inflation rate of 2 percent can bring the value of every $100,000 saved down to $82,035, according to estimates made using the Bankrate.com inflation calculator.

What You Can Do:

Consider investments that could grow along with inflation. “That might be real estate or shares of stocks,” Vrdoljak said. If you have bond holdings, you may want to consider adding some Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS). These government bonds offer returns that vary with the inflation rate. When interest rates go up, bond prices typically drop, and vice versa. “If inflation accelerates for whatever reason, you get compensated for that,” Vrdoljak said.

4. RISING MEDICAL EXPENSES

“When it comes to financial planning, people don’t systematically plan for health care risks,” Vrdoljak said. “In particular, it’s really important to take into account the possibility that you’ll need long-term care.” According to the Merrill Lynch study, 70 percent of Americans over 65 will at some point need that sort of care — which can include not just residence in a care facility, but help with daily activities like bathing or assistance with household chores. Even without such costs it’s likely that your health spending will increase as you age — and it’s important to note that Medicare does not fully cover these costs.

What You Can Do:

Plan early for long-term care. Some people may be able to pay for out-of-pocket long-term care or are able to rely upon grown children or a relative for assistance. But for many others, long-term care insurance may be the answer. If you do choose long-term care insurance, try to purchase it in your fifties—well before you need it. The cost rises as you age and may not be available if you develop certain medical conditions.

For more information, contact Merrill Senior Financial Advisor Brad Cardwell at 256-650-2432 or Brad_cardwell@ml.com.

BitBros Helping New Digital Currency to Grow Here – Bitcoin by Bitcoin

It’s a sound bet that not many, if any, Huntsvillians or passersby know that there’s a horde of miners gathered in the industrial park off Jordan Lane.

No one could blame them. These aren’t the light-on-the-helmet, overall-wearing type from most imaginations. These are the new age variety. They’re not even human.

Miners are an integral part of the decade-old bitcoin industry, and a new Huntsville company has powered up many miners (OK, computers) in town. The company, BitBros LLC., has been up and running since last year but held its grand opening in January following a power upgrade that brought 2.5 megawatts of power to the Blockchain and Crypto Mining Association outfit.

“Each of those miners is crunching algorithms all day,” said Matthew Rizzio, a Hazel Geen and UAH graduate who is also CEO and one of three founders of BitBros. “When it solves an algorithm is when you get paid, by bit.”

Confused? Here is how bitcoin is defined: a digital currency in which a record of transactions is maintained and new units of currency generated by the computational solution of mathematical problems, and which operates independently of a central bank.

There it is, right?

“It took me a year to understand it,” said Rizzio, who graduated with degrees in marketing and supply chain management from UAH in 2014.

Rizzio is one of three founders of BitBros. There’s also his brother and COO Christopher Borgosz, who grew up in Birmingham, attended John Carroll Catholic High School and the University of Alabama and still lives in the Magic City. And there’s the CTO, Josh. He goes by the moniker Jmo, and hails from Illinois and met Rizzio at UAH.

In the bitcoin business there are: Blockchains (a ledger of records stored on an encrypted network of computers); cryptocurrency (digital currency used to pay for using the blocking or for exchanging currency; ASICs (chips than handle a specific, single encrypted algorithm); and the aforementioned miners.

Rizzio said the most difficult part of launching BitBros is waiting for people to get over the learning curve of what bitcoin is about.

“Historically, it takes about 20 years for new technology to catch on,” he said. “Like the Internet.”

But, he added, the company has heard good feedback since its January launch.

“We expect Huntsville to be a great location,” he said. “With so many engineers and people working in technology, there’s a large underground regarding the industry.”

RFCU Reaches Out to the Community with Financial Education Programming

Today, financial education is a must for just about everyone.

And, Redstone Federal Credit Union is stepping up with a series of financial education seminars.

 Based on the variety of offerings, “financial” may seem like a misnomer, but that good things – such as buying a home or launching a business – or bad things – such as natural disasters – all have direct or indirect financial consequences.

“Over time, the seminar offerings have evolved, there’s more of a mix now,” said Briana Cousins, financial education coordinator/communications. “Programming  focuses on four main tenets: Save, spend, borrow, plan. These areas effect overall financial fitness. We have developed our own in-house programming to give back to the community.”

Other resources include Balance.com which RFCU uses for the “Drive Away Happy” and “Financial First Aid” seminars, providing a “canned” curriculum that can be used for some of the online financial programming,

Over the past year, RFCU has developed a partnership with local small business incubator, The Catalyst Center to expand on seminar offerings. The collaboration has a small business development focus featuring programming such as “Finding Your Target Market,” and “Developing an Elevator Pitch.”

Cousins is focusing on the next steps and beyond.

“How can we expand outside of Madison County?” she asked. “How can we reach specific audiences, expand our market? Get the word out to the community, in general?”

Regarding one of the bigger challenges she faces, Cousins said, “There’s a massively growing segment of the population who need the messages we are providing. We are trying to find ways to reach this population that is least likely to attend seminars. Unless you can reach them where they are, they don’t participate. So, we need to find a way to get out into the community instead of them coming to us.”

“For 2019, RFCU will keep some of the same programming. In thefuture, we see more partnering with the Catalyst, focusing on providing business assistance for startups and entrepreneurs.”

RFCUseminars are free and open to members and non-members. There are morning, lunchtime, late afternoon, and early evening programs. There are no sales pitches for any of the products presented. However, presenters do provide attendees with printed materials and contact information to follow up, one-to-one.

For schedule and registration info, go to: www.redfcu.org/seminars

Frontier Takes Flight at Huntsville International Airport

It was a Rocky Mountain high kind of day Friday when Frontier Airlines’ first flight from Huntsville took off.

“We are excited to be starting service and proud to bring our unique brand of ‘Low Fares Done Right’ to Huntsville,” said Jonathan Freed, director of Corporate Communications for Frontier Airlines. “Frontier is always looking for ways to make travel easier and more affordable, and our … frequent flier program with family-friendly benefits and attainable elite status, as well as our reduced change fees – free if you make changes more than 90 days before you fly – are the latest examples …”

The first flight departed for Denver at high noon Friday after a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Frontier will begin service to and from Orlando on Oct. 21.

“Frontier Airlines boasts a network that serves over 100 cities in the U.S., Mexico and Dominican Republic,” said Airport Executive Director Rick Tucker. “They have over 1,000 nonstop and connecting routes. Couple that stability and structure with our region’s excellent track record of supporting low cost carriers and it’s a recipe for success.

“This partnership fills a void in our market and provides our leisure and business travelers with more options for a lower price. Our customers appreciate convenience and we know they will support this service by flying local from Huntsville International Airport on Frontier Airlines.”

For information, visit flyfrontier.com and flyhuntsville.com.

Credit unions ally to help fight ‘phone spoofing’

Phone spoofing hides the caller’s phone number and replaces it with another. (BBC Photo)

Don’t believe everything you hear and only half of what you see.

And, today, that old saying is even more powerful, especially when it comes to scams and smartphones.

You see, phone scammers are using software to mask their real identities by displaying a fake telephone number.

It’s called “phone spoofing” and its used by scammers to mislead people into thinking the call is from a reputable business or person.

And it can cost a victim – financially.

On Monday, several North Alabama credit unions held a joint press conference at the Redstone Federal Credit Union Atrium on phone spoofing, a criminal act that has affected thousands of people around the country.

The credit unions and the Better Business Bureau of North Alabama will hold a fraud summit, Oct. 1 at 3 p.m., in the Atrium. The lineup includes financial institutions, law enforcement, the Federal Trade Commission, the Alabama Securities Exchange and other agencies. The public is encouraged to attend.

“The tremendous rise in spoofing … is almost epidemic,” said Greg Olmsted, president of the North Alabama Educators Credit Union and president of the Northeast Alabama Chapter of Credit Unions. “A retired police officer fell for the jury scam because the number said Madison County Sheriff’s Department.

“If a retired police officer can be scammed … anybody can be.”

It’s a sophisticated operation that is fairly simple in this digital age of the Internet and the Dark Web. Most likely, the information was collected through hacking and massive data breaches, such as last September’s Equifax breach where the personal information of more than 143 million people may have been compromised.

One scam that has been prevalent recently involves a call purportedly from a financial institution, e.g., a credit union. The caller has the victim’s name, phone number, last four digits of the credit card and the expiration date.

The victim will be told their card was fraudulently used and the “credit union” wants to put a halt on the account – and needs the three-digit CVS code on the back to verify the account.

This is where the recipient of the call needs to act to prevent becoming a victim.

“You just think it’s your credit union and you’re just giving them the information,” said Leslie Stone of the Rocket City Federal Credit Union. “We do not ask for that information (the three-digit CVS).”

The victims of the scam come from all walks of life, a fact that stuns Kayce Bell of the Alabama Credit Union.

“It’s surprising to me how many people fall victim,” she said. “We’re shocked at the people – high-ranking military, well-heeled people …

“The scammers are very good at what they do.”

Joe Newberry of Redstone Federal Credit Union said the credit unions decided to ally themselves for the good of the public.

“This is a very personal matter to me and our members,” he said. “We’ve had so many data breaches through the years.

“We’re doing this as a coalition of credit unions because we care about our members.”

If someone is suspicious of the caller, hang up and call the credit union number on the back of the credit card or debit card.

“All of the information is available on the Dark Web,” said Elizabeth Garcia of the Better Business Bureau. “We must assume all our information is out there. Be very cautious.

“We ask consumers to trust, but verify; question everything; and think before you act.”

 

Redstone Federal Credit Union named Credit Union of the Year by NAFCU

Redstone Federal Credit Union has been named Credit Union of the Year by the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions (NAFCU).

RFCU President/CEO Joe Newberry received the award during at the annual NAFCU Conference and Solutions Expo in Seattle, Wash.

“To be recognized by NAFCU as the Credit Union of the Year is such an honor,” said Newberry. “Each day we strive to be a model credit union by enthusiastically serving our members and offering the products and services that meet their needs.’’

Redstone, the largest member-owned financial institution in Alabama, was recognized by NAFCU for its successes in community give-back efforts; serving underbanked or low-to-modest income members; providing financial education to youth; and devising and implementing a cultural transformation process to better serve its members.

Longtime member Minnie Wheeler of Decatur said Redstone helped her to handle her business affairs after her husband died.

“I didn’t have any credit in my name,” she said. “I had to build my credit. I have learned so much and they helped me get to the point where I can take care of my business on my own.”

In addition to receiving the Credit Union of the Year, Redstone also recently won two Business Transformation & Operational Excellence Awards.

Redstone received the Best Achievement of Operational Excellence in Banking, Capital Markets & Insurance, as well as the highest honor in the award program, the Platinum Award for Best Achievement in Organizational Operational Excellence.

In October, Money magazine named Huntsville-based Redstone the “best bank” in Alabama.

Facebook likes Huntsville; company to build $750 million data center

It’s the perfect connection: A digital giant and a high-tech capital.

So, when Facebook announced it was building a large-scale data center, it was no surprise. The company will invest $750 million in the center that will bring an estimated 100 high-paying jobs to the area.

“This is indeed an exciting day for this company, for this area of the state, and indeed for the entire state of Alabama,” said Gov. Kay Ivey at the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce. “Announcements like this require positive visions and an environment where companies can grow and expand their businesses. Economic development happens because of the collaborative efforts between state and local leaders, and businesses that are attracted by all that Alabama has to offer.”

The announcement has been kept a secret since May 24 when the Huntsville City Council gave unanimous approval to Facebook’s project entity, Starbelt LLC, to purchase 340 acres in the North Huntsville Industrial Park for $8.5 million.

Surrounded by Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong, and other civic leaders and representatives, Matt VanderZanden, director of site selection at Facebook, said the technology giant selected Huntsville for several reasons.

“This location gives us great access to renewable energy and infrastructures, a strong talent pool and, very importantly, a tremendous set of community partners,” VanderZanden said. “Facebook data centers are terrific tools and real economic engines. Facebook is in it for the long game and we look forward to having a long, fruitful partnership with the Huntsville community.”

Battle cited the city’s innovation and high-tech reputation as a link with the digital giant.

“Facebook has built its business on connecting friends to family, businesses to customers, and people to the world,” Battle said. “This is one of the most innovative companies in the world and we’re proud to have them in one of the world’s most innovative cities.

“Huntsville is a city that constantly redefines what is possible. Facebook constantly redefines life online.”

The governor used a Facebook reference in her remarks.

“Every day, millions of people get on Facebook to connect with family and friends,” Ivey said. “I sure am glad that when Facebook was looking to grow their connections, they sent out a friend request to Alabama!”

Alabama State Games are gold for Huntsville

 

Thousands of athletes are racing to the Rocket City this weekend for a chance to win gold.

Meanwhile, Huntsville stands to reap some gold of its own – or green – through the economic impact from the  Alabama State Games XXXVI.

The city is hosting more than 5,000 athletes competing in 25 sports throughout the Huntsville-Madison County area in the state’s version of the Olympics.

“This is the largest State Games in the number of sports,” said Judy Ryals, president/CEO of the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Vistors Bureau. “It will bring a $1.5 million economic impact and is a showcase for Huntsville’s venues.” 

The 36th annual event was also known as the Alabama Sports Festival when it was created and through its first few years.

“The Alabama State Games created a ‘sports festival,’ ” said Anthony Terling, vice president of external affairs for the ASF Foundation. “There are 25 sports and it’s not just a youth games. There is competition for adults, seniors and Miracle League.

“All types of individuals can compete.”

Some sports have on-site registration while team sports have already registered. For information, visit asffoundation.org/alabama-state-games and www.alagames.com.

Also, it’s not only about sports, Terling said. “We’ve given away $300,000 in scholarships.”

Huntsville is hosting for the first time since 2003-04 and will play host this year and next, with an option for a third year.

Ryals said it took teamwork by state, county and city officials to bring the games back to Huntsville, after Dothan hosted last year.

“Sen. Arthur Orr asked why we can’t have the Games,” Ryals said. “So, Mayor (Tommy) Battle and (Madison County) Chairman Dale Strong came to me and said ‘Let’s make it happen.’

“The whole team at the CVB, Huntsville Sports Commission, Parks and Recreation did make it happen. The city and county school systems offered their assistance, too.”

The State Games start Friday with Opening Ceremonies at the Von Braun Center. The ceremonies begin at 7 p.m. and are open to the public. They will also be televised statewide over Alabama Public Television.

“The Opening Ceremonies are going to be spectacular,” Ryals said. “The athletes will march in and we will be honoring first responders.

“It’s really nice to honor that group and give them recognition.”

https://www.asffoundation.org/alabama-state-games

Venue Map and Schedule