The Bluegrass Banker

By Craig Colgan

That day in 2018 was a grim moment for a proud Kentucky community. Before a cluster of TV cameras, a determined and resolute group stood together, proponents of a tax to raise $13.5 million to fund several major school-safety measures. Their message was simple: We need to address this right now.

Two students at a nearby school district had been killed in a school shooting earlier in the year. Soon after, a police search of a student’s bedroom after he threatened to shoot up his Lexington high school turned up 500 rounds of ammunition and a rifle. Several weeks later inside separate Lexington-area schools, one student was caught with a gun, and another student accidentally shot his own hand.

Among the group standing alongside Fayette County Public Schools officials that day before the media was local business leader Luther Deaton Jr. The chairman, president and CEO of Lexington’s Central Bank and Trust says the reason he stood up that day with that group was clear.

“The superintendent came to me and a couple other guys and said, ‘What do you think we should do?’” Deaton explains. “I said I think this is important. What’s a child’s laugh or a teacher’s laugh worth? Our kids need to be safe. What we have to spend is well worth it.”

The proposed upgrades included hiring additional school officers, improving school-entry safety measures, as well as increased attention to mental health assistance for students. The school board approved the plan a few weeks later.

“There were some people who didn’t like that I stood up,” Deaton says. “When we have a problem, I dive into it. I try to convince people this is the right thing to do. That’s just exactly the way I am made.”

Dream job

The banker with 41 years in the business—and just completing his first of two years as the American Bankers Association’s treasurer—got his start a long way from the cameras and the corner office.

“My dream job was a lender,” Deaton reflects. “I wanted to be the contact person to loan people money to watch them grow. And when they grew, our bank grew and I figured everything else will take care of itself.”

Did it ever.

Deaton graduated from Louisiana State University’s Graduate School of Banking and moved from that teller position in 1978 quickly to several managerial positions to a position there that no longer exists: VP for equine lending. In Kentucky, the horse business was so prominent that banks gave it its own department. “Today, it’s just called commercial lending,” Deaton says. The title changed, but the love of horse racing stuck for him.

Deaton grew up in a four-room house, with three sisters and no running water in Breathitt County. His parents were major influences on the man and businessman he would become.

“We had a little church in our community, and my dad and mom had nothing,” he said. “I remember one time the church needed windows, and it couldn’t get any. And, to this day, I do not know how it happened. But my dad furnished that church with windows. So from the beginning, I was always taught to give back.”

By 1991, Deaton was promoted to EVP for the commercial and retail banking group, before the board made him president and COO in 1994, president and CEO in 1995, and finally adding the chairman title in 2002. In 2012 he was elected chairman of the 2012 Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.

He regularly speaks out about issues locally and across his state, through interviews and op-eds. Directing his bank’s major philanthropy efforts is a huge focus.

Lately his name has shown up in the media representing his bank’s winning bids for the Kentucky State Fair’s Grand Champion Country Ham. Deaton, in representing his bank, won the day with a bid of $600,000 in 2016, then $325,000 in 2017, before dividing the winning bid with a local doctor of $2.8 million in 2018. The winner then directs the proceeds. Deaton has chosen several destinations near and dear to his heart, which have included University of Kentucky athletics, UK’s Gatton School of Business, UK Hospital, a local community and technical college, a food pantry and an organization that works with children in crisis.

‘He was built for this’

The success for Central Bank has been direct under Deaton’s stewardship. In 1994, the bank’s assets totaled $512 million. In 2018, that total was $2.6 billion. As the bank has grown to about 540 employees, so has its place not only as a commercial instigator of growth across the region but as a pretty good employer too. Central Bank was recently named a Best Place to Work in Kentucky.

Deaton is regularly listed among the Lexington Herald-Leader’s list of the most influential leaders in the Lexington area. Holding down the top spot often is John Calipari—coach of the powerhouse UK men’s basketball team—who annually tweets happy birthday wishes to Deaton.

“He was built for this,” says Ballard Cassady, president and CEO of the Kentucky Bankers Association. “There is no daylight between him as an individual and as a banker. He wants to truly help people. He cares about his community, and about his industry. Luther has a very strong moral compass. Banking is really the winner because we have somebody like him.”

Deaton was talked about as a potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate several years ago. He has friends on both sides of the aisle, though, including the current U.S. Senate majority leader.

“My friend Luther Deaton is a one-man force for the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Sen. Mitch McConnell tells the ABA Banking Journal. “A man of integrity and respect, he’s a banking leader both in our state and throughout the nation. With his great success, Luther has generously contributed back into our communities and his beloved University of Kentucky. His leadership at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has bolstered economic growth throughout our state, and his philanthropic support of hospitals and research institutions helps build a brighter future. Simply put, Luther makes Kentucky a better place to live and work.”

Deaton says his friends in both parties are very important to him but that he regularly tells them all of his frustration with politics as usual in 2019, which generally goes something like this: More focus on the issues, please. Less on partisan attacks. He points to his involvement with KBA and ABA—more than 25 years he estimates—as great ways to push for change that matters.

“If I had not gotten involved with ABA and KBA when I did, I don’t think our bank would be where it is today,” Deaton said. “They have helped me grow and they have given me the support and the knowledge that has been so important.”

Among the banking issues he is concerned about are: tax treatment of credit unions; the struggles of banks, especially smaller ones, in managing their core processors; and anyone who worries too much about economic cycles.

“I don’t know of another business around that does what banking does,” Deaton said. “You are so in the heart of the community. You see people every day. You see them at church, you see them on the baseball field, the basketball court. You see them everywhere. In banking, you have got to know your clientele. I have never in my lifetime seen collateral repay a loan. But I’ve seen character repay many of them. It’s all about character. I love what I do.”

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About Author

Craig Colgan

Craig Colgan is a staff writer at the ABA Banking Journal.