A Leader for Our Time

By Evan Sparks

Jim Edwards’ first car wasn’t an American teenager’s usual first car.

As his longtime friend Scott Blackstock recalls, when Edwards turned 16, his first car was a very old—and very used—sports car. One of Edwards’ classmates ran into the back of it, significantly damaging the car. A local mechanic and salvage yard owner in Edwards hometown of Barnesville, Georgia, knew how much Jim loved that car. He offered a solution.

“They literally cut two different year vehicles of the same model in half, and they took the front end of one and the rear end of another and stitched them together—and that’s what Jim drove for the rest of high school,” says Blackstock.

Today, Jim Edwards is welding an even more challenging seam. The American Bankers Association’s chairman usually racks up the frequent flyer miles and hotel points, representing the industry nationwide and overseas at ABA events, congressional testimony and state bankers association conventions.

But instead of accepting ABA’s chairmanship under the bright lights on a convention stage, Jim Edwards is staring into a webcam in his green-wallpapered office, livestreaming his remarks to ABA’s first (and hopefully only) Unconventional Convention. He can’t see the thousands of participants staring back at their own computer screens, clicking “yea” instead of voting by acclamation.

As he accepts the chairmanship of ABA for 2020-21, Edwards will face challenges that require the focus, drive and ambition of a young man who would cut up cars for fun and learning. He will face obstacles made for a solutions-minded banker—one with aptitude for technology, comfort with ambiguity and empathy for disruption.

In this historical moment, ABA has called a leader uniquely suited to the monumental work facing the banking industry.

Calm in crisis

If you had to describe Jim Edwards’ bank, you might say it’s in the sweet spot—large enough to offer innovation, yet small enough to be nimble.

United Bank is a $1.7 billion bank based in central Georgia. Its footprint stretches from rural farm areas to the Atlanta exurbs. It’s a full-service bank, offering consumer products, mortgages, business loans and services, cash management and trust services, but “we try to do that with a small-bank, high-touch feel,” says Edwards.

“There’s a lot of skill throughout the family and they make it work really well,” says Bob Mason, a longtime holding company director, of Jim Edwards, pictured here with his cousin John (the bank’s chairman, left) and his brother Chris (the holding company president). “It’s not always easy to do that in family.”

United has grown into a classic community bank with a strong future orientation. Edwards’ colleagues and customers agree: as United has grown, Edwards is a model for community bankers in the 21st century.

And United Bank has two features of community banks often hidden below the surface: a history forged in crisis and a legacy of innovation. “Crises are part of our experience,” says Edwards. “They come more frequently than you might think.”

Most recently, Edwards faced down the 2008 financial crisis. The fallout from the crisis was felt acutely in Georgia, which accounted for one in six U.S. bank failures between 2008 and 2015. “We had a number of our institutions that did not make it,” says Joe Brannen, president and CEO of the Georgia Bankers Association, which Edwards chaired in 2012-13.

“There were banks like Jim’s that were willing to step up,” Brannen reflects. “They were not exposed to the number or concentration of [acquisition, development and construction] loans many of the failed banks were troubled with. Jim’s bank had solid capital and capacity with the team he had built to entertain opportunities to help the FDIC with resolutions.”

United Bank made four acquisitions in the aftermath of the crisis. “He went after those opportunities that made sense for the communities,” Brannen recalls. “Jim led with intelligence and grace. When others chose to spend their time and energy being mad about what was happening, he was always the voice of reason looking for solutions.”

Long-term focus

Edwards didn’t become the leader he is overnight. He’s part of the third generation in his family to work at United Bank. In the 1920s, his grandfather, Joel Edwards, began working with the Bank of Zebulon, which dates back to 1905. In 1996, the bank took on the name United to reflect the merger of other banks in the holding company.

Jim Edwards with his wife, Laura, on the road.

Edwards started work at the bank during summers as a teenager. “Compared to baling hay in the Georgia heat, it was a pretty easy decision to work on a teller line,” he jokes. After college at Emory, work at a large insurer and an MBA at the University of Virginia, he and his wife, Laura, returned to Griffin, Georgia, where he worked as a commercial lender at United’s largest office. Jim and Laura today have three grown children.

After three years, Edwards moved to a neighboring county to run a newly acquired office, and in 2002 he was named CEO. He is joined by three other third-generation family members; his brother Chris is the holding company president and the bank’s CIO, cousin John is the bank’s chairman and his cousin Allie is a senior attorney. Jim’s father, Joe, is semi-retired but continues to serve on the bank board, and fourth-generation members of the family have joined as well.

The Edwards family commitment “lends itself to longstanding deep relationships in the community,” Edwards says. Being closely held has also allowed United to maintain a “long-term focus” that “has been very positive for us,” he says.

“There’s a lot of skill throughout the family and they make it work really well,” adds Bob Mason, a longtime United Bank Corporation director who has known the Edwards family since the 1960s. “It’s not always easy to do that in family.”

Close ownership drives strategic vision, but a 400-strong workforce means that there’s a broad pool of talent and insight. “The smartest folks at the bank are not the ones with the Edwards last name,” Jim jokes. Every employee is bought in through one of Georgia’s oldest employee stock ownership programs, which controls about a fifth of the company’s equity. “We have appreciated the incentive of ownership and instill that in our employees,” Edwards says.

‘Pushing technology daily’

Scott Blackstock notes that Edwards—pictured here with a drive-through client—would always describe innovations as being “for United Bank’s current and future customers.”

Edwards has a reputation as an early tech adopter. “Jim was the first person I saw with a BlackBerry,” recalls Scott Blackstock, who owns a growing chain of “auto spa” car washes and has been a longtime United Bank customer. But it wasn’t tech for the sake of tech—it was to position United Bank for the future. Blackstock notes that Edwards would always describe innovations as being “for United Bank’s current and future customers.”

Edwards’ management team helped position United Bank for growth by launching interactive teller machines in 2013 with a previously untapped source of bank personnel: local community college students. With extended hours—7 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week—United’s call center and interactive teller machines require staff with flexible schedules. Students like the opportunity to get some hours in before or after class, and their comfort with newer technology makes them a natural fit for connecting with customers using ITMs. “It also gives the bank a good talent pool of creative personnel to develop into future leaders and influencers for the bank,” Edwards says.

The channel was established before the pandemic kicked things into digital overdrive, with a quarter of its customer transactions executed with a video teller. “The special sauce is hiring the right people for that video interaction, so they really feel like it is a warm, friendly, high-touch service,” comments Edwards.

Other product innovations include expansion of merchant services and cash management for businesses, and a focus on wealth management. Since its beginning over two decades ago, United has carved a niche offering customized trust and investment services for its community bank customers wanting that same local, hometown attention and service they find in their bank lobbies. United’s wealth management team specializes in actively managed investment advisory services for individuals and nonprofits, self-directed real estate IRAs and trust administration.

Today, United’s wealth management division has 19 employees and more than $700 million in assets under management, says EVP Doug Lane, who leads the division. “Jim is always looking for opportunities to do things better. He’s very open to thinking about new and better ways to offer both our banking services and our wealth management services.”

To cultivate eagerness for new ideas—and cement the customer-focused United Bank culture—for several years the bank has run a year-long coaching and mentoring program called Leadership United for a group of 10 to 12 rising stars. This builds on long-standing but less formal approaches. “Jim believes in mentoring. He has personally mentored and brought people along with him over the last 23 years that I’ve known him, and allowed us to grow as bank employees and ultimately as executives of this organization to help us get where we are today,” says United Bank COO Scott Swafford.

Fabian Gutierrez, a wealth management services officer, recently completed Leadership United. He joined the bank full-time in 2017 after working there during high school and college. As part of his Leadership United project, Gutierrez pitched to Edwards and the executive team a digital payment solution that “we now have implemented as a service at our bank.”

Meanwhile, Edwards keeps “pushing the use of technology daily,” Gutierrez says—most recently, expanding the use of e-signature technology in wealth management.

Tough conversations

During a crisis, Edwards focuses on communication—to employees, customers and community stakeholders. “As the stress level and crisis levels rise, you have to figure out how to keep communicating,” he says. For example, he felt it was important that every employee across the United Bank footprint heard his voice during the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, often sending emails or recorded voicemails to employees sharing encouragement and gratitude.

Edwards—seen here taking a lunch order—serves the meal at the United Bank’s annual luncheon to recognize its 12 employees of the year. “Jim has stepped up to the plate and been so involved and accessible to all of our employees,” says EVP Jennifer Eavenson. “It is not business as usual.”

“Jim has stepped up to the plate and been so involved and accessible to all of our employees,” says EVP Jennifer Eavenson, United Bank’s human resources director. “It is not business as usual.”

Edwards brings a quiet, listening approach to the role. “He’s always been a little bit quiet—but a leader,” says Blackstock, who in addition to knowing Edwards in high school has served with him on local boards.

But Edwards does not shy away from tough circumstances. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, one United market was a “two-bank town, and the other bank in town just wasn’t going to make it,” Joe Brannen recalls. “One of the hardest decisions they ever made was to step in to acquire their failing competitor, where many close friends and family members of their leadership team worked. But they did it with an attitude of caring and serving.”

Lori Tucker, United Bank’s chief experience officer, agrees. “Our acquisitions during the recession were never about just getting bigger. It was about going into communities and organizations that had great legacies, restoring needed financial services while gaining great employees and customers affected by the circumstances of that economy.”

Meanwhile, 2020 has brought another challenging set of conversations—on race and diversity—from the background where they had long been running to the forefront. Edwards has not shied away from these issues, either. “I applaud ABA for stepping out front on what can be a controversial issue at times,” he says, noting that community banks “should work very hard to address those issues.”

Erica Crump—a banking officer in United’s benefits administration area who is also a graduate of Leadership United—notes that Edwards champions diversity and inclusion efforts across United Bank, including opening new recruiting pipelines “to ensure we attract individuals who accurately reflect the communities we serve.”

Ready for anything

Meanwhile, Edwards is focused on helping United Bank—and ABA—navigate whatever comes next. The COVID crisis is playing out in weird ways economically. “Our mortgage area is having the best year its ever had in the history of the bank,” Edwards explains, with construction lending booming, but commercial loans and commercial real estate are doing less well and varying widely by industry. “Some of these customers are really hurting. As community bankers, we are eager to step in wherever we can with our leadership and our services to see individuals and businesses thrive again as quickly as possible.”

Alongside the rest of America’s banks, United did its part to help customers get through the early phase of the crisis, making more than $150 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans in a matter of weeks. “This reminded me of how important it is for a small business customer to be able to pick up the phone and connect with their banker, despite closed lobbies and shelter orders” says Edwards.

“Jim believes in mentoring,” says United Bank COO Scott Swafford. “He has personally mentored and brought people along with him over the last 23 years that I’ve known him, and allowed us to grow as bank employees and ultimately as executives of this organization to help us get where we are today.”

Working through the PPP—and processing the rolling and incomplete guidance offered by the Small Business Administration—helped reinforce the value of strong associations, too. “There’s never been a time in my career when I felt that our bank gained more value from having a strong national banking trade association, as well as a strong state trade association,” he explains, noting that with “sometimes hourly updates from ABA,” United Bank’s “mid and entry-level employees saw first-hand how trade associations were helping them get their jobs done.”

And Edwards won’t let ABA forget that there’s still a lot of policy work to do beyond responding to the pandemic and racial disparities. He highlights the threat of differential regulations for nonbank fintech firms and the need for anti-money laundering reform and clarity on cannabis banking, as well as the ever-present unequal treatment of credit unions.

Edwards also points to the importance of developing the next generation of bankers—not just at United Bank but across the country. “We’ve got to keep telling the story that banking is a great career,” he says. “This is such an amazing time to watch leaders step up.”

The past year has been a real-life stress test—in fact, it brought an economic scenario so adverse that it was worse in many ways than the most adverse hypothetical stress tests imposed by the Federal Reserve on our largest banks. “We’ve all been stretched,” says Edwards. “The silver lining for 2020 is that we are now more resilient, capable and open to new ideas than ever before.”


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