If at first your succession plan doesn't succeed ...
The succession plan at United Community Banks in Blairsville, Ga., required persistence from the current CEO and patience from his replacement.
The $12.3 billion-asset company announced late Monday that Lynn Harton will become CEO on June 30 when Jimmy Tallent, 65, retires. While it was well understood that Harton, 56, would someday take over at United, many may not realize that a long courtship preceded his hiring as chief operating officer in 2012.
United first tried to hire Harton in 2006 after he left a high-ranking post at Regions Financial. In fact, Harton learned about the company and its culture during four weekend trips in the mountains with members of United's executive team and their wives.
While he "fell in love" with the bank during those trips, Harton ultimately accepted a post at South Financial Group in Greenville, S.C., which was struggling with losses tied to Florida real estate, and he eventually became CEO. He still kept in touch with Tallent, sharing meals and stories about their banks' efforts to recover after the financial crisis.
South sold itself to TD Bank Financial Group in 2010. Harton, who stayed with TD briefly after that deal closed, said Tallent was the person he called after he left. A one-year noncompete agreement gave the executives time to work things out.
"A year and a day later I started” at United Community, Harton said. Tallent “is a great leader and a genuinely good person."
The key takeaway is that bankers must "build and develop permanent relationships," said Rod Taylor, CEO of Taylor Mead, an executive recruiting and employment law firm in Atlanta. "You also have to understand the importance of building a culture that does that will all constituencies."
Though Harton and Tallent discussed CEO succession, it was never a given. That’s where the patience kicked in.
“It was always hoped for and it was discussed,” Harton said. “But that's something you have to earn over time.”
Just months away from taking the helm, Harton said he has no plans for a major shakeup. The plan is to keep focusing on specialty commercial lending with an eye on larger acquisitions.
Both objectives make sense given Harton's significant involvement with each, industry observers said.
Harton "has been involved in all facets of the business, getting them into new areas and developing SBA and other niche lending units," said Brad Milsaps, an analyst at Sandler O’Neill. "He’s also been at Jimmy’s side in the M&A process.”
Expect an emphasis on communication and teamwork from Harton, who leaned heavily on both during his time at South. The company stayed afloat thanks to “the strength of the team” and honest discussions about how to tackle its challenges, Harton said.
“For change to happen, people have to believe it," Harton said. "They have to understand it and you have to communicate it."
That seems appropriate for United, which went through its own transformation after suffering losses on real estate loans during the financial crisis. That experience led management to diversify.
Harton had a hand in that strategy from the beginning. After joining United in September 2012, he spent a few months listening and learning, he said. Harton then sat down with Tallent and other key executives to discuss "where we needed to go and how we were going to change,” he said.
The company hired Richard Bradshaw, who worked with Harton at South, to oversee specialized lending. In 2014, it bought Business Carolina, a commercial lender, to expand its dealings with Small Business Administration loans.
United, which has worked hard to reinvent itself, also has growth potential given its operations in some of the most attractive markets in the Southeast, Michael Rose, an analyst at Raymond James, wrote in a recent note to clients.
United "has been one of the best performers this year and we expect" the succession announcement "to set the stage for continued earnings growth through improving profitability, strong loan growth, and additional M&A,” Rose added.
Tallent, who will remain chairman, plans to focus on board governance, strategic planning and corporate development.
Harton, meanwhile, said he has challenged Bradshaw to add one new line of business each year. Last year's addition was renewable energy.
United is also expected to remain an active acquirer under Harton, though he is also comfortable with organic growth, industry experts said.
Harton has also led a “series of superb hires that have deepened the production team at many levels,” said Christoper Marinac, an analyst at FIG Partners. Harton “has continued the operating momentum that [Tallent] set into motion as the bank was recovering from the financial crisis."
Recent expansion has focused on smaller institutions and strategic hires, Milsaps said. United could perhaps look at buying more niche businesses, similar to its deal for NLFC Holdings, a national platform that offers equipment finance credit services to small and midsize businesses.
United would prefer to buy banks with $500 million to $1 billion of assets in its existing territory of Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas, Harton said. But he'd still consider expanding into Florida or Alabama, he said.
United may have to consider bigger acquisitions, since the number of smaller banks has dwindled, Harton said. Meanwhile, the number of small Southeast regionals that are active acquirers with strong financials has been rising. While mergers of equals are likely, Harton said, United's involvement in any of them would depend on a range of factors, such as culture and fit.
“I’ve been involved in several larger transactions and they can be great for shareholders or they can be the worst thing for shareholders,” Harton said. “Our goal is to have the financial performance necessary that we don’t have to do acquisitions and we aren’t forced to do larger deals. We have the talent and the team, so if the right one comes along, we are ready for it.”