Heights native Marilyn Word started her career in the banking industry at age 17. This week, she will retire after almost 50 years in the business — during which time she started a bank, First Choice, that is now a branch of Prosperity Bank.
The journey has been one of learning and success. After attending the now-closed Alamo Elementary on 27th Street, Word went to Hamilton Middle School and Reagan High School, where she was in the DE, or Distributive Education program.
“It was a work program,” Word said. “You could learn about retail or finance and I was interested in finance. Students would leave school early to go work. I was 17 years old and got a job at Merchant’s Bank.”
Word worked there for the next 27 years, attending college at night at the University of Houston.
“(The bank) paid for classes if you did marketing or banking and they also paid you $50 for every A or B in those classes,” she said.
At Merchant's, Word did a little bit of everything. She worked as a teller and a lending assistant as well as in the bookkeeping, accounting and loan departments.
Her first significant promotion was in 1979, when Word became the marketing officer in charge of advertising and public relations. Word later became an assistant vice president, a vice president and then a senior vice president. The bank was acquired by Union Planters and is now a Regions Bank.
In 1998, Word resigned. She and longtime banking executive Don Harding, whom she worked with at Merchant's, wanted to do something different.
“Branch banking was really coming into Texas,” she said. “The smaller independent banks were getting gobbled up. Some of them could not service customers like they used to. Our thing was that we wanted to help customers and stay true to our community.”
It took Word and Harding about six months to get First Choice off the ground. And they spent that in a trailer across the street from 2310 Yale St., where the bank was under construction.
“Before we started, we did a lot of research and made a lot of phone calls,” Word said. “Back in those days, you needed to raise $6 million before you could start a bank. We raised the money by looking for shareholders to invest. People believed in us. It worked out really well.”
Joyce Minter, whose family owned Connie’s TV on Yale for many years, was one of those shareholders.
“Marilyn is the epitome of the hometown girl and is so trustworthy,” Minter said. “She has such rapport with people, and you can’t fake that. Marilyn is the heart of the bank.”
Former Heights grocer Tom Snyder followed Word and Harding from Merchant's to First Choice because of his relationship with both bankers. He also complimented her professionalism.
“She always had a smile on her face no matter the circumstance,” Snyder said. “She could talk to anybody.”
Word said the business plan for her and Harding had always been to do things independently for 10 years and then step back to evaluate. After a decade, the advances in banking technology and the investment required spurred them to partner with another bank that shared their values. Enter Prosperity.
“The partnership benefited employees and it benefitted the shareholders,” Word said.
That has not changed the personal touch the Heights branch delivers.
“We know our customers by name, and we know what they need to succeed,” Word said.
At Merchant's, Word started a travel program for seniors that had been popular. At First Choice she expanded on that with the GO Club, which now has about 800 members.
“I thought our seniors were a group that had been ignored,” Word said. “We keep them connected.”
In the community room upstairs at the bank, Word has offered seminars on financial issues including scams and fraud and how to keep their resources safe. There is also a travel arm.
“They’ve been all over the U.S. and the world,” Word said.
She may soon join them on some of those trips.
Next week, the senior vice president and banking center manager will be at home gardening and attending more of her grandchildren’s events. Word’s husband, Bobby, who retired more than a year ago, is excited to have more time with his wife. She married him the same year she began her career in banking.
“It is a new chapter,” Word said. “I’m excited.”
Word said as a woman in the banking business, things have changed a lot since the 1970s.
“Women were not promoted as often,” she said.
Word said she is grateful to Harding, who died in 2019 after retiring from the bank.
“Our partnership was a big step for me,” she said. “He was so well-known in the community and so loved. I would not be where I am today without him.”