Business News for the Mississippi Delta

Danny Whalen

President and CEO of Cleveland State Bank

By Becky Gillette  •  Photography by Holly Tharp

Danny Whalen, president and CEO of Cleveland State Bank, is known as the consummate small-town banker. He not only knows banking regulations and operations inside and out, he knows many of his customers and their families, and they get VIP treatment no matter the size of their bank account.   

“In a small community bank like we are, relationships are so integral,” says Whalen. “People know each other well. Small town bankers don’t specialize for the most part. I was just on the phone helping customers who moved to Arizona fifteen years ago and still have checking and savings with us. They needed to stop a draft. I did everything they needed to have done. We value someone who would move away that far and still be our customers.”

A basic tenant of the Bank Secrecy Act, which is designed to prevent money laundering, is to know your customer. At Cleveland State Bank, employees not only know their customers but likely know and have interactions with their customers’ parents, kids or grandkids.

“Genuine friendliness and interest in other people’s lives is important in any people business, and banking is a people business,” says Whalen. “It is not the sign outside the bank that is important but the people inside. A lot of banks have changed their signs many times as there have been so many mergers. It is the people inside the bank who build the relationships.”

Whalen impresses on the bank lending staff to always respect the needs of customers in front of you whether they are needing $1,000 to buy a washer and dryer or a business loan for $1 million. Give customers respect that they have come in and trust the bank with both personal and business financial transactions.

“Be of the mindset that whatever a customer needs, you will deal with it,” says Whalen. 

Local businessman Pete Jones appreciates Whalen as both a banker and a long-time friend. 

“Danny is a fully-engaged, small-town banker,” says Jones. “He is well informed and a guy who can get things done. He has the personal touch. I admire him for his philosophy of his personal life, too. We have church ties and enjoy tailgating at Mississippi State. Danny is maroon and white all the way, I can tell you that.” 

Harry Lott, chief financial officer, Cleveland State Bank, worked with Whalen in banking from late 1991 to 1995 becoming close friends, as well. Career paths separated then until 2007 when Lott joined Cleveland State Bank to open a branch in Grenada. 

“Little did we know that those early years together would prepare us to manage an independent bank later in our careers,” says Lott. “Danny is very much a man of faith first and then family but he has dedicated himself to being the best chief executive he can be for all stakeholders of Cleveland State Bank. He is always at the top of his game on banking issues and is most generous with his time in public service. It has been an honor to have worked side by side with him for some twenty-two years.”

Born in Memphis, Whalen grew up in Coldwater, a small town thirty miles south of Memphis. After graduating from Coldwater High School in 1981, he attended Mississippi State University where he initially planned to study architecture. His advisor in the architecture program warned Whalen that there would be very little time for traditional extramural college activities like attending football games.

“To be in the architecture program, I was told I had to separate from the rest of the campus and commit to focusing on design and architecture,” says Whalen. “I wanted to have a more broadly-rounded college experience so I took a 180-degree turn and changed my major to banking and finance. Aptitude tests in high school came back very skewed to accounting and finance. I ignored that because I was going to be an architect. But my personality traits were trying to tell me that wasn’t the right fit. So, I ended up in the right place.”

After obtaining a degree in banking and finance from MSU in 1985, Whalen landed a job with Deposit Guaranty National Bank in Jackson which enrolled him in a very structured one-year bank management program. In April 1986 he went to work in the lending department.

In April 1988, he took a job with Sunburst Bank in Cleveland. He loved working at the small community bank, especially the relationships and connectivity with customers and other employees. 

After 7.5 years at Sunburst, he went to work for Cleveland State Bank in August 1995. In January 2013, he became president of Cleveland State Bank.

“I’ve been proud to have been a part of this bank for going on twenty-nine years,” says Whalen. “Cleveland has become our home. All three of our sons were born and raised in Cleveland, and graduated from high school here.”

Whalen feels blessed to have had good mentors along the way including his first boss at Sunburst Bank, David Collins. Calvin Dye, former president of Cleveland State Bank, was a valued mentor for many years. Whalen also had a special relationship with the late Homer Sledge Jr., who was the long-time chairman of the board at Cleveland State Bank.

“My father passed away when I was twenty-three,” says Whalen. “Homer and my father were the same age. To have a business and personal relationship with someone my father’s age was special. Homer was a great mentor, someone of age with wisdom, calmness and great business skills.”

One lesson Whalen passes on to his employees is remembering that we all have our highs and lows. So, it is important to put yourself in the shoes of your customers.

“If someone comes in with a low, try to solve their problem for them,” says Whalen. “Treat everyone with the same respect. Have empathy. We all have situations where we need help sometimes.”

The bank is privately owned, which has become increasingly rare in the age of bank mergers creating bigger and bigger financial institutions. But while shareholder return is a necessary component of banking, Whalen says their bank leaders are also committed to providing value to people who live in Bolivar and Grenada counties. 

“We are an economic engine,” says Whalen. “We leverage our resources to provide capital for our community whether financing a house, a business or a farm. And we are very cognizant of supporting the quality-of-life component. We do things like help sponsor the Christmas parade. We are not just financially supporting the parade, but we have employees walking the two-mile parade route holding a twenty-four-foot inflatable.”

The bank never has trouble getting enough employees to sign up for volunteer events that bring pride and joy to the community. They also have employees participate in activities like giving talks on financial literacy at local schools.

Cleveland has a very competitive banking market. Whalen thinks that is a good thing. It makes everyone work harder.

Agriculture is always going to be a major driver of the local economy directly and indirectly. As a whole, this farm season was very positive, which multiplies over in the community. But while agriculture is king in the Delta, but Cleveland is also fortunate to be home to one of the state’s eight universities, Delta State University. Whalen says DSU has a big positive impact on the economy and culture of Cleveland.

Cleveland also has a strong industrial base.  

One of the best parts of Whalen’s job is close interpersonal relationships.

“When people join the bank, we tell them we are now their family,” says Whalen. “We have happy and sad times like any life. We support each other in the loss of loved ones. And this past year we have been celebrating babies, which is a great thing. We have had babies born to several employees, and have three new grandparents. Within the Cleveland market, we are proud of how our industries are managing. They have done very well coming out of Covid as far as management and productivity. I think the biggest need we have is workforce training which is very important to attract and maintain jobs. The workforce skills needed are changing and employees need to be able to use technology.”

Another economic driver—a point of pride for Cleveland–is the Grammy Museum Mississippi. Whalen is on the board of directors of that, and on the Bolivar Medical Center Board of Trustees. 

Whalen and his wife, Tammy, have been married thirty-eight years. They have three sons, Adam, Andrew, and Ben, and two grandchildren who live in the area. In addition to being big MSU sports fans, the Whalens enjoy travel, especially to National Parks. 

“We are checking them off as we can,” says Whalen. “We recently went to the Banff National Park in Canada, which is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.”