By Brian NixonIt was a particularly gratifying moment for new ABA Chairman Dan Blanton. The scene: A recent business development meeting at Georgia Bank & Trust, a $1.8 billion community bank based in Augusta, Ga. One of the bank’s senior commercial lenders, reporting on the local economic environment, noted that loan officers were going to have a difficult time reaching their production goals for the year.
At that point, a relatively new director on the bank’s board asked a prudent question. What, the director asked, prevents a loan officer from originating lesser-quality loans to just meet the goals?
It was the reaction of the bank’s staff that impressed Blanton, who had to hold himself in reserve in responding to the question. That’s because of the strong culture of business ethics at the bank, which comes from the top and is succinctly expressed in Georgia Bank & Trust’s brand message: Doing the right thing.
So, when the director asked his question, there was a rush of people with the answer. “Every staff member wanted to explain the importance of the ethics of this bank and the importance of doing the right thing,” Blanton says. “Everyone wanted to make sure that he understood how we operate here. I just really kind of sat back and enjoyed listening to our staff talk about the ethics of this bank.”
To understand Blanton’s—and his staff’s—strong sense of ethics, you need to look at the role models in his life. There was his father, T.V. Blanton. His father-in-law and a Georgia Bank & Trust founder Robert W. Pollard Sr. And local banker and community leader Russell Blanchard, who, in Blanton’s words, “taught lessons without teaching lessons.”
T.V. Blanton was in the wholesale warehouse business in Augusta, representing the Havatampa Cigar Co. His business provided retail products—tobacco, candy and sundries—for retailers in the city and for country stores in Georgia and across the Savannah River in South Carolina.
“He ran an entire wholesale operation on a 2 percent margin,” says Dan Blanton in describing T.V.’s operation. “He had to run a business really proper and tight. He was an extremely good operator and was very loyal to his community.”
Community loyalty included supporting those city and country stores that supported you. “Those are the values he instilled in me,” Blanton says.
R.W. Pollard, Dan Blanton’s father-in-law, started his family’s lumber business in the 1940s. That business flourishes today under the leadership of his children, with daughter Patty—Dan’s wife of 43 years—serving as CFO. The business provides dimensional lumber to retailers, including major home improvement stores, builders and other retailers. Patty’s hobby is her farm, which also now provides a wedding site for rental to help feed all her animals.
While Pollard started out as a lumberman, banking was another business interest and calling, Blanton says. “It took me 10 years to get comfortable with him,” he adds. “He was incredibly smart and loved banking. I would be at his house at 10 o’clock at night and he and I would be discussing—arguing—something about banking. He and I would just be having a ball.”
Pollard wasn’t formally trained from an analytical standpoint, Blanton notes, but he could listen to a loan request and he would know whether a person was a good credit risk or not, and then make a decision.
Pollard was one of the founders of Georgia Bank & Trust in 1988, which wasn’t his first community banking rodeo. An earlier institution, Georgia State Bank, was eventually sold to a larger regional bank in 1985. But dissatisfied customers soon after that began encouraging Pollard, Blanton and others to start a new community bank to meet their unmet needs. “My customers, I’ve kind of banked them for my lifetime,” Blanton says.
Since opening its doors in 1989, Georgia Bank & Trust has steadily grown, helped by favorable economic trends and demographics. Augusta—arguably the center of the golfing universe—is becoming a popular retirement destination. There’s also outsized growth occurring in the defense space as nearby Fort Gordon expands its focus on cybersecurity.
Georgia Bank & Trust today operates 12 locations in Augusta and Aiken, S.C., which together are considered one metro area. Blanton describes it as a “plain-vanilla bank.” Its business lines include commercial loans, mortgages, and trust and wealth management services, supported by a staff of more than 350 people.
Thanks to its steady growth, the bank has also slowly grown the Georgia Bank & Trust Foundation, which supports a variety of organizations and initiatives in the community. One of them is the Russell Blanchard Ethics Lectureship at Augusta University. Blanchard, a towering figure as the chairman of then-Georgia Railroad Bank and an Augusta leader, was a graduate of Augusta University and he believed in the value of teaching business ethics.
“Russell Blanchard was the epitome of southern banking,” says Blanton. “He was that kind of a proper southern gentleman and a proper businessman.”
For several years until his death in 1999, Blanchard was responsible for supporting the university’s business ethics speakers. It was an easy decision for the Georgia Bank & Trust Foundation to endow and continue the tradition started by Blanchard.
Business ethics “is a message that students need to hear as they enter the working world,” Blanton says, adding that ethics is also “the spirit of banking.”
Susan Barcus, Augusta University’s senior vice president for advancement, suggests Dan embodies that message. “Dan is the genuine gentleman and the genuine ethical businessman,” adds Barcus. “He’s someone who doesn’t change his mind but isn’t the person who never changes his mind. He’s open and honest and gives his opinion in a way that can be received by the other person.”
“The people he surrounds himself with at the bank are good solid individuals who seem to treasure and value the same kind of business ethics and personal ethics that he embodies,” Barcus adds. “It comes from leadership. He clearly leads his team.”
Barcus also points out that the qualities Blanton admired in Blanchard, his friend and mentor, are the very qualities people throughout Augusta admire in Blanton.
She recalls an early conversation in which Blanton explained the importance of the bank’s involvement in the ethics lectureship. It was clear Russell Blanchard’s strong example loomed large for Dan and deeply influenced him. “Dan would be surprised, but I think there are generations of bankers and people in the community who are doing the same thing with him,” Barcus says. “He’s a leader who is very grounded in what he believes.”
“Dan is the real deal,” says Joe Brannen, president and CEO of the Georgia Bankers Association. “He is a true community banker. His life experiences perfectly prepare him to lead an industry that looks like him. He just has that understanding.”
Ron Thigpen, Georgia Bank & Trust’s president and COO, has been with the institution for 24 years and roomed with Blanton when they were both students at the LSU Graduate School of Banking in the 1980s. Like Blanton, he views banking as much as a calling as it is a profession.
“I enjoy being a community banker because we can be responsive to our local community,” says Thigpen. “All of our decisions are local here and there’s a certain accountability in the community when we make those decisions. The folks that we deal with we go to church with, we go to the grocery store, we play with, and so we’re accountable to them for our decisions. That link makes a community bank unique.”
The bank’s success, says Thigpen, reflects Georgia Bank & Trust’s focus on serving the community, taking good care of customers and taking good care of the staff.
“Dan’s leadership style is a recipe of several styles,” says Thigpen. “Most important is the participative style. He seeks and values the input of others. He always wants to make sure that we’re taking care of the customers. In that recipe, there’s probably a dash of patriarchal style in the positive context that he always wants to make sure that we’re taking care of our staff as well.”
Thigpen describes Blanton as uniquely qualified for the job of ABA chairman. “He has a passion for the industry and serving the industry. That makes him a great advocate. He sees a great future for the banking business.
“We’ve got a number of challenges before us, particularly in the community bank space,” he adds. “I think it will result in some different operating models as we move forward. But if you look back through history, we’ve always succeeded and prospered and found a way to deal with the issues that are out there. If we maintain the commitment to serving our customers, and let that be the primary driver, we’ll be innovative and creative enough in addressing those issues.”
“I know he’s going to do a wonderful job,” says E.G. Meybohm, one of the organizers of Georgia Bank & Trust and its vice chairman. “Our bank, our community and our state—and all of our employees—are very proud of him. He’ll be optimistic about what can be done. He’ll be a great advocate for not only community banks but all banks.”
Randy Smith, an Augusta plastic and hand surgeon, is the chairman of the bank and another of its founders. He says Blanton has been particularly skilled in bringing together and building a team of rivals at the bank—seasoned and senior banking professionals—and successfully getting them to set egos aside and focus on the future. The bank, for example, has seven people including Blanton who are or have been presidents of financial institutions serving the bank or serving on the bank’s board of directors. “They were here as a result of consolidation or they were getting ready to be moved to another town, but they didn’t want to leave Augusta,” says Smith. “Dan found a place for them in our organization and it without question helped the growth of Georgia Bank & Trust.”
“Just to see what a great man Dan is and what he’s done with this bank is amazing,” says Deke Copenhaver, who served as Augusta’s mayor from 2005 to the end of 2014. “Dan is quiet. He’s thoughtful. But he’s somebody who really understands what it is to be part of the broader community. He’s just somebody who gets it.”
From his perspective as ABA chairman, Blanton says the year ahead will be an interesting one as bankers continue to lay the groundwork for comprehensive relief that would untie banks’ hands in meeting the needs of their customers and communities. This represents a window of opportunity that hasn’t been seen in more than a decade.
And in the meantime, Blanton says banks must cope—as they always have and always will. “In a lot of cases, I think we’re real close to the fire right now. It’s really hard to step back and have a view of this industry going forward. I go around the country and you hear people say, ‘It’s the demise of community banking.’ No, it’s not. It’s the change of community banking. But it’s not the demise of it.
“As this industry moves forward, I’m excited about the future and I’m excited about being a part of it,” Blanton says. “I’m excited about Rob Nichols joining the ABA as our new president and CEO. He’s full of energy. I’m excited that I’ll have all next year to introduce him to the banking world.”
Brannen has known Blanton for years and worked closely with him during Blanton’s service in the leadership of the Georgia Bankers Association, which culminated with his chairmanship in 2004-05. “He has a terrific grasp of the issues. He doesn’t get into the weeds. He stays at the policy level and communicates effectively with lawmakers and regulators.”
Also important, says Brannen, is Blanton’s approach. “He never talks about how things are for his bank. It’s always about how his bank can better serve his customers and the community.”
Blanton’s hobbies include gardening (“the second best reason to go to the Masters Golf Tournament”) and an appreciation for antiques and antique refinishing. “I grew up with a piece of sandpaper in my hand refinishing furniture. That’s something that my mother instilled in me.” Blanton’s mother, as a matter of fact, is 100 years old and still driving.
In particular, Blanton has a love for heart pine. “It’s virgin long-leaf pine,” he says. “Heart pine is the basic structure wood of this country.” While it mostly played out by the early 1900s, today it’s reclaimed from old buildings and re-used.
Blanton’s love for refinishing and refurbishing antiques merged with banking in the development of Georgia Bank & Trust’s Cotton Exchange branch in the downtown Augusta. Meybohm suggested the historic building—which had fallen into disrepair—to Blanton. “I went and looked at the building and realized, ‘I can make this work.’”
The Cotton Exchange branch was Blanton’s project throughout. “It’s just a neat old building,” he says. New pine crown molding was constructed to replace sections missing after a fire and numerous structural improvements made. Blanton found a period-correct—early 1900s—teller line after much searching in Atlanta. Lighting fixtures came from a New York antique dealer.
The end result is a bank branch that elegantly blends the past and present, and provides customers a unique experience. The Cotton Exchange branch also serves as a destination for visitors to Augusta as a museum about the marketing of cotton and other trade goods in the early part of the 20th century.
This is strikingly evident when you enter the branch and see, to your right, a huge chalkboard with various cotton grades and prices notated. Other commodity prices, as well as prices for local stocks—such as Georgia Railroad Bank—are quoted and posted. The Cotton Exchange was Augusta’s center of commerce in its heyday.
The chalkboard was discovered during the restoration when workers removed some old drywall. Amazingly, the chalkboard, covered up in the 1920s, had never been wiped clean. The prices are a time capsule to a particular period in the life of the Augusta cotton and business community, which, at one time, was the second-largest inland cotton market in the nation.
The chalkboard also provides a metaphor for the banking industry. “If you grew up in the South, there’s an expression called ‘fair to middling,’” says Blanton. “How are you feeling today? Fair to middling. It means, ‘I’m OK.’ Fair to middling is a middle-of-the-road cotton grade.”
In grading the banking industry’s current environment, Blanton would give it a similar classification. “I think fair to middling is probably pretty close right now,” he says. “I think we’re doing OK, but it’s a bumpy road. I think the future for the industry is better.”