VOL. 7 | NO. 16 | Saturday, April 12, 2014
By Andy Meek
First Tennessee Bank is commemorating its 150th anniversary with events, such as a recent gala replete with fireworks, and donations to local nonprofits.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
The day after First Tennessee Bank celebrated its 150th birthday a few weeks ago by shooting fireworks over its Downtown Memphis headquarters, with executives and bank stakeholders mingling on a nearby hotel rooftop, the bank’s chairman, president and CEO looked back with pride at his bank’s long history.
And he was clear-eyed about where the bank goes from here and about how it confronts an increasingly digital future.
The anniversary comes amid an inflection point for the industry, in the view of Bryan Jordan, who was named the president and CEO of First Tennessee parent company First Horizon National Corp. in 2008 and who added the role of chairman to his title in 2012.
“I think banking, in a lot of ways, is going from a Blockbuster to a Netflix model,” he said.
Jordan explained that the importance of customer relationships won’t change in importance for the bank, but the way customers interact with the bank will change in the future – probably dramatically. Like the way consumers these days tend to stream movies online from a buffet of choices for a monthly fee instead of trekking to the video store.
He intends the bank to make it through that industry sea change, just as it’s already weathered more than a century of change to get to this point.
Anniversaries and birthdays, by definition, mark the turning of a page and are nods to what’s past. 2014 likewise represents an improbable and impressive such milestone for the largest bank based in Tennessee – a distinction that has sometimes caused it to be referred to as “Last Tennessee Bank” because of mergers and acquisitions of rivals.
The First Tennessee branch at Poplar and Mendenhall includes a giant sign announcing the anniversary.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
The milestone can be regarded as improbable, because of its coming in the wake of a recession that felled bigger institutions and as the banking industry itself is in the midst of a radical sea change. It’s also an impressive one, because as much as the city of Memphis has changed over the last two centuries, its oldest hometown bank endures.
Memphis-based First Tennessee was founded in 1864, the year Lincoln was elected to a second term. The bank has the 14th oldest national bank charter in the country, and the arc of its story is so long, in fact, that First Tennessee has published a large coffee table-type book with more than 100 pages of color photos and details of the bank’s history.
An introduction to the book, titled “The First 150: The First Tennessee Story,” notes how the bank has survived the Civil War, yellow fever epidemics, the Great Depression, two World Wars, decades of social change and more.
In addition to the book, First Tennessee has decided on a handful of creative ways to celebrate its birthday. On March 25, for example, the bank kicked off an effort called 150 Days of Giving during which the First Tennessee Foundation will give away $5,000 a day, every day, to a different nonprofit.
Votes are being solicited from the public, and social media feeds have been buzzing with requests from nonprofits and from their supporters asking for votes to try and win some of the cash. Already, winning nonprofits include the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Baptist Memorial Health Care Foundation and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, among others.
Organizations eligible to win a donation are nonprofits that the First Tennessee Foundation – which gives away $5 million each year – has supported since 2008, either through a direct grant or matching gift for a First Tennessee employee’s donation. That makes more than 1,000 nonprofits eligible to win during the 150 Days of Giving.
Thematically, those donations and the generosity behind them are part of the bank’s larger story – embedded, in fact, in its history, according to “The First 150.” In 1864, for example, the federal government chose the bank – originally named First National Bank – to distribute salary payments to Union troops stationed here. When yellow fever broke out in 1878, the bank handled relief money donated from other cities.
During World War II, the bank also helped provide financing to firms involved in the war effort. The First Tennessee Foundation was launched in 1993 and focuses its giving around education, economic development, health and human services and arts and culture.
Meanwhile, the bank’s 150th anniversary celebration also included government proclamations from cities and towns around Tennessee declaring March 25 First Tennessee Day. And from that day through the end of the year, the company’s Downtown Memphis headquarters will glow in blue, the first time the building has been lit in a single color.
First Tennessee Bank’s 150th anniversary celebration included government proclamations from cities and towns declaring March 25 First Tennessee Day. And from that day through the end of the year, the company’s Downtown Memphis headquarters will glow in blue, the first time the building has been lit in a single color.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
The Downtown headquarters also will be home to a permanent interactive exhibit on display that celebrates the bank’s history. First Tennessee financial centers are carrying signage promoting the anniversary, and colorful banner stands will tell the company’s story in every location.
As an example of the outside signage, the First Tennessee location at the corner of Poplar Avenue and Mendenhall includes a giant sign announcing the 150th anniversary that’s draped over the side of the building. Inside such locations around the state, managers are hosting team celebrations and presenting employees with gifts to mark the occasion.
In an interview, eager as he was to note the reasons the bank has lasted this long, Jordan remains focused as ever on what comes next. On the next 150 years, and beyond.
Mobile phones, for example, are the new bricks and mortar. Jordan has said repeatedly and continues to acknowledge that branch visits are declining as more customers transfer funds and make deposits through smartphones – “that technology,” he said, “is close to doubling year on year. So we have to be responsive to changing customer demands and keep our eye on the horizon, no pun intended.”
It means, for First Tennessee, the footprint of its financial centers will change. Branches, Jordan said, will probably be spaced farther apart. They will have a different look and feel.
All of it, really, is a natural and necessary evolution, something an institution can’t survive long enough to blow out the candles on its 150th birthday cake without embracing. And underpinning it, Jordan said, has to be an emphasis on customers and relationships.
First Horizon CEO Bryan Jordan said a focus on technology means the bank must respond to “changing customer demands and keep our eye on the horizon, no pun intended.”
(Memphis News File/Lance Murphey)
“I’ve always said our money’s no greener than anyone else’s,” he said. “The real differentiator is a level of service and that relationship. What that looks like in the future will change. More so than in the last 20 years, mobile phones are playing a bigger part in this industry and checks a smaller part. Technology is changing our lives. So the net of that is, as we look into the future trying to position ourselves, we have to be flexible, adaptable and nimble.
“Ultimately, our success – past, present and future – is intertwined with the success of our people and the communities we serve.”
Those communities are continuing to multiply. In recent days, the bank announced an expansion into Houston, where First Tennessee has tapped a longtime banker there to be its Houston market president. In recent months prior to that, First Tennessee also announced new offices in Charleston, S.C., as well as Jacksonville, Fla.
The 150th anniversary events, Jordan said, are a chance to remind people not only that the bank has endured – but why it’s endured. The donations to nonprofits are one way to do that, to reassert its important work in the community.
“We’ve had more than 100,000 votes cast as of right now,” Jordan said at the end of March, referring to votes from the public for their choices of nonprofits to get each day’s $5,000. “By the time this is done we’ll have given away three quarters of a million dollars in total. This is about us underscoring how important communities are to our success. If our communities aren’t successful, we won’t be successful.”