|Can-do banking makes opportunities (February 2011)|
They say opportunity knocks, but sometimes it helps if someone pushes you through the door. Early in his life McCall Wilson had that kind of help, and it put him on the road to becoming a banker. That experience gave him an insight on the community banker’s role and value.
A tough competitor, Tennessee’s McCall Wilson believes anyone who works hard deserves a chance
By Steve Cocheo, executive editor
In rural Tennessee, the friendly “finger wave” can be such a common means of communication, one wonders why the locals don’t have over-developed finger muscles. A finger wave is a slight lift or swish of the left pointing finger at a friend or customer, given while driving. McCall Wilson knows so many folks in his bank’s communities that he can’t drive far without finger waving.
Wilson, chairman of the ABA America’s Community Bankers Council for 2010-2011, is very up on what’s going on in Washington and its politics, but that’s not where he lives or what he does. He lives in Tennessee and does banking. Honest banking.
“Compliance comes from bad players, and regulations are written by attorneys for attorneys. But if we were to take advantage of our customers, we’ll never get those customers back, because this is a small community,” he explains. “Our ability to do good is impacted by regulations and politics. But we will continue to serve our community, within the rules.”
Wilson’s ideal consumer disclosure for nearly any rule would be a plainly written one-pager. And he not only understands the need for small-dollar loans—a pillar of FDIC’s platform—but especially seeks them in markets where they are needed. To him, they are an essential, though not terribly profitable, public need. He’s got an officer, Larry Bishop, in the bank’s Bolivar office, in Hardeman County, who is the “king of small-dollar loans.”
“I think small-dollar lending is a great thing,” says Wilson. “But if it takes 50 pages of regulations to do it, I think Washington has missed the point.”
Wilson knows where he’s from, and how to work with people, inside and outside the bank. It’s part of how he’s taken an institution that was $40 million in 2002 to over $300 million today, and which operates in four Tennessee counties. This includes Fayette County, the bank’s home, once one of the state’s poorest counties but now, due to migration from Memphis, one of its most affluent. Focusing on growth, rather than the highest immediate earnings, the bank has been building market share. Today, for instance, the bank enjoys the leading deposit share in Fayette County.
People who serve people
Moscow, Tenn., where finger waving says a world without words, is not the kind of place where you talk much about “human resources.” At The Bank of Fayette County, you have, instead, “people”—in all of their inspiring, frustrating, helpful, ambitious, selfless, selfish, and workaday modes.
Every person you’ll meet at the bank, from the teller who greets you at the bank’s Moscow headquarters to any branch manager, has a story.
And McCall Wilson knows every story—and sometimes he’s helped write them, or at least improve a few chapters. President and CEO, Wilson has some simple, straightforward ideas about managing people.
There’s one teller he took on recently who formerly worked at a gas station nearby. She handled the station’s banking, and Wilson liked the way the woman handled herself. Making the transition from filling station to bank hasn’t always been easy, but Wilson thinks she rates a chance.
One of Wilson’s right-hand staffers, Jeff Bing, senior credit officer, was so poorly paid as a teller, when Wilson first arrived at the bank, that he was mowing lawns to supplement his income. He left the bank for an assembly-line job at a jam-and-jelly factory that paid better. Wilson couldn’t stand watching someone with potential spending the rest of their working life on preserves, and hired him back, paid him better, and began to work with him to realize that potential.
Wilson has had his share of folks who didn’t work out, too, and his share of employees who, in spite of talents or other points for keeping them on, represent pains in the butt. But he brings open-mindedness to the job, and the belief that people should be put where their talent or potential fits.
Overall, says Wilson, “we are a bank of overachievers. But you have to have the right people, and you have to put them in the right place.”
What gives Wilson this kind of insight at the relatively young age of 45? Personal experience. Had someone not decided to guide him to where he fit, you might have found him under the hood of a pickup instead of behind a bank president’s desk.
Route up from redneck roots
Other than maybe the country accent (for an out of towner), you wouldn’t take Wilson at first meeting for anything but a banker—he wears pinstripes, reads The Economist, can dissect a balance sheet with the best of them.
Wilson came to the bank after being its outside auditor for years. He spent 13 years as a CPA for the Memphis firm of Reynolds, Bone, and Griesbeck, PLC, working with banks and cotton firms.
But his CPA career, and his present one, wouldn’t have happened, had an interested teacher not basically dragooned him out of what he’d chosen for himself.
H. McCall Wilson, Jr., was born in the Raleigh section of Memphis, which some would call the wrong side of the tracks. He is a self-described redneck, no bones about it.
From about the age of five he helped his father hunt for the table, and he started more than one morning killing a chicken before school. His dad worked in a factory, doing what he could for McCall and his older sister. The hope for “Bubba,” as the family called young McCall, was that he’d do better with vocational training. (Wilson’s mother, Doris, died when he was 8, and he was raised by his father, Herbert McCall Wilson, Sr.; his sister, Sherri Lynn Brooks; and his grandmother, Carrie Wilson.)
Wilson sometimes refers to his background with humor. Commenting on an organization that sought him as a trustee, he says, “Heck, they needed a token redneck guy on the board.”
Wilson says he was very interested in cars, and “I was always good with my hands.” After high school, he enrolled in a two-year program to train as a medical equipment repair technician. As part of that training, he had to take some basic anatomy and physiology.
After getting to know him, his instructor point blank told him to leave.
“I want you to drop out, and go to a four-year school,” said Virginia Eleaser.
Wilson says this was a lady you didn’t say no to: “She was about 75 years old and she was tough. She carried a scalpel, too.”
He took her advice. At one point Wilson pursued electrical engineering. With typical humor, he says, “I had made it through differential equations, before I learned you can’t BS your way through higher mathematics.” Instead, he turned to business, which led to public accounting. He holds an MBA in finance and a BS in accounting, both from Memphis’ Christian Brothers University.
You can see some of what the teacher saw in Wilson today. He is, in some ways, like his favorite breed of hunting dog, the labrador retriever—naturally smart; full of energy and enthusiasm; eager to do many things, sometimes all at once; and always on the go. While he would like to be laid back, he seems more comfortable as an easygoing workaholic. He’ll admit that early on, when he had a rival for his job, he’d work until past midnight, “just because you’ll never outwork me.”
But beyond the competitive edge, there is a lot of humanity. “I like people,” says Wilson. “You’d have to be a jerk for me not to like you. But I do get mean when people are lazy and don’t do what they are supposed to do.”
One of Wilson’s regrets is that he was never able to go back and show his old instructor what she’d helped him make of himself.
“I’ve been blessed,” says Wilson. “Things have worked out very well for me.” He tries to do the same for others. “If I had to summarize my banking philosophy, it’s about creating opportunities,” he says.
He points to Jeff Bing, back in banking rather than working at the Smucker’s factory: “His children will have opportunities because of his work at the bank.”
And that, in a nutshell, also sums up how Wilson feels about a well-run community bank: “We create opportunities for people.”
Harnessing the profit motive
Don’t get the idea that McCall Wilson gives away the store, that he’s running some kind of charity. He’s a big believer in efficiency, with some balance. “I don’t buy technology if I then need to hire three more people to run it,” he explains, but he is interested in saving costs.
Likewise he believes that shareholder needs are important—and he believes he has patient capital behind him—and that the bank should also do all it can for staff. And part of that is giving staff an interest in the bank’s future beyond a paycheck. The bank has an ESOP that he hopes will come to own about 25% of the bank. And while selling isn’t on his agenda, should that arise, employees would get a piece of the action. (The bank also encourages employees to buy stock, and many currently hold shares.)
Wilson expects employees, in return, to support the bank’s efforts. “I’ve never felt as appreciated at a bank as I do here,” says branch manager Cathy Mathis, adding, in reference to Wilson: “he’s fair, but tough. He expects the best from you, and doesn’t accept anything less.”
This philosophy is seen by customers, such as real estate developer and investor William Clark.
“The great asset of this bank is its people,” says Clark, who became a stockholder. “The workers here are anxious to help you accomplish what you are trying to accomplish.”
Adds Clark: “You don’t find that everywhere—you just don’t.”
Another customer turned shareholder is Joe Moss—“Mr. Joe,” as Wilson speaks of him. The two became friends and Moss is a shareholder today. “Mr. Joe keeps you straight,” says Wilson of the older man, a self-made lumber merchant. “He gives me good advice and keeps me on the right path.”
For his part, Moss clearly likes Wilson. “I don’t want to toot his horn too much,” says the retired lumberman, “but McCall has some unique qualities. I could see that when someone got into a little problem with a loan. He would work them out and make a positive out of a negative. And he impressed me with his work ethic.” (It takes one to know one. To read “Mr. Joe’s” own story, see “web” box, at right.)
“McCall is a businessman,” says senior lender Jason Lindsey. When Lindsey came to Wilson’s bank from the competition, he asked the CEO for a particular salary. Wilson didn’t say no immediately—and he didn’t say yes. What he said, according to Lindsey, was, “You make me that kind of money and I’ll pay you that kind of money. If you don’t, I’ll cut your dollar—or maybe I’ll cut you.”
Early in Wilson’s career, the bank had a bad experience (“a witch-hunt”) with an FDIC examiner who seemed hell bent on making Wilson’s predecessor look bad. The experience so irked him and the board that the bank became a Federal Reserve member. While no one agrees with their examiners 100%, Wilson says that since then he’s learned more about working with examiners and better understands the chain between Washington, the field force, and banks now. He has respect and empathy for federal and state examiners, though he’ll stand up for his bank, and banking, when in the right.
He believes that examiners are unfortunately held to a standard that doesn’t allow for the longer-term perspective a community banker has to have. He illustrates this with a story of a borrower for whom the bank had gone out on a limb. The loan, however, wasn’t performing, which led to a face-to-face meeting.
“I just dog-cussed this guy,” says Wilson. “Then he said, ‘Are you done?’ Then he dog-cussed me. Then I realized that he wasn’t messing with me—he was really up against a wall. We rolled the loan, and, you know, that guy has met his obligations.”
Wilson believes he made the right decision for bank and customer. But examiners wouldn’t see it that way.
“Examiners can force bankers to make bad decisions,” he says. By training, they don’t look at the best long-term interests of the bank.
“The typical examiner is looking at a point in time,” says Wilson. “They’ll say, ‘It’s bad now—how will you address it now?’”
Ultimately, Wilson feels the solution will be for a regulatory leader to emerge who could explain the real issues affecting banking to Congress. This would lead to a more reasonable regulatory approach.
The bank has had its share of writeoffs, due to real estate issues, but turned in a strong 2010.
“People didn’t always take time to think things through, and neither did we,” explains Wilson. “But we’ve been fortunate and dealt with people who have done everything they could to pay us back.
“Land is still a good investment,” he adds. “The problem is that the regulators took the underwriting out of our banks and put it into the hands of the appraisers.”
The Wilsons of Fayette County
McCall Wilson gives his wife, Elizabeth, credit for his switchover to banking. “She gave me the backbone to make the change, after 13 years in accounting,” and a partnership somewhere in the future, he explains. “And to this day, her dedication to me and the children enables me to get a lot done.”
The Wilsons are busy people. Besides running the lives of an active husband and three kids, Elizabeth, an expert equestrian, teaches horsemanship on the couple’s farm.
Unlike many spouses of bankers who rise in ABA leadership, Elizabeth often can’t travel with McCall. Their young family isn’t as portable as older kids. But she’s supportive of his banking life, adding balance and humor. Clearly, McCall likes to talk things up, and the patient Elizabeth periodically brings him back down to earth. The pair met on a blind date after both had graduated from college. Typically, Wilson plays his “redneck” card and brags that he “married up.” At which Elizabeth rolls her eyes and smiles.
Wilson is a staunch family man, and he’s also concerned about his broader, “banking family.”
“As community bankers, we need to protect our industry,” says Wilson. “We need to point out wrongs, but we clearly need to stop being divisive, fighting among ourselves and throwing rocks at each other. You can’t run family down and hope to succeed. We should encourage proper behavior in our industry. As my grandmother used to say, ‘Right don’t wrong nobody’.” •
The electronic version of this article available at: http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/sb/ababj0211/index.php?startid=30
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