To illustrate lessons learned during half a century of service to Bakersfield's business community, Steve Annis tells the story of how he spent some of the darkest days of California's COVID-19 lockdown.

The local institution where he works as chief operating officer, Valley Republic Bank, knew it wouldn't make much money offering federal Paycheck Protection Program loans. Despite all the work it was going to take, he says, the bank decided it had to participate for the good of the community.

For Annis that meant getting up at 4 a.m. daily so he could be on East Coast hours, as the job required. Soon dozens of his co-workers were working 12- to 14-hour days, seven days a week, for close to two months.

True to the character of Bakersfield, he said, no one complained.

"All of us collectively decided this is an important thing that we need to do for our community, for our businesses. We said, 'We're going to do it,'" Annis said. adding the bank ended up processing more than 700 PPP loans, some as small as $900, for a total of $207 million. "We worked and we got the job done."

That, he asserts, is what distinguishes the city's business community.

HUMBLE ORIGINS

To him it's a group of close-knit people, many raised by immigrants who fled Oklahoma and Arkansas during the Dust Bowl. They worked back-breaking jobs in oil and agriculture, he said, then applied their strong work ethic selling door to door and eventually set up modest storefronts.

Over time they achieved remarkable success, which they poured into charities and other forms of locally focused generosity, he said.

Has this created what newcomers consider to be a "good ol' boys" network? Yes and no, he said.

Bakersfield nurtures a "healthy skepticism" of outsiders who try to rush in and make money fast, he said. On the other hand, he insists people who come to the area from elsewhere can do well if they demonstrate consistently good work over time.

Generally speaking, he said it's a place of resilient individuals who have weathered good times and bad to fulfill the American Dream.

"They never lost that work ethic of, 'Let's stay focused, let's stay doing what we're supposed to do,'" he said. "It was a wonderful experience for me to have the opportunity to sort of be on the sidelines and just watch this."

That last part is his humility speaking. To hear Valley Republic's CEO tell it, Annis is a broadly experienced, wise leader with a deep understanding of all aspects of banking.

"He's an absolute wealth of knowledge and we are lucky to have him in our organization — very, very fortunate," CEO Geraud Smith said.

Smith happens to agree with Annis's assessment of the local business community. Everyone knows everyone, he said, and hard work is the standard in every local business.

"In a community like Bakersfield you're going to have a reputation," he said. "It's really up to you whether it's good or bad."

GRADUAL ASCENT

Annis's story as a central player in local business circles started in 1970, shortly after he left the U.S. Air Force, where he served during the Vietnam War.

Applying for a job at Bakersfield-based American National Bank, he clicked with a man who was already something of a local legend, Ray Dezember. Soon the man became a mentor to Annis.

Everywhere they went business people knew Dezember and he knew them. Annis learned then that successful local banks focus on the people they serve.

After 14 years at ANB he did some independent consulting and in 1986 was hired at San Joaquin Bank. He stayed there until the bank was closed by regulators in 2009. Soon after he joined what was then the brand-new Valley Republic.

His career has put him in different banking positions, including chief financial officer. Through it all, he said, the guiding principal has been that a community bank succeeds best when it focuses on local business.

Large national banks can't generally do that, he said.

"Oftentimes they can outgun a smaller institution. They've got more assets, they've got more capabilities, they've got more resources," he said. "But time and time again I have seen it play out that it's the local community bank that can really focus on the needs of the local community."

LOOKING FORWARD

Decades of close attention to local businesses have given Annis perspective on some of the biggest challenges facing Kern County's economy.

He blames liberal politicians for stifling regulations that threaten to slash the Central Valley's groundwater supply. Likewise, he accuses them of being shortsighted with regard to oilfield regulations and Sacramento's efforts to make the state "carbon neutral" in part by sacrificing Kern's oil industry.

Consumers won't stand for it if carrots become hard to find or so expensive few can afford them, he said. And considering so many products are still made out of plastic, which comes from petroleum, it makes no sense to import California's supply from overseas.

But give Bakersfield's business community a chance, he said, and it will outperform the competition.

"We work hard," he said. "You keep your nose to the grindstone. You stay focused."

Follow John Cox on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.

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