By Evan SparksNot long after he became chairman and CEO of First Horizon National Corporation in 2008, Bryan Jordan found himself at the doctor. The doctor asked him what he did for a living, and Jordan replied that he was a banker. “Who do you work for?” the physician asked. “I said I work for First Horizon, and I started explaining what I did and he let me go on longer than I should have,” Jordan remembers with a chuckle. “I really put my sales pitch on—and after a few minutes he looked at me and said ‘That’s great, but you’re not as good as First Tennessee.’”
The joke, of course, is that First Tennessee is the retail and commercial bank of Memphis-based First Horizon—and the former name is more widely known in Tennessee, where the bank ranks first in deposit market share, as well as in several surrounding states.
But although 153-year-old First Tennessee may be the holding company’s best-known brand, Jordan is swift to clarify that First Horizon is a much bigger and more diverse business. The midsize banking organization also includes a wealth management subsidiary with locations across the southeast and FTN Financial, a fixed income sales and trading firm serving banks and other institutional customers nationwide.
A diverse mix
Having a fixed income unit may be a bit unusual for a midsize or regional bank, but in Jordan’s view it’s a natural fit. “We’ve been in the fixed income business for over 80 years,” he explains. Memphis is historically one of the country’s largest bond distribution centers outside of Wall Street. (Asset management giant Raymond James’ fixed income business is headquartered there.) In 2014, with FTN analysts consistently beating Wall Street on long-term yield forecasts, Bloomberg said traders should visit Memphis for “some of the best bond-market advice to be found anywhere.”
FTN’s core business is matching up buyers and sellers of fixed income securities. Half of its customers are financial institutions—representing about one-third of all U.S. depositories—and FTN does business with about half of banks with securities portfolios of more than $100 million. It’s also rapidly expanding its presence as a major underwriter of municipal bond issues.
“We have a really great business that’s very broad and diverse,” says Jordan. “What I like so much about it is that it’s a relationship-oriented business.” For example, FTN can leverage its banking expertise to pair fixed income products with advice on asset-liability management. “We look at it as a very good fee-income oriented business that provides stable returns over the long term.”
Not all of First Horizon’s diversification efforts have played out with the same success. In the 1990s and 2000s, the company had rapidly expanded its mortgage business outside of its home markets. Not long after joining First Horizon as CFO in 2007, as the housing market softened, Jordan led efforts to substantially narrow the mortgage business, selling off hundreds of out-of-state mortgage production offices and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of assets. The company also cut retail banking markets in Georgia, Texas and Virginia.
It was important to “reposition the business,” Jordan explains. “All of that was done against the backdrop of an organization that had an extraordinarily strong culture, a desire to get things right and build the franchise for the long haul.”
Eyewitness to growth
The son of a banker growing up in North Carolina, “I was always learning about the banking business,” Jordan recalls. After graduating from Catawba College with a finance and accounting degree, he joined KPMG as an auditor, spending time in banks large and small across the Southeast. He also audited retail businesses—including Atlanta-based Home Depot, which was still in its early growth phase. “I got to see the experience of a great retail operator, plus growing banks, and marry the two concepts together in my mind.”
Jordan worked in the 1990s at fast-growing First Union, which would eventually acquire Wachovia and become one of the biggest regional banks in the southeast. In 2000, he—along with his wife, Kim, and their three children—moved to Birmingham, Ala.-based Regions Financial, where Jordan rose to CFO during a period that saw Regions become a true regional powerhouse by acquiring Birmingham-based AmSouth and Memphis-based Union Planters and Morgan Keegan.
After a career on the front lines of industry change, Jordan strives to make sure First Horizon is well positioned for its future. Technology looms front and center for him. “We’ve made appropriate investments in infrastructure and technology that we think are very scalable,” he says. “We think our platforms are competitive with most if not everybody in the industry” and that the development of commercial lending and treasury management systems “keeps us competitive for the long term.”
With $29 billion in assets currently, First Horizon is in what Jordan describes as the sweet spot for navigating the winds buffeting the banking industry, hitting a balance between local relationship banking and the “scale it’s going to take to make those technological investments.” The company will reach the $40 billion mark later this year after it closes a purchase of Florida-based Capital Bank Financial, which will give the combined company a network of more than 300 branches across Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, Texas and Virginia.
He also emphasizes the growing importance of banks forging “partnerships with others across the industry on platforms and technology”—but cautions that banks also need “a truly differentiated experience for your customer.”
‘Somebody took a chance on me’
Providing that differentiated experience on a macro level is what the U.S. banking system does best, he says, noting that “we have the most unique and maybe most effective banking ecosystem in the world, one uniquely suited to meet the needs of our large and complex economy.” That takes banks of all sizes, he insists—large, regional, midsize and community banks. “It’s unlikely that we’ll ever be as consolidated a financial system as elsewhere in the world simply because of the value that these local institutions bring to their communities,” he explains.
“Bryan is a strong leader for First Horizon and one of the most respected bankers in the country,” comments Colin Barrett, president and CEO of the Tennessee Bankers Association. “He is a student of our industry and has a great understanding of how our past is shaping the future in everything from fintech to branches.”
All of these issues come into play in Jordan’s current role as chairman of ABA’s American Bankers Council, which represents midsize banks. But he is most focused on helping legislators and regulators understand the need for better-tailored regulation that reflects the diversity of the financial system. “Regulation can’t be tailored based on size of the balance sheet,” he says. “It really needs to be tailored based on the business model a bank employs.”
He reflects for a moment about the impact of ill-tailored regulation. For example, the $50 billion asset threshold for being regulated as a systemically important bank “has an impact on our thinking,” he says. “It’s a pretty significant bright line.” As a result, Jordan and his leadership team spend a lot of time doing strategic planning around an arbitrary threshold; after all, a $50.1 billion bank is not meaningfully different from a $49.9 billion institution.
Jordan and the ABC are also advocating for less prescriptive regulations that give bankers more flexibility to meet the unique credit needs of their communities. “The greatest stories you ever hear about banking are ‘Somebody took a chance on me,’” he reflects. “We need to be able to take chances on people, based on somebody’s character or connectivity in the community. I hope we can get a regulatory framework that allows us to focus on that.”