Leading a Legacy

By Kerry O’Leary

“I swore up and down that I would never work in a bank,” says Emily Gray. Her mother worked in a bank her entire career, so Gray told herself she was destined for something different

But—as so many bankers’ stories go—she ultimately fell into the profession and found herself welcomed by a dynamic industry that provided the many challenges and opportunities that have shaped her into the leader that she is today. Today she is SVP and senior credit officer at Hardin County Bank in Savannah, Tenn.

Learning to lead

In 2001, armed with a business degree from Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., and newly married, Gray returned to her hometown in Tennessee to find Hardin—a four-branch, just under $500 million institution located just 15 minutes from where she grew up—seeking a summer employee. She took an internship in the bank’s note department, confident that the position would be temporary. “I had every intention of going back to law school in the fall. I interviewed, took the position, and I ended up absolutely loving it.”

“I believe in being in the right place at the right time,” she says. At the time, Hardin CEO Gordon Majors, whom she refers to as her mentor, had just stepped into his new leadership role. Majors was an accomplished senior lender, so as newly appointed CEO, he was challenged with maintaining his lending portfolio and also setting the tone for the bank’s future.

Gray was Majors’ first hire as CEO. “He 100 percent took a chance when he hired me, because there weren’t very many young people at the bank then,” she says. Today, Hardin boasts a growing new talent pool and more up-and-coming bankers than either Majors or Gray could have imagined.

‘I am a driver’

Gray saw the opportunity to help Majors reshape some of the bank’s business lines and procedures, “and I kept asking him [if] there was anything I could do to help.” This was her segue into lending. She began to foster the relationships Major had formed, “and it turned out a lot of those customers came back to see me.” As Gray built her customer base, she earned a solid reputation as a lender.

But it’s not simply happenstance that guarantees success, says Gray. “It’s also about being prepared to take advantage of situations when they do present themselves. I’m a driver, and I’ve never been scared to go after what I want.”

“I did go to law school, by the way,” she continues, a commitment that required three nights a week in about four hours of class bookended by a two hour drive to and from Nashville, for three and a half years. “I knew that if I didn’t go, it would be one of the things I would look back on and regret.”

Law school brought many lessons translatable to bank operations and leadership. “It taught me to see the gray areas in everything, that everything isn’t black and white. The problem-solving skills are something that have been invaluable to my banking career.”

As she continued her professional development as a lender, Gray was able to work out a lot of difficult loans and began spotting patterns in the bank’s portfolio. This led her to develop a credit policy for Hardin, write new requirements and processes and work on a loan review, which Hardin didn’t have at the time. Starting these processes from scratch led to the creation of her current role as senior credit officer.

Success equals succession

“Gordon allows us to be a part of the discussions and a part of the decision-making so we own it; it’s our bank,” she says of Majors. “We’re lucky in that we have a lot of college interns and many come back, and they’re great.” She attributes that to Majors’ philosophy of cross-training employees. “I think it’s one of the misconceptions of banking is that you have to be in a singular role and that’s just not the case at all. Banking is about compliance, it’s about marketing, it’s about IT and so much more.”

Every Hardin employee can take the initiative to learn any area of the bank through various training programs. A new, application-based three-year leadership training program open to all employees is proving to be very competitive. Currently in its inaugural class, the yearlong program starts with basic leadership courses and includes personal development and communication training. “We wanted to make sure that everybody has a path, and that we could help define the path.”

Just as important as professional development is having a strong retention plan, Gray notes, adding that the best succession plan for the bank—and for the employee—involves recognizing others’ strengths. “You’ve got to decide where your bus is going, and make sure you get the right people on the bus, and the most important thing is finding the right seats for those people to be in.”

Gray’s contributions as chairman of ABA’s Emerging Leaders Advisory Board are a natural extension of her leadership philosophy. She recognizes the ability of the younger generation of bankers to help shift public perception of banking, and to establish banking as a noble and relevant career path—something she sees taking shape through ABA’s program.

‘You can’t stay stagnant’

To Gray, leadership is about never staying still. “You can’t stay stagnant,” she says. “You’ve always got to be willing to change, but also be a catalyst for change.”

She sees the next generation of banking leaders as a learning opportunity, and never as a threat. After all, she was once herself brand new to banking. It’s a viewpoint undoubtedly shaped by the support and space to grow she received at Hardin. “The better the people are around you, the better you are.”

About Kerry O'Leary

Kerry O'Leary
Kerry O'Leary is a senior writer at the ABA Banking Journal.