Risk Management Association CEO Panel: Culture is essential when confronting institutional risk

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Lynn Harton, Bryan Jordan, Kessel Stelling, and Allen Gillespie spoke at the Upper South Carolina Chapter of the Risk Management Association’s third annual CEO Panel. Photo provided

By Annemarie Murphy, president, SBA at United Community Bank and member of advisory board for the Upper South Carolina Chapter of RMA

What: The Upper South Carolina Chapter of the Risk Management Association’s third annual CEO Panel
Where: The Gunter Theatre
Who Was There: Upstate banking and finance professionals
Presenter(s): Lynn Harton, president and CEO of United Community Bank; Bryan Jordan, president and CEO of First Horizon National Corporation; Kessel Stelling, chairman and CEO of Synovus; and Allen Gillespie, chief compliance officer and chief investment officer of FinTrust Investment Advisors

Nine years after the end of the Great Recession, businesses are thriving in the ever-shifting economy. Unemployment levels are plummeting, especially in the Southeast. But across industries, there are potential risks that companies must anticipate, prepare for, and confront. Financial institutions have a heightened awareness of these risks.

The Upper South Carolina Chapter of the Risk Management Association hosted a panel discussion on Wednesday, June 20, to get insight from three top-tier Southeastern CEOs about various types of risks typically faced by banks, including cultural risk, advancements in technology, and cyberthreats. The panelists, including Greenville-based Lynn Harton, president and incoming CEO of United Community Banks Inc.; Bryan Jordan, president and CEO of First Horizon National Corporation; and Kessel Stelling, chairman and chief executive officer of Synovus, expanded on the future of the industry and how their companies are facing today’s challenges.

Create a company culture that is consistent with your organization’s values, and stick to it

“Culture is created by what leaders do every day,” Harton said. “It’s easy to come up with a list of words that describe the culture you’d like for your company, but it’s not created by what you say; it’s created by what you do.”

And that culture starts at the top with the CEO. Through internal recognition or reinforced actions, culture is represented in the everyday actions of an organization. Harton cited United’s incentive programs and quarterly all-employee calls, when employees from across its four-state footprint are recognized for outstanding service, as an example.

Stelling added that culture will also guide a company through tough times. By sticking to his company’s core values of kindness and service, Stelling was able to guide his team through a financial downturn that resulted in the loss of 1,000 jobs.

“Culture is an asset, or an ally, when you’re making tough decisions that involve displacing people,” Stelling said. “But we treat people with the same amount of dignity when they come in the door as we do when they’re leaving.”

Evolving technology changes the customer’s experience, but the focus must remain the same

At the core of banking is the principle of service, but as more and more customers shift to digital channels to complete transactions, banks must ensure that they are delivering the same great experience. And they have to do so in a timely manner. The result? Adapting to the customers’ desire for convenience while also maintaining a strong, capable employee base.

The worry is no longer centered around what improvements to invest in, but rather who. Instead of customers looking elsewhere for a solution, banks should be staffed with people from a variety of backgrounds. All three CEOs discussed the need to evaluate candidates based not on just their financial background, but their experience with technology. And that includes not just bankers, but directors and board members as well. Harton said United had recently added two board members that have significant technical expertise.  

Banks are aware of the need for increased cybersecurity

With thousands of cyberattacks every day, banks are vigilant when it comes to cybersecurity. That’s why they are investing in advanced security technology and recruiting executives with technology experience. But according to Jordan, the issue is not stopping people from compromising a system.

“The reality is that there are attacks on systems all the time, but only about 10 to 15 real threats,” Jordan said. “But the most important piece may not be keeping people out, but if people happen to get in, you have to minimize what they can do.”

Gillespie wrapped up the conversation by asking the bankers their thoughts about the economic cycle. None were ready to place an exact date and time to the next financial downturn, but Jordan reminded the audience that the next recession would be more than likely a result of a poor policy decision that would have consequences beyond its original intent. And as a result, financial institutions must be prepared as much as possible to adapt to unpredictable changes when they inevitably happen.

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