As a banker for most of his career, Kessel Stelling thought he’d be relaxing and “living the good life” by now. Instead, Stelling, 56, has been steering Columbus-based Synovus, the second-largest banking company headquartered in Georgia, through some tough times.
First as president and chief operating officer and now as chairman and CEO, Stelling has been involved in closing branches, cutting employees, raising capital, consolidating 30 bank charters into one and turning red ink into black. Still, Synovus owes the federal government nearly $1 billion — the largest amount outstanding for a bank under the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Stelling talks about his banking career, which has helped shape his response to the current challenges.
Q: How did you get started in banking?
A: I’ve been in banking my whole life. I went to work for a bank in Augusta when I was a senior in high school and freshman in college. I literally started in the basement of a bank in Augusta cleaning printing presses. We printed our own forms back then.
I got promoted to a teller. Every Christmas, spring break and summer vacation through school, I worked for a bank in Augusta. After graduating from UGA in business, I thought banking would be a great way to find out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I went back to Augusta as a management trainee and became an officer of the bank in nine months.
Q: You took a brief detour out of banking. What did you learn about yourself?
A: Right after I got married, I got a job offer from Delta Air Lines. They started an experimental program in 1981 to bring in people from outside the company. Delta was king in Atlanta back then.
But after a year being there, working in marketing, I realized how much I missed banking. To train us, they put us in reservations, I cleaned airplanes, I worked in cargo. The first time it really hit me was when I was unloading a jet one day. Three weeks before, I was wearing a suit and tie. Now I’m slinging luggage and I see the passengers looking out the window at me. I said to myself, ‘I wonder if they knew I was a bank officer.’
Then, someone I had worked for in the Augusta bank ended up being transferred to Atlanta. He called me and told me they were opening up a new office in Cobb. I agreed to go there.
Q: Augusta was familiar banking turf for you, but Cobb was not. What did you do to get your bearings and build business?
A: I didn’t know anybody. In Augusta, my family had been there forever. I knew everybody and everybody knew me. When I got to Cobb, I had never heard of a cold call. I never knew you had to sell yourself. I thought business just came to you.
I had to reinvent myself. I learned that the more doors you knock on, the more success you’ll have. I started networking. I got involved in the Chamber of Commerce and started selling memberships to it. It was helping me get to know the community and helping the community get to know me.
Q: In 1996, you bought a troubled bank in Cobb that Synovus acquired 10 years later. How did you get out of trouble and then back into it during the financial crisis?
A: It was time to do my own thing. I wanted to buy a bank or build a bank. I finally found a bank that needed some capital and management talent. The bank had lost money on bad loans for nine years. I brought people in who I had worked with before. We grew the bank to $600 million [in assets] from less than $100 million. The key was attracting and motivating good people, and working our tails off.
I sold the bank to Synovus in 2006. Any bank that was lending to real estate developers in metro Atlanta got hurt in the collapse. When I grew up in banking, if someone defaulted on a loan, they couldn’t go out in public. They had this scarlet letter. This time, a lot of really good people got hurt.
When I sold my bank, I thought I’d spend three or four more years there and then my wife and I would end up in the mountains or at the beach, living the good life. Well, the banking crisis hit and all of a sudden you’re in a fight for your life. You’re the leader. When you’re leading people and every day asking them to do more, you can’t turn your back on them.
Q: From Cobb you went to Columbus, first as president and chief operating officer of Synovus and then as chairman and CEO. What did you do to help stabilize the situation and what remains to be done? For example, you still need to repay nearly $1 billion you received from the federal government.
A: It’s $962 million and change, but who’s counting? We’ll repay [the government] before December 2013. We’ve closed over 30 branches and cut over 1,000 people. It was tough. In the past, I had terminated employees, but never to the scale we had to do. Also, it was very tough conversations with borrowers. I saw people cashing in IRAs to try to pay bank debt. It was heartbreaking.
We were over-concentrated in real estate and over-concentrated with individual borrowers. We’ve reduced our exposure to any borrower down tremendously. We’re doing a more diverse borrower and asset base.
The consolidation into one charter cut our costs. We reshaped our lending staff. We invested heavily in talented corporate bankers to diversify. I’m always losing sleep at night about our talent. How do I recruit more and how do I hang on to what I’ve got? It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there right now in banking. We’ve got to take market share from someone else.
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.