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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 20, 2014 4 years ago

On the Brink

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Size matters in banking, until it doesn't. The top executive at one of the largest regional banks on the Gulf Coast, for instance, faces some challenges familiar to any community banker.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Allen Brinkman didn't plan to pursue a banking career back in 1986 when he worked a summer job with Trust Co. of Georgia in Atlanta.

He only sought some extra spending money when the bank, a predecessor to SunTrust, hired him for a teller position. Turned out Brinkman liked the job, and 25 years and a dozen or so markets later, after a brief stop in customer service for Hilton Hotels in California, he's back with SunTrust.

Brinkman's role, which he took on in late 2010, is division CEO of the SunTrust market that stretches from Citrus County through Tampa south to Collier County. The market encompasses $23 billion in assets, 155 branches and 5,000 employees. If a lender that big were a standalone entity, it would be the largest bank on the Gulf Coast by far — $12 billion in assets ahead of St. Petersburg-based Raymond James.

“We fit a unique space,” says Brinkman, who previously worked for Wachovia and Wells Fargo. “We can compete upstream, with Citibank, or we can go down and compete with a community bank.”

Yet it turns out bigger isn't necessarily a buffer against obstacles all bankers face in the current marketplace. The economy is a sizeable impediment.

“I think the economy is slowly getting better,” says Brinkman, “but the big challenge we face is uncertainty and our clients' uncertainty.”

Brinkman, with his top executive team, addresses the challenges by starting with a right people, right seats management style. He uses the analogy that he won't make it four hands on the steering wheel.

“I say to people that my career is in their hands,” Brinkman says, “not the other way around.”

That doesn't mean Brinkman and his top managers skimp on communication. Instead, he says over-communicating is the “secret sauce” that makes SunTrust successful and drives high client retention rates. The bank's internal slogan, One Team, is a call to arms to make sure loan officers at different levels don't miss an opportunity. SunTrust's 50 or so small-business bankers from Tampa to Naples, for example, talk regularly with investment bankers about potential shared business. Says Brinkman: “We spend a great deal of time communicating about our clients.”

Beyond communication, Brinkman, 45, says old-fashioned networking and doing it better and more often than the competition, is SunTrust's next-best weapon to stay ahead of the banking pack.

“It's hand-to-hand combat,” says Brinkman, who adds that he makes 10 to 12 personal calls to clients a week.

One of the reasons Brinkman stays involved like that is to guard against what he considers a potential danger to SunTrust: client apathy.

“It's the threat of what I don't know,” says Brinkman. “It's the customer who walks away from the bank and I don't know why.”

Economy Developer
Allen Brinkman is chairman of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., in addition to his regular job with SunTrust Bank, where he runs the division from Citrus to Collier County.

The health care industry has been a focus of the EDC during his term, which ends in November. A big EDC victory under Brinkman in that sector was the announcement late last year that Coviden, a Dublin-based health care products firm, will build a medical device facility in Riverview. That project includes the potential of up to 165 jobs. Other big recent deals for the region include: Amazon is building a 1.1 million-square-foot fulfillment center in Ruskin that will create at least 1,000 jobs, and financial services firm USAA plans to add 1,200 jobs in Tampa by 2019.

Brinkman, past actual job announcements, also considers his EDC post an opportunity to help Tampa get its swagger back.

“Tampa hadn't done a great job of marketing itself,” says Brinkman. “(Now) there's a lot of momentum.”

At a glance:
SunTrust Bank
Year founded: Trust Co. of Georgia and SunBanks Inc. merged in 1985 to form SunTrust Banks. Corporate predecessors date back to the 1800s.
Headquarters: Atlanta
CEO: William Rogers
Assets: $175.46 billion (through March 31)
Deposits: $136.2 billion (through March 31)
Subsidiaries: Include units for mortgage; wealth and investment management; insurance; investment banking; and brokerage services. Locations: Around 1,500 branches and 2,200 ATMs spread through 11 states and Washington, D.C.

Sources: SunTrust, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Yahoo! Finance

Follow Mark Gordon on Twitter @markigordon

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