VOL. 125 | NO. 60 | Monday, March 29, 2010
Stephenson Finds Success In Memphis
RICHARD J. ALLEY | Special to The Daily News
Susan Stephenson grew up in East Tennessee and followed her heart to Memphis when a young man she knew decided to attend graduate school here.
She ended up falling in love with a city instead.
“You don’t get to pick where you start, but you get to pick where you end and this is the place where I chose to build my life and my family and my career, and it’s where I choose to end,” Stephenson said. “I really genuinely love this city.”
The CEO and co-founder of Independent Bank never intended to enter the world of banking. Her liberal arts education in history and English from the University of Tennessee suggested a different track altogether, one that might have included teaching had she not ended up in the corporate training program at First Tennessee.
“The only thing I said I’d never do was banking because my mother was a banker, one of the very first women to be made a bank officer in her company,” she said. “I knew you worked very hard because I observed that first hand. I also suspected that it didn’t seem like it would be as entertaining on a daily basis as it certainly has been for me.”
Hard work and perseverance has never spooked Stephenson who, while at First Tennessee in the 1980s, collaborated with Federal Express to develop First Express, the largest private check processor in the country at the time.
“We built something extraordinary; it’s an example of innovation with purpose,” she said.
“I was involved in the hiring process of her first job in banking,” said Chip Dudley, Stephenson’s longtime friend and co-founder of Independent Bank. “It’s turned out to be a wonderful endeavor for us as well as a wonderful partnership, which you don’t see very often in banking. We just compliment each other really well and give each other wonderful strength.”
From there, she went to work at Boatmen’s Bank as senior vice president of marketing and development. She would eventually be named CEO of Tennessee banks for Boatmen’s at the age of 37, the first female bank CEO in Memphis history.
She learned many things in a leadership role at such a young age, including that “you need to be really grateful when you have smart people around you and you need to be incredibly happy when they’re as smart or smarter than you because they help you get things done.”
After Boatmen’s was bought by Nations Bank, which would eventually be purchased by Bank of America, Stephenson found herself antsy and wanting to try something new, to scratch the itch of entrepreneurship she’d always had. She found herself at lunch with longtime colleague Dudley.
“Both of us had always had the desire to be entrepreneurs and to own our own business, and over that lunch we decided we would try to do our own thing and mapped out a plan on the table cloth of what we would do, that was the genesis of it,” Dudley said.
The two began Independent Bank in 1997, raising $20 million in capital themselves, putting their own money in first, which Stephenson feels was important. The bank is now the second-largest headquartered in Memphis with assets over $700 million.
“We were ready to start a company that reflected our values,” she said. “Chip and I have both spent most of our careers being not only engaged in our companies but in our communities, and we had the chance to do what our ideal was for what a financial institution should be. It’s been a blast.”
She credits her knowledge of the banking industry with her early years in the business as she rotated through many departments to learn the basics of finance, from commercial lending to cash management, operations and retail. She also credits her business mentors: Dudley, her husband, Tom Stephenson, who is executive vice president over commercial lending for Independent Bank, and Al Tarsi, formerly with First Tennessee and now with Trustmark National Bank.
She also, however, cites women that she’s met along the way as heroes who have guided her both in business and in her philanthropic spirit. Women such as her mother, who she said is responsible for “every impulse for kindness and personal generosity” she has, Gayle Rose, Kathy Buckman Gibson and Ruby Bright of the Women’s Foundation.
“When you love a place then your obligation is to nurture that place to make it better, and this city is unique in that you have a chance to make a real impact if you choose to do so,” she said.
“She’s got that magic that you want all leaders to have,” Dudley said. “She has the ability to get more out of people than they would think possible of themselves; she’s a great motivator. She never really asks somebody to do something she wouldn’t do herself.”
Stephenson keeps her poise and confidence even during the most trying of banking and financial times, leaning heavily on her family: husband, Tom; son, Tommy; daughters Katie and Meg; and stepdaughter, Haley. To help her relax, Stephenson travels to places that have “either sand and a palm tree or some historical significance,” and reads at least two books a week. An avid sports fan, she does not leave her competitive spirit in front of the television or in the stands.
“I’m a tenacious person, I’m all about the challenge and getting it done,” she said. “I never give up, I’m always confident that we’re going to work to a great ending.”