From management trainee to CEO of Atlanta-based SunTrust Banks, Bill Rogers hasn’t worked anywhere else since graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill three decades ago. While his career path is unlikely to be followed by many younger employees these days, Rogers, 54, talks about the advantages of working for a large company because of the breadth of experiences it can provide. Rogers also discusses the financial crisis and what SunTrust executives and consumers learned from it.
Q: You did not expect to spend your entire career at SunTrust. What happened?
A: I thought I’d work here a couple of years and then go back to graduate school and get a real job. But I loved it here. I also got married. We wanted to start a family and I didn’t have any money. So going to graduate school full-time didn’t work into my plans. But the company afforded me an opportunity to go to graduate school at night. I went to Georgia State and got an MBA on the slowest possible timeline in Georgia State history [over four years].
I speak on college campuses. They always look at you like you’re a Dodo bird because you’ve been at one company for 32 years. It’s generally not taught and encouraged in business schools and it’s generally not a student’s experience. But when I talk to groups I explain that I’ve had seven careers. I’ve just done them at one company. I’ve been in the mortgage business. I’ve been in the private wealth business. I’ve run the retail part of our business. I’ve been in corporate investment banking. These are distinctive, unique experiences.
Q: What did you learn from rising through the ranks?
A: I give this lesson to my kids, who are in the work environment, and to anybody who asks me about their career. When they ask what to do next, I first ask them: Are you the best at what you do now? Are you the first one in, the last one out? Are you the go-to person? Are you the one who gets the call to put the fire out?
If you can’t answer those questions in the affirmative, it’s probably not worth talking about your next career step. You gotta be the best. I had an early boss who told me, “You work really hard for me and I’ll work really hard for you.” That has stuck with me. This boss fulfilled his promise. He was working for me in ways that I didn’t know about.
Today’s workforce, which I think is wildly positive, wants to be guided on Monday, reviewed on Wednesday and paid on Friday — every week. I think that’s refreshing. It creates a high sense of responsibility on both the teammate and the company’s part.
Q: Like many companies, SunTrust finds itself in the middle of an industry, between the giants and the community banks. How do you negotiate that strategically?
A: There’s an ecosystem of small, medium and large. In the financial system, I clearly see the roles of community banks, regional banks and money center banks. They all will survive.
I think we are Goldilocks — just the right size. We’ve got enough scale, enough product capability and enough talent that we can really do the things we need to do for clients. We’re of the size that we can continue to grow, so we can do what we need to do for shareholders.
We’re not so big, so we’re not on everyone’s radar screen. We’re not the right bank for very large multinational companies with 90 percent of business overseas. We’re not the No. 1 or No. 2 share in most of our markets. We’ve got a lot of upside growth potential. The southeast markets that we serve are going to grow faster long-term than the rest of the nation. Florida is still Florida. It’s just happens to be on sale. Atlanta and Georgia are going to have a resurgence.
Q: Before the financial crisis, SunTrust was known for its conservative approach. Yet it ended up taking nearly $5 billion from the federal government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program. What happened and what did you learn?
A: For us, a lot of our local markets were dependent on residential real estate. So in our zest to serve those markets appropriately, that’s what we reflected. Where we lost thought processes was not putting more diversity around that. So we got concentrated in one product, residential real esate, in a couple of geographies that got hit disproportionately harder than other parts of the country.
The lesson is that we’ll be more diverse going forward. You have to have the discipline to say that we can’t get over-concentrated in any one area. We’ll definitely do more with business lending, commercial real estate and consumer lending. We’ll reduce our residential real estate portfolio.
Also, when the crisis started and the bank’s reputation started going down, we said the most important thing we can do right now is provide great service. That’s going to be the winning formula. It’s not going to be the best whiz-bang product or the best deal. So we invested in employee training.
Q: What’s the current state of metro Atlanta’s economy and housing market? What do you think individual consumers learned from the financial crisis and recession?
A: Things are clearly getting better economically. They’re not good yet. It feels like two steps forward and one step back. Metro Atlanta’s real estate is stabilizing and, in some cases, it’s stabilized. I don’t think we’ve got free fall in any particular markets. Some markets will have a very, very long recovery and other markets will recover faster, emanating from the inner core.
For consumers, their personal asset and liability match is better. They are now doing a car loan for a car, a home equity loan for a house expansion, a credit card for short-term needs versus, in the past, a home equity loan for a vanity purchase. Not only did we learn, consumers learned as well.
Each week, Sunday Business Editor Henry Unger has a candid conversation, called “5 Questions for the Boss,” with a top executive in Georgia. Some remarks are edited for length and style.