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Banking on Round Top

Ronny Sacks in his office at the Round Top State Bank.
Ronny Sacks in his office at the Round Top State Bank.

As CEO of Round Top State Bank, an enterprise that manages assets of $446 million from five locations in three counties, giving advice is part of Ronny Sacks’ job. When his cell phone chirped, he politely stopped our conversation and took the call.

He was warm and friendly, but kept the conversation to the point. After the call ended, he smiled and said, “That was my tuba player’s wife. She’s buying him lederhosen for Christmas and wanted to know if I had any advice.”

That request would be out of place in most corporate offices, but Sacks, a lifelong Round Top resident, is not confined by gray flannel stereotypes. Lederhosen and the flugelhorn are in his wheelhouse. He has been a musician longer than he has been a businessman.

The Sound of Music
“I got my first trumpet in 1958 when I was in the second grade,” he said. “I asked for a trumpet for Christmas. My parents got me a plastic one.” An aunt and uncle, who were both musicians, replaced the toy with a used trumpet from their collection when the youngster showed an aptitude.

[pullquote width=”300″ float=”left”]“I asked for a trumpet for Christmas. My parents got me a plastic one.”[/pullquote]

“It was just natural for me,” Sacks said. “I didn’t know the fingerings, but the embouchure, the ability to make the right sounds, just happened from the very beginning.” He began taking private lessons in the third grade from Gus Streithof, a music teacher who traveled to rural schools such as Round Top-Carmine, Flatonia and Burton that didn’t have formal music programs.

Music became an integral part of his life. According to Sacks, Round Top in the 1950s was still strongly influenced by its German heritage. Many of the residents were second-generation Americans. Polkas, waltzes and other traditional music formed the basis of his repertoire.

“As a teenager I played dances around the area at places like the hall in Ammannsville—polkas, not rock-and-roll,” Sacks said. “I got paid $10 to $15 for four hours work. That was big money for a kid back then.”

In addition, he worked at his father’s garage, changing oil and fixing flats. The garage was a natural progression in the family business, which began in 1890 when his great grandfather arrived in Round Top and established his blacksmith shop. His grandfather continued the tradition of blacksmithing, but operated his business in the era when wagons gave way to Model Ts. Blacksmiths assembled the early cars from kits. Model Ts transitioned into cars that were manufactured on an assembly line. These “ready-made” vehicles created the opportunity for mechanics.

The Sacks family's blacksmith shop during the Model T era.
The Sacks family’s blacksmith shop during the Model T era.

“I grew up speaking German because our customers in the blacksmith shop spoke German,” Sacks said. “They didn’t ask if I spoke German. They just told me what they needed. If I was going to be useful, I had to speak German, too.”

When it came time to make his way in the world, Sacks was tired of fixing flats and chose to attend Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University) in San Marcos and pursued a degree in music. In the music department, he found lifelong friends and the co-founding members of the Round Top Brass Band. They got together in 1971 and six or seven of the original members still play in the band, which today numbers about 18 highly trained musicians.

About one-third of the Round Top Brass Band's members have played together since its founding in 1971.
About one-third of the Round Top Brass Band’s members have played together since its founding in 1971.

Originally organized to play at the Round Top Fourth of July celebrations, which it has done every year since its inception, the band has performed at ethnic festivals throughout the state including WurstFest and San Antonio’s Folk Life Festival. The band will be recording a CD of German music that was requested and underwritten by the Bybee Foundation.

“We choose our music based on the performance and generally the performance is the first time we’ve played it together,” Sacks said. “We rarely practice as a group. Everybody is an excellent musician, so we all read music like most people read novels.”

From the Band Hall to the Bank
Early on, the Round Top Brass Band fed his creativity, but it didn’t pay the bills. Upon graduation, Sacks became a band director in nearby Lexington. Early in his tenure, a less-than-enthusiastic student popped off as teenagers are prone to do. He made his smart remark in German, thinking the new band director, who was barely older than his students, would be none the wiser. The memory of the young man’s expression when Sacks shot back a rapid-fire reply in German still makes him laugh.

Round-Top-State-Bank-Ronny-Sacks-Band-Director
Band Director Ronny Sacks in the 1974 Lexington Eagle yearbook.

“He turned red, sat up straight and became one of my best trumpet players,” Sacks said.

After a few years in band halls around the region, Sacks determined that teaching was not for him. His dissatisfaction led to a conversation over a cold beer with long-time friend Wayne Wagner, who worked at the Round Top State Bank. Wagner said the bank, which had four employees at the time, needed someone else. In 1977, school dismissed for summer on May 25. Nine days later Sacks started his career at the bank. Everyone on the small staff did everything from acting as teller to serving as loan officers.

“Banking was the easiest job, I’d ever had,” Sacks said. “To be a successful banker at the time, you just had to be active and well-liked in the community, so local people would bring their business to you.”

This was in a simpler era when banks still had counter checks and loans were given based on a person’s reputation and a handshake. Thick books of regulations and loan applications requiring reams of paper weren’t part of the mix.

“At the time, it was the county’s smallest bank with assets of about $3 million,” Sacks recalled.

Ronny Sacks has been banking on Round Top his entire life.
Ronny Sacks has been banking on Round Top his entire life.

Knowledge of the community and a commitment to honest, fair dealing paved the way to growth. In the 1980s, when the Texas banking industry was upended by scandal and an oil bust, the Round Top State Bank thrived.

“We kept our nose clean and continued to do business the way we had always done,” Sacks said. “We went from being the smallest bank in the county to the largest.”

The bank attracted customers through the region, prompting an expansion. In 1996, the bank opened a branch in Giddings; in 2000, La Grange; in 2004, Lexington; and in 2011, acquired Eagle Bank in Jarrell.

[pullquote width=”300″ float=”left”]“When you are dealing with other people’s money, it’s good to tread lightly, be respectful and just be a good person. Being a good person always trumps everything else.”[/pullquote]

In each instance, the branch was profitable within the year. Sacks attributes the success to the bank’s unchanging commitment to customer service and its ability to recognize and retain talented staff members from the local area. Today, the Round Top State bank employs 65 people in banking and another 12 in its insurance company.

“Running a bank is like directing a band: Different sections do different jobs, but each has to perform its best, so the whole operates in concert,” Sacks observed.

In early 2015, the Round Top State Bank will open a branch in Round Rock, a rapidly growing suburb of Austin.

“Imagine going from serving a town of about 100 to serving a city of 100,000,” Sacks said. “Fortunately, the principles of banking are the same. People want to be recognized. They want to be treated fairly. They want a relationship with their banker, so they can trust their advice.”

He continued, “When you are dealing with other people’s money, it’s good to tread lightly, be respectful and just be a good person. Being a good person always trumps everything else.”

A Little More of the Story
“Banking makes my living and music makes me happy,” said Sacks. “I have fun with both. You have to do things that bring you joy.”

Apparently, wearing many hats brings Sacks joy. In addition to the bank and the band, Sacks serves as Mayor Pro-Tem when Mayor Barnell Albers, another lifelong Round Top resident, is out of town attending to his computer engineering business.

“Round Top is attracting a lot of new residents,” Sacks said. “There are four of us, including myself and the mayor, who grew up, went to school here and still live within the city limits. We get together, share a cold beer, and talk about the old times and the new.”

In this 2012, photo Ronny Sacks presents a check on behalf of the Round Top Carmine Education Foundation.
In this 2012, photo Ronny Sacks presents a check on behalf of the Round Top Carmine Education Foundation.

In recent years, Sacks helped create an education foundation to support music, arts and technology in the Round Top-Carmine school district. As a sample of its outreach, the foundation purchased band instruments, so every child in the fifth through eighth grades can enjoy music education without shouldering the burden of purchasing an instrument. The school district employs the band director, who, as you might suspect, plays in the Round Top Brass Band.

“Music is important to me and to the world,” Sacks said. “It is just one more way that people can say what is on their minds and on their hearts.”

The Round Top Mercantile is managed by the fourth generation of the Sacks' family to do business in Round Top.
The Round Top Mercantile is managed by the fourth generation of the Sacks’ family to do business in Round Top.

Sacks is also part of a family partnership that operates the Round Top Mercantile. Ronny co-founded the store with his wife, Betty, in 1984. At the time, commerce in Round Top was flagging, and the couple built the store to meet the demand for groceries and hardware.

Under the management of his son, Michael, and daughter-in-law, Jackie, the general store has just undergone a $1.1 million renovation and expansion. The store, which now encompasses 20,000 square feet, includes groceries, gas, feed, hardware, fresh meats, deli foods, beer and wine, and small engine repair.

“We have our eyes on the future and the past,” Sacks said. “Our family has been doing business in Round Top since 1890, and we plan to be here for generations to come.”