Behind a Georgia bank’s long and winding succession plan

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United Community Banks in Blairsville, Ga., is not known for making sudden management moves.

The $11.2 billion-asset company made that clear on Thursday when it named Lynn Harton CEO of its bank, a move that came five years after he was hired as chief operating officer and roughly three years after he became president.

Harton, 55, remains the top lieutenant to Jimmy Tallent, 64, who has run United since its formation in 1984. The company did not provide any updates on Tallent’s eventual retirement plans.

Harton, a former bank CEO who has long been viewed as Tallent’s successor, appears content to keep the partnership going indefinitely.

“It’s frankly been great for both of us to have someone to bounce ideas off,” Harton said in an interview. “We’ll continue to craft a strategy together. Jimmy has always been a great driver of our M&A strategy and execution. He will continue to drive that piece as well.”

The lengthy, but structured, transfer of power is sitting well with outsiders.

“There’s a very good relationship — a yin and yang — between the two of them,” said Chris Marinac, an analyst at FIG Partners. “It’s been incredibly productive. United … is making good money and is in a position to keep doing so.”

Harton, who gained responsibility for risk management with his latest title, wanted continuity and wanted United to maintain the same strategy that has helped it nearly double in size over the past five years. At June 30, United has 142 branches and more than 1,900 employees in four states.

The company has been aggressively expanding in the Carolinas with acquisitions, buying Palmetto Bancshares in Greenville, S.C., in 2015; Tidelands Bancshares in Mount Pleasant, S.C., in 2016; and HCSB Financial in Loris, S.C., earlier this year.

Harton, who was CEO of South Financial Group when it was sold to TD Bank in 2010, works out of a Greenville office.

United agreed in June to buy the $737 million-asset Four Oaks Fincorp. That deal would provide the company with its first branches in Raleigh, N.C.

As for future acquisitions, Harton said that United is open to expanding its Tennessee operations beyond Knoxville and Chattanooga but that he believes more opportunities remain in the company’s existing markets.

“The real value of any franchise lies in its depth in a geography, branding and market strength you get,” he said. “That’s our primary focus.”

Harton, a former executive at BB&T and Regions Financial, has "been instrumental in expanding our geographic footprint, in developing and growing our Commercial Banking Solutions group, and building our regional headquarters and operations in Greenville,” Tallent said in a press release announcing the promotion.

To stay focused, Harton often reviews the notes he took from his first strategic planning session with Tallent, in November 2012.

“So many times, you put a plan together and you may hit a few things — but not all of them,” Harton said. “I’d have to say we actually have accomplished even more than we thought we would.”

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