N. Bradley Thompson, Jr., isn’t your average banker. His hand-tied bowties and engaging manor belie a keen, insightful mind that approaches banking with flexibility and new ideas. As the North Carolina ceo of SouthTrust Bank , he strategically plans market operations throughout the Tarheel state.
But then again, SouthTrust isn’t your average bank. Birmingham, Ala.-based SouthTrust Corporation is the only big out-of-state banking company with branches in North Carolina. SouthTrust entered the state by acquiring a thrift in 1991. Under Thompson’s leadership, the bank has successfully moved into the Charlotte and Triad markets as an aggressive commercial lender with premier customer service.
Despite its hometown feel, the bank is actually a mega-regional enterprise — the 22nd largest banking company in the nation with 623 offices in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi. That “neighborhood touch”, however, is no accident. Thompson points out the bank’s focus on a consistent service delivery across its franchise. “We’ve improved our client focus to help you have that same feel whether you’re in an office in Palm Beach or on Park Road.”
Of course, North Carolina isn’t the easiest banking environment. Competition is fierce in the face of Bank of America, First Union, and Wachovia — not to mention the proliferation of mid-tier and smaller banks. Steering the North Carolina operations is undoubtedly demanding, but Thompson seems to be up to the challenge.
He has grown the “de novo” market from 11 initial retail locations to 36 branches today, directing the commercial and retail functions of five markets. “It is competitive,” he admits, “but we’re here because we can compete.”
Business development is a daily charge for SouthTrust in North Carolina. The bank’s competitively priced products and commitment to service have convinced many businesses and consumers to leave long-standing banking relationships for SouthTrust. Thompson notes, “One of our new clients moved his business here after 42 years with another company.” Thompson adds, “We have great products that are very aggressively priced, and we focus on a lot of the new growth in the market.” Part of that new growth is in entrepreneurship. “We create partnerships with entrepreneurs and nurture the relationship as their business grows.” Customer satisfaction, in addition to pricing, may indeed be the key to SouthTrust’s success. In its June 2000 issue, Consumer Reports rated SouthTrust as the No. 2 bank for customer satisfaction.
Catherine Pulley, spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association , believes that financial services is one of the most competitive industries in the country. “Customers are the most powerful force in the marketplace,” she says. “We’ve found that if consumers shop around, they can find the services they want at the prices that suit them.” Thompson declined to comment on the Consumer Reports story.
Some regional banks have come under scrutiny lately in today’s uncertain interest rate environment. Rising interest rates put pressure on bank earnings by driving up the cost of their deposits, while dampening demand for their loans. Wachovia, for example, is bolstering its reserves for loan losses partly due to an increase in troubled loans.
Although slower earnings growth has been a problem facing the entire banking sector, SouthTrust is in the enviable position of having healthy reserves. John B. Moore, banking analyst at Wachovia Securities says, “SouthTrust’s reserves have actually increased over recent periods, while those of its competitors have decreased.”
As the Federal Reserve continues to raise interest rates, SouthTrust, like all banks, is adjusting to changing conditions. “It does require us to look at our processes and find a way to be more efficient,” Thompson says. “And that’s an ongoing responsibility at SouthTrust. Our chairman is very encouraging of us finding new ways to do things.”
SouthTrust Corporation, the bank’s holding company, has turned its attention to the state of Texas. The company is pursuing its growth strategy through key acquisitions in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. But despite the corporation’s focus on its Texas franchise, North Carolina hasn’t been left out in the cold. In fact, the bank has raised its profile in the Charlotte and Greensboro markets with impressive new facilities. In Charlotte, SouthTrust recently moved into the Prosperity Place development near the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
The new building houses SouthTrust Mortgage Corp.’s regional operations, commercial loan documentation, deposit operations for North Carolina, sales and marketing and retail operations, as well as training and administrative offices. Although Thompson’s office is officially in the Prosperity Place location, he is constantly on the move, traveling throughout the state and the Southeast.
In February, SouthTrust found a new home for its Mecklenburg County headquarters on Fairview Road. This tower, named SouthTrust Plaza, encompasses 50,000 square feet, with the bank occupying 33,000 square feet. Greensboro, N.C. recently gained its own SouthTrust Plaza, a five-story, top-quality office building — one of the few new projects in its downtown area.
“Our commitment to North Carolina is very strong,” Thompson says. “In addition to the new facilities in the past few months, we anticipate more branch expansion by the end of this year.”
Bradley Thompson grew up in Shelby, N.C., the oldest of four boys. In high school he discovered a flair for numbers and set his sights on the accounting profession. He earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Appalachian State University in 1980 and completed the master’s program in business administration in 1982.
Thompson planned to be a CPA, but fate beckoned him to banking. “BB&T offered me an intriguing opportunity out of graduate school,” he recalls. Thompson accepted and his banking career was off and running. That opportunity turned into a twelve-year tour of duty as Thompson rose through BB&T’s corporate ranks. But in 1993, SouthTrust made the young executive an offer he couldn’t refuse. “BB&T is a great company. But I had a chance to work and learn a little closer to the heartbeat of the company at SouthTrust.”
Thompson’s community involvement includes the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors, executive member of both the North Carolina Citizens for Business & Industry and the Charlotte Regional Partnership. But his most important commitment is to his family-wife, Amanda, and children Sallie Katherine, eight, and Ellison, four. At only 42, Thompson has his best years ahead. When asked about his professional aspirations, he simply replies, “I’m confident about the future.”
Nethea Fortney-Rhinehardt is a Charlotte based freelance writer.