Lynn Harton, United Community Banks’ new CEO, looks beyond the numbers

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Lynn Harton leads a video conferencing call in the renovated UCB building at 125 E. Broad St. Photo by Will Crooks / Upstate Business Journal

Lynn Harton, the new chief executive officer at United Community Banks Inc., has always been a rolling stone — until UCB.

In his first 25 years in business, he moved 10 times, energized by meeting other community leaders and getting things done.

In 2007, Harton came to Greenville as storm clouds formed around the banking industry. As CEO of The South Financial Group, he served as change agent to help the organization survive the recession, ultimately negotiating the sale of the company to TD Bank.

After integrating TSFG into TD, Harton felt restless “and actually was getting close to a job in another state,” he recalled during a conversation at UCB’s offices in the One Building.

One evening, after Harton and his wife Flavia mingled with friends at the Peace Center, he returned to his seat and became reflective.

“Why do I have to move?” he recalled asking himself. “Am I not at the point in my career where I can choose where I want to be? And this is where I want to be.”

Soon after, Harton signed on as chief operating officer for Blairsville, Georgia-based United Community Banks Inc. and its banking subsidiary. Based in Greenville and growing UCB’s book of business, he received a series of promotions, and on June 30 assumed the role of CEO at both companies.

Harton now directs the future of a $12.38 billion company with 151 offices across Georgia, the Carolinas, and Tennessee, with many system functions based in Greenville and a commitment to growth.

While Blairsville remains the legal headquarters, Greenville is the nerve center for all key decision-making.

UCB has about 350 employees working out of 90,000 square feet of downtown space, with $17 million invested in premises and equipment across three properties: the One Building at Main and Washington streets; a former Erwin Penland building at 125 E. Broad St.; and the former Palmetto Bank headquarters at East North and Church streets.

“So it’s fair to say this is the executive headquarters, this is the operational hub,” Harton said. “We would expect it to continue to grow.”

According to Harton, the growth that UCB is experiencing mirrors the overall growth of the area economy.

“You’ve got a number of really great developers that understand the business, and we’ve got relationships with a vast majority of them,” he said.

From 2013 through June 2018, UCB has made $1.36 billion in new loans just in the Upstate, according to the company, with capital injected into projects such as Camperdown and the Greenville One Center.

David Glenn, CEO of Centennial American Properties, said he admires the way Harton goes beyond numbers to evaluate deals.

“His due diligence is about a person,” Glenn said. “Who are the people behind this, and what is their track record on getting things done? So he’s not just a project lender, he’s a person lender.”

Harton agreed to finance the first phase of Camperdown at South Main and Broad streets — construction of the new The Greenville News building, razing the old structure, creating underground parking, and some retail, which Glenn said was instrumental in getting the project’s hotel and apartments underway.

UCB has been associated with “lots of our projects,” Glenn added, including millions of square feet for big-box retailers around the country.

Glenn said he appreciates the local decision-making.

“I personally think that’s huge,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s received enough recognition. It doesn’t have to go anywhere other than right here in Greenville; it’s done.”

Greenville’s Phil Hughes agreed.

“I can live with ‘no,’ but an endless ‘maybe’ is about the worst answer you can get,” said Hughes, president of Hughes Investments. “And when you’re so close to the lead management team, your answer is clear early.”

Hughes said he has worked with Harton on projects including Falls Park Plaza and RiversEdge Apartments.

“You come away feeling like he’s got your back, he understands, and it’s very accommodating,” Hughes said.

Steps away from Hughes’ office, Megan Riegel, president and CEO of the Peace Center, had other kind things to say.

“He’s so responsive. He came in and interviewed one of our candidates at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a Sunday. Who would do that?” she asked. “This is a man whose ego is in check.”

Harton is serving his second term on the Peace Center’s board and is board chair.

Riegel said she appreciates Harton’s acumen in strategic planning, knowledge of commercial real estate, and his and Flavia’s personal support for the arts. Harton is also immediate past president of the board at the Greenville County Museum Association.

Recently, UCB added a new product offering, not-for-profit tax-exempt financing, which is available across the bank’s four-state footprint.

Harton applauds the level of public-private partnership in Greenville.

“I think that is unusual,” he said.

But he said he believes more must be done in the areas of roads, parking, and affordable housing.

As system CEO, Harton begins from a position of strength. Second-quarter 2018 earnings per share were up 26 percent year-over-year, margins again widened, loan production reached a new record, and the equipment finance company the bank bought is growing well, he said.

Looking ahead, Harton told analysts that the company is interested “in the right opportunities in Florida or Alabama” and wants to grow further in Atlanta.

The bank also earned top ranking from J.D. Power for overall retail customer satisfaction in the Southeast for the fifth consecutive year. That result, Harton said, was aided by the approximately 5,000 customer surveys the bank conducts annually to guide performance, stave off problems, and serve customers even better.

“Our No. 1 value we talk about is trust, and we trust our people and they trust their customers,” Harton said. “Now, I’m not saying we don’t have processes, but we think the way to not have those problems is to hire better people and trust them more. It all starts with great people, and great people want to work with other great people. And so if you can just focus on that, a lot of things work themselves out.”

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