One-man bank keeps German village business running

Born in Gammesfeld, Germany, where he now runs a cooperative bank by himself, Peter Breiter says "it's so much fun" helping lunchtime customers, all of whose names he knows. Though pared down to basic services, cooperatives like Breiter's are tough competition for Germany's two financial giants.

GAMMESFELD, Germany — Peter Breiter, 41, is an unusual banker. The big bonuses, complicated financial instruments and multimillion deals are not for him.

He is happy instead writing transaction slips out by hand for the 500 inhabitants of the tiny southern German village of Gammesfeld.

"Why would I use a cash machine?" said Friedrich Feldmann, a customer sitting in the bank's small waiting room on his once-weekly visit to withdraw cash. "They cost money anyway."

The Raiffeisen Gammesfeld eG cooperative bank in southern Germany is one of the country's 10 smallest banks by deposits and is the only one to be run by just one staff member.

Small banks like this dominate the German banking landscape. Rooted in communities, they offer a limited range of accounts and loans to personal and local business customers.

While numbers have shrunk from around 7,000 in the 1970s to around 1,100 now, cooperative banks like Raiffeisen Gammesfeld provide competition for Germany's two largest banks — Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank.

A typical day's work for Breiter involves providing villagers with cash for their day-to-day needs and arranging small loans for local businesses. Not to mention cleaning the one-story building that houses the bank, which is a tenth of a mile from his own front door.

Moving from a bigger bank, where it was all "sell, sell, sell," Gammesfeld-born Breiter says taking up this job in 2008 was the best decision he ever made.

The advertisement required someone to work by hand, without computers. The typewriter and the adding machine bear the signs of constant use, although Breiter, in his standard work outfit of jeans and jumper, does now have a computer.

"It's so much fun," Breiter, a keen mathematician, says as he deals with a steady stream of lunchtime customers. He knows his customers by name and regularly offers advice on jobs, relationships and money woes.

"People said I would get bored, but I'm not," he said.

Breiter doesn't even mind that he gets barely any vacation each year, saying he is happy to settle for weekends skiing in the mountains nearby. "My hobby is my job. What could be finer?"

The cooperatives' existence is entwined closely with that of the Mittelstand, Germany's medium-sized and often family-run firms responsible for much of its export success.

"The Mittelstand is the lifeblood of Germany, and these are often our customers," Steffen Steudel, a spokesman for the BVR cooperative banking group association told Reuters.

Mittelstand customers served by Gammesfeld include farmers, a maker of solar panels with around 100 employees and a window firm, which supplied the windows for the bank.

CAN WE HAVE ONE TOO?

While many cooperative banks took a hit from the financial crisis, they fared better than some banks because they had mostly tried not to expand too quickly or take on too much risk-laden business.

The shock of seeing big banks go bust has also sparked renewed interest in the cooperatives, seen as steady and reliable, according to the BVR.

"Just as consumers want to know where their food is coming from, they also want to see what the bank is doing with their money," Steudel said.

Raiffeisen Gammesfeld restricts its business to traditional retail banking — no credit cards, shares, funds or even online banking. Annual profits are stable at around $53,800, and the biggest loan it ever disbursed was for $874,185.

Breiter said the financial crisis prompted interest in his bank from all over Germany: "One person rang up five times asking for a 4 million euro loan ($5.4 million), but I had to refuse because he wasn't from Gammesfeld!"

Breiter also says people have called to ask how they too can recreate Gammesfeld in their own village, although he says that the model is impossible to start from scratch today because of the sums of money that would be needed.

Breiter is also proud that Gammesfeld is there to serve the community and not just make profit. Each customer is offered the same interest rate, whether they earn 1,000 or 10,000 euros a month.

Inge Dill, whose son went to school with Breiter, says the bank offers the best interest rates around. "Why would I go anywhere else?"

The bank, however, almost did not make it this far.

In the 1980s, the bank's previous CEO, Fritz Vogt — whose grandfather founded the bank in 1870 — had to go through the courts to ensure the bank kept its license because it did not have a permanent second member of staff to act as a "second pair of eyes" to double-check transactions.

Even now, 82-year old Vogt, whose house backs onto the bank, still pops in each week to help out and cast an eye over the books.

Breiter says he too wants to stay working at the bank as long as possible. "Of course, I have to be careful not to withdraw completely into my shell. There's a whole world outside Gammesfeld after all."

Additional reporting by Lisi Niesner

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