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Daily Journal
     January 30, 2020      #37-30 KDJ
Scott Smith, president of First Trust Bank of Illinois, board chairman of the Kankakee County Chamber of Commerce and vice president of the Kankakee Development Corp., is the Daily Journal’s Young Citizen of the Year.

Daily Journal/Tiffany Blanchette

From ground floor to the top 

By Lee Provost

When Scott Smith notes he started at the “ground floor” of First Trust Bank of Illinois, that phrase is not just a figure of speech.

“Preparing the bank for carpet. That was my very first job here,” Smith said as he thought back to 1998. “I literally have been working my way up.”

Smith might not need a tape measure or hammer these days — considering he has been First Trust president since 2016 — but the 38-year-old certainly does not mind doing what he can to help lift up the Kankakee County region.

Smith has been named the Daily Journal’s “Young Citizen of the Year.”

While helping oversee a bank with $300 million of assests and a workforce of more than 50, Smith also lends himself to helping several community organizations.

The Bourbonnais resident is board chairman of the Kankakee County Chamber of Commerce and vice president of the Kankakee Development Corp., as well as a member of the Bradley Bourbonnais Rotary Club and the Prairie State legal campaign.

All of that sounds like more than enough, right? Not so fast. Smith and his wife, Jenny, a nurse at Amita St. Mary’s Hospital, have two children, Matthew, 4, and Lily, 1.

A 2000 graduate of Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School, as well as the University of Illinois, where he earned an economics degree in 2004. In 2007, he received his MBA and law degree from Indiana University.

Smith actually began his professional career in 2008 at a Bloomington, Ill., law firm. He spent three years working as an attorney, but knew in his heart Kankakee County was where he belonged.

“He called me one day,” recalled his father, Jeff. “He said if there is spot that opens in the bank, I would be interested.”

One was found and by 2016, he assumed the day-to-day operations of the bank.

“I feel very fortunate he came back to our community. Too many of our young people have chosen to go elsewhere for their career,” Jeff Smith said. “It’s wonderful to have good, young people who are going to be leaders in this community. I know I feel very fortunate he came back.”

It is not only family members who are pleased to see someone like Smith coming home and investing his time and talents here.

Jeff Hammes, president of Peoples Bank of Kankakee, another locally owned financial institution, said sometimes he wishes he didn’t like Smith as much as he does as it makes it a little more difficult to compete against him for market share.

Like Smith, Hammes followed the family footsteps and rose to lead a bank.

“We have so much in common. We keep bumping into one another so much,” he said as they have served on various community organizations. “It’s hard not to like him.

“He’s so humble. He has so much humility. He’s one of those people who will roll up his sleeves and do the work. There is nothing that is beneath him. ... He’s just a good, grounded person,” Hammes said.

Some might not realize it, but Smith is not a lifelong area resident. He came to the area from Peoria as an eighth-grader when his father changed jobs.

“I didn’t get a whole lot of say in the move here,” he said. “But as I reflect back on that, change is difficult, but change also helps you.”

The move certainly didn’t negatively impact him. He went on to BBCHS and then higher education.

And coming back to the bank headquartered at the East Court Street location was like returning to his home away from home.

“I knew so many of the employees, so many of the customers. I was able to learn from so many people with such great knowledge,” he said, pointing out Larry Mulder, Mark Christensen, Dave West, and, of course, his father.

Barbi Brewer-Watson, the former Kankakee County Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, noted it was Smith who spearheaded the effort to bring the Young Professionals group to the chamber.

“He really challenged me as to how we get this group involved and learn of the opportunity that exists here,” she recalled. “He brought so much perspective.”

Brewer-Watson recalled a new business ribbon cutting event that showcased his love for the chamber. Smith knew he should attend the event, but he was caring for young son.

“So he showed up with the baby in his arms,” she said. “He made things work. I’ve always been impressed with his commitment.”

Regardless of how far he ascends professionally, Smith remains committed to the community and its future.

“We want this to be a place for our young people who want to stay here or come back here,” he said. “I can say from my standpoint that I believe in small business and the opportunity it provides. I’ve experienced it myself.

“Opportunity is what brought me here. Without opportunity it makes it much harder for our young people to come home.”

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