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More than 120 years after it opened its first branch on 119th Street in Whiting, Centier Bank has officially become Northwest Indiana's largest bank, toppling Chase from its longtime seat atop the throne.

Merrillville-based Centier, which was capitalized at $35,000 as The Bank of Whiting in 1895 and remains owned by the same family to this day, attained the largest market share in the Northwest Indiana region of Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties last year, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s Summary of Deposits.

The independent financial institution now has $2.5 billion in local deposits, giving it a leading market share of 19.21 percent in Northwest Indiana —  nearly 1 out of every 5 Region residents banks with Centier, the largest privately owned community bank in Indiana. It surpassed and unseated former local market leader Chase, which has $2.4 billion in deposits and a market share of 18.77 percent in Lake, Porter, and LaPorte counties, according to the FDIC. 

Both Centier and Chase are far ahead of third-place Horizon Bank, which has 7.74 percent market share in Northwest Indiana and $1 billion in local deposits.

Chase, a national bank with $2.5 trillion in assets, had had the leading market position in Northwest Indiana since it first arrived in 2005, after buying out BankOne, immediately giving it 34 branches in the Region. BankOne's predecessors had included Merrillville-based Gainer Bank, the largest bank in Northwest Indiana when NBD Corp. swallowed it in 1991, and the Gary National Bank.

Centier, which has 43 local offices in Northwest Indiana as compared to Chase's 34, started gaining on the New York City-based corporate behemoth during the Great Recession, a period when the financial crisis undercut public confidence in big banks. Many customers flocked to Centier during that period after Chase stopped making loans in the local market, Centier Chief Executive Officer and Chairman Michael Schrage said. 

Schrage realized five years ago that his 122-year-old, family-owned bank was in a position to take over the No. 1 market share position in Northwest Indiana. He drew an "X" on a sheet of paper to illustrate the goal, and told his team it might still be a few years away.

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"We have over 800 associates working toward a common goal: To preserve hometown, independent community banking for generations to come," he said. "Achieving the No. 1 market share position in Northwest Indiana is a proud moment for us at Centier. It's a bit of a David and Goliath story, and it reminds us every single day that one small company can do great things, simply by believing in itself and doing what's right."

Over the years, Centier expanded south across Lake County, east into Porter County and farther east into LaPorte County, where the leadership realized they didn't have the experience with agricultural lending to keep pressing into contiguous areas as they got more rural. So instead it's been growing in urban population centers across Northern Indiana, including Michiana, Lafayette, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis.

Centier now has 54 branches across the state and expects to have 60 locations by year's end, including a branch in downtown South Bend. The bank had $30 million in assets when Schrage started working there in 1972, and now has $3.5 billion in assets.

Almost all the growth has been organic — Centier hasn't acquired any banks since it bought out smaller community banks in Crown Point and Lowell in 1982. Even without acquisitions, it's on pace to grow to $5 billion in assets by 2020 and $10 billion by 2030.

"We do not take our success for granted," he said. "We have a deep sense of responsibility to our associates, our clients and our communities. Our culture is rooted in family — in core values that create and maintain an atmosphere of care and success: Caring, loyalty, integrity, friendship and fun. When you are focused on the genuineness of the service you provide, you succeed not only in your business and your community — but also in your heart."

Centier attained top market share in Northwest Indiana at a time when many community banks have vanished, usually gobbled up through mergers. Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties were once home to more than 50 independent community banks, but that number has shrunk to just five in recent years, according to the FDIC.

"There was a time when community banks were plentiful and having personal relationships with businesses and families was common practices," Schrage said. "But things have changed significantly in the banking landscape; community banks are disappearing at an alarming rate and banking has earned a reputation as being impersonal. Our goal is to remind people that there still exists a better choice; a better way."

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.