VOL. 131 | NO. 61 | Friday, March 25, 2016
The Tipping Point
Stephenson Leverages Capital for Community Change
JOHN KLYCE MINERVINI | Special to The Daily News
Why start a bank? It’s a question that would never occur to most people. But to Susan Stephenson, the answer is obvious: “It’s infinite variety. You get to participate in other people’s dreams. In the morning, I can be a first-time homeowner. In the afternoon, I’m a small business looking to open a new location.”
Memphis stands at the threshold of incredible possibility. In this series, we introduce innovative Memphians who are driving our city forward and forging its future success.
Stephenson ought to know. Eighteen years ago, she co-founded Memphis-based Independent Bank with zero dollars in deposits. Today, the organization controls assets totaling $989 million. Pound for pound, it is one of the most profitable banks in Tennessee history.
This despite the fact that Stephenson is a female executive in a male-dominated industry – and that she launched Independent Bank amid some of the greatest tumult in modern financial history.
“In inflation-adjusted dollars, our bank has had to cope with 13 of the 15 greatest disasters in modern financial history,” Stephenson observes.
“Our timing was impeccable,” she adds, with a wry smile.
What has enabled Stephenson’s success is, on one hand, a certain dexterity with spreadsheets. But what sets her apart from the common run of bankers is more fundamental: Money was never the point. Standing by a window on the 22nd floor of i-Bank Tower, she gazes out at North Memphis, which rolls out before her like a furry, green carpet.
“I’m a huge believer in the American dream,” she confesses.
“I know that looks different for every person,” she continues. “My job is to make sure that as many people as possible can participate in that. I want to help you identify your own path and give you the tools you need to get there.”
Stephenson was never supposed to be a banker. Growing up in Chattanooga, she was a tomboy who felt called to the U.S. Senate – and eventually, she believed, the Supreme Court. She tried working in a hospital, then graduated from the University of Chattanooga with a degree in history and English.
“I was prepared for nothing in life,” she reflects.
“Well, Trivial Pursuit,” she adds, after a moment. “If only life were a big game of Trivial Pursuit, I’d be all set.”
Then, as she puts it, economic reality intervened. After graduation, she moved to Memphis, where a friend got her an interview at First Tennessee Bank. It was always supposed to be temporary, just a way to pay the bills until she discovered her true calling.
“Then one day I realized, ‘I’m good at this,’” she recalls. “I kind of fell in love with it.”
Stephenson began as a management trainee, then quickly rose through the ranks. She sold First Tennessee’s check clearing service, First Express, then was promoted to run the division. Later she moved to Boatman’s Bancshares to become senior vice president of marketing and development. At age 37, she became the first female bank CEO in Memphis history.
Which would have been enough for most people – but not Stephenson. In 1997, she and Chip Dudley sat down to plan what would become Independent Bank.
“We had this idea that we knew how to do it differently,” she recalls. “We wanted to create a bank where the heart of the transaction isn’t the company or the shareholder – it’s the customer.”
As an example, she cites the bank’s logo, a lower-case “i.” It’s not just a letter, Stephenson is quick to point out. It’s a human figure with her arms extended to serve.
The idea seems to have caught on. Today, with 10 branches and 220 employees, Independent Bank is the second-largest bank headquartered in Shelby County. It has twice been named to SNL Financial’s list of the top 100 community banks in the country. And it’s not just one of the most profitable financial institutions in the region – it’s also one of the most philanthropic.
“I’ve always said, if you want learn what really matters to someone, grab their ledger books,” Stephenson remarks.
“At Independent Bank, we try to live by that,” she continues. “As a percentage of our earnings, we are one of the most charitable companies in the city.”
Over the years, Independent Bank has contributed millions of dollars, as well as time and executive leadership, to organizations like the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Family Safety Center. Personally, Stephenson has served as board chair for New Memphis Institute and the Women’s Foundation, helping lead the latter’s Vision 20/20 initiative.
According to Stephenson, it comes from a deep-seated belief in her chosen city.
“Here in Memphis, we’re always looking up, looking out,” she muses. “Every day, we get a fresh chance to combine the best of what we have been with the best of what we can be.”
“Now we have to stop trying to get from one end of the city to the other,” she continues, “and start trying to get to the moon.”
Susan Stephenson is a graduate of New Memphis’s Leadership Development Intensive. Learn more at newmemphis.org.