When First Trust Bank of Illinois was formed and opened its doors for business in 1998, the fledging financial institution had a single office in downtown Kankakee staffed by nine employees.

Fast forward to 23 years later. These days, the purely local bank has six locations — one in Aroma Park, two in Bourbonnais, one in Danforth and two in Kankakee. It also has more than 50 employees on the payroll, and plenty of capital to conduct business as First Trust has built its total assets to more than $350 million. Such success has allowed First Trust to achieve the coveted Bauer Five-Star rating which places it among the strongest banks in the nation.

This type of success and growth has enabled First Trust to be named as the Mid-Size Business of the Year by the Daily Journal as part of the newspaper’s annual Progress Awards.

Scott Smith, First Trust president, is openly appreciative of the honor, but the bank is not about to rest on its laurels.

“We have no intention to stop,’’ Smith said of the prospects of continued growth. “We look for the right fit, but we’re always looking for more opportunities. Our growth has come in orderly fashion.’’

Such an opportunity surfaced two years ago when First Trust absorbed Farmers Bank of Danforth and incorporated Farmers Bank into its system. The change was vital for First Trust for a number of reasons. Most notably, Farmers Bank had established a solid reputation for agricultural lending, and this is an area Smith said First Trust has been interested in virtually from the time it was created.

“Obviously ag lending is a huge part of this community,’’ Smith said. “We sought it since we opened. Expanding on the ag side lends a lot of possibilities.’’

The difference made by entering into agricultural lending can be found in the bottom line. When the deal was first announced, First Trust held about $240 million in total assets. Less than 24 months later, that number has grown by more than 30 percent.

As Smith said, agriculture has a large presence in the region in and around Kankakee County, and the same can be said of First Trust itself. While banks and businesses of many types are increasingly being bought out by corporate interests, First Trust remains fiercely proud of continuing to be a private, locally owned bank.

He also believes it gives First Trust an edge in the highly competitive banking business, as the people who customers trust to protect their money are in many cases the same people the customers count as neighbors, acquaintances and friends.

“Our employees our members of the community,’’ said Smith, a man who grew up locally and continues to live here. “They go to the same churches. Their kids go to the same schools. We have excellent people. [They] give us an advantage in what we do.’’

The First Trust team combines its talent and resources to offer the full array of banking options, In addition to agriculture lending, the bank provides various forms of business banking, as well as commercial, industrial and mortgage loans, personal loans, home equity loans, personal and business checking and every other service customers have come to expect.

The banking industry is a demanding pursuit, and that was the case when First Trust entered the picture. How well has it competed under these circumstances? Smith points to a development that indicates First Trust has done very well.

“When you look at the number of competitors who were here then and are not here today, it’s incredible,’’ he said.

Smith also marvels at what the community has been able to accomplish as a whole in the years has has been involved on a professional level. He has followed the Progress Awards since their inception, and is pleased to see First Trust honored. But he also gains pleasure by reading about and reviewing the accomplishments of all the winners.

“I always look forward to seeing who is chosen,’’ he said. “It highlights the good things in the community. We have a good quality of life here. We have two hospitals, two colleges. It’s home.’’