Brighter Future

Banking industry improves as focus shifts to community

By Andy Meek

Dale Fater and Alexis Ottle, right, make a deposit with teller Kelli Hobbs at the Wolfchase branch of the Bank of Bartlett, 7984 Stage Road.  Photos: Lance Murphey

The financial services industry in Memphis is apparently back to thinking about tomorrow, rather than simply making it through today.

Firms are hiring again, deepening their bench strength in key areas, recommitting to a focus on customer relationships – and, in some cases, once more turning a tidy profit.

Some of the clearest examples of those items being front and center are at Memphis’ community banks, where first-name relationships are the norm and customer service is as almost as prized as profits.

Bank of Bartlett recently hired two new business bankers, part of a team at the bank that provides specially tailored guidance to business customers and works to broaden their relationship with the bank. The small, family-run community bank also anticipates hiring one to two more such bankers in the near future.

Magna Bank, another of Memphis’ most prominent community banks, told shareholders in a first quarter letter the bank wants to expand and is on the hunt for merger and acquisition opportunities. Magna also added a new vice president to its commercial lending group during the first three months of the year and has started to repay its federal bank bailout money.

“In this environment, we remain focused on enhanced service delivery, building customer relationships, preserving capital and liquidity, controlling operating expenses, making prudent credit decisions, and swift and total focus on problems as they arise,” wrote Magna president, chairman and CEO Kirk Bailey in a letter to shareholders included with the bank’s 2009 annual report.

Several of the city’s other hometown banks have either returned to profitability or insist they’re close to it.

Bartlett Bank president Harold Byrd, from left, talks with Christine DeFillippo, Nick Holmes, Linda Deming, Audra Shepherd and Cindy McLarty inside the lobby of the Bank of Bartlett, 7984 Stage Road.

Memphis’ banks and brokerage houses aren’t necessarily drowning in newfound optimism at the moment. On the contrary, they’re doing what they can to turn the page on a deep recession that tore like a hurricane through their customer base and inspired lawmakers to come up with an entirely new financial industry rulebook.

Now more than ever, turning that page means answering the door when opportunity knocks.

Southeastern Asset Management founder Mason Hawkins, for example, told shareholders at his company’s recent annual meeting at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre that two of Southeastern’s mutual funds had their best year ever in 2009.

First Tennessee Bank has gone on a tear in Nashville, where the bank has been particularly excited about its growth prospects. The Memphis-based bank has hired several new bankers there over the last year and a half, according to Bryan Jordan, president and CEO of First Tennessee’s parent company, First Horizon National Corp.

First Tennessee is also renovating its Ron Terry Center by the Oak Court Mall, with changes including the addition of a market-level retail group at the center. The building is in the process of getting new paint, wallpaper, carpet and furniture, and work will be finished by November.

Most notably, First Horizon also notched a profit in the second quarter – the first quarterly profit since early 2008. It was partly the result of the company’s strict adherence to a turnaround plan that’s been months in the works and dates back to the early days of the recession.

In an industry note published a few days ago titled “Looking Through the Fog of Uncertainty,” Morgan Keegan’s equity research department hinted the patina of the credit crisis is starting to get chipped away for banks.

“We are in the camp that banks and the regulators now have a good handle on credit issues and expect to see continued improvement in asset quality,” the note reads.

There are still challenges aplenty. Some community banks dread the cost they may soon have on their hands once they determine what the cost of complying with the new 2,300-page financial reform bill will be.

Reserves to cover souring loans and higher premiums that banks have been paying into the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s customer deposit insurance fund have eaten into bank profits.

Yet those and a raft of new regulations don’t yet appear to be insurmountable challenges. If there were, there likely wouldn’t be as many examples of resurgence as there are now.

The city’s premier investment advisory, brokerage and securities firms – institutions like Duncan Williams, Southeastern Asset Management and Morgan Keegan – have been snatching up fresh talent for months.

Duncan Williams and Morgan Keegan have been adding new equity analysts and investment bankers to their teams.

Top Memphis-based Banks, by Market Share

First Tennessee Bank NA – 33.99 %
Independent Bank – 2.62%
Bank of Bartlett – 1.59 %
Source: Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., current as of June 30, 2009

Lee Harper, of Southeastern Asset Management, told shareholders in May the company filled junior analyst and client interface roles for the first time in the company’s history by publicly soliciting applicants.

Southeastern is also in the process of redesigning its website to make it simpler, better and more informative for shareholders.

The reason behind that move is driving much of what will likely separate local winners and losers in 2010. Among the other banking-related storylines unfolding this year: the race is on to see who is the best at maintaining and building on existing customer relationships.

Some firms have a little bit of a leg up on the competition. At Kelman Lazarov, a wealth management firm housed in Clark Tower, chairman and co-founder Marty Kelman has a master’s degree in counseling.

Gretchen Gassner Turley, who handles duties at the firm that include marketing and making sure client needs are taken care of, also has a degree in psychology.

It helps explain why Turley said the firm “has operated for 30 years without ever advertising. The strength of (the) business is so strong that professional referrals and existing customers make up the base of the new business.”

Associates at Bank of America, one of the many national financial players with locations throughout Memphis, have begun informally referring to an acronym that defines the bank’s current customer-centered mission.

The acronym is GUEST and it stands for Genuine welcome, Undivided attention, Empowered, Solutions and Thank you.

Southard Financial, a business valuation, investment banking and consulting firm, is broadening the way it shares information and gets its message out. The Memphis firm recently stepped into the world of social media, now sending out regular tweets on Twitter and postings on Facebook.

One of the most tangible displays of that same idea is visible at Bank of Bartlett, which cranks up an old-fashioned popcorn machine and serves cookies at its branches on Fridays and Saturdays. It encourages guests to spend some time with branch employees after they’ve finished their personal transactions – or for no reason at all, as some longtime customers pop in just to chat.

“The commitment that locally owned banks have to the community is more passionate, emotional and demonstrated,” said bank president Harold Byrd.