ATLANTA SunTrust Banks (STI) and Coca-Cola have a long history together. While the ties don't run as deep as they once did, the two Atlanta companies still have plenty of shared history.
That was on display Tuesday morning, during SunTrust's annual shareholders meeting. During the half-hour-long meeting's question-and-answer session, Tom Hennessy, a banking analyst at CLSA, asked SunTrust about its performance, noting that its expense-to-revenues ratio is worse than in the 1990s, and that its stock price is at the same level as 1996.
"What assurances can be provided that the future will be better than the past?" Hennessy asked.
(Hennessy is an associate analyst to Mike Mayo, who on Monday questioned SunTrust, during its quarterly earnings report, on its progress in cutting costs and meeting its goal to improve its efficiency ratio.)
Bill Rogers, chairman and chief executive, took the first stab at answering, saying, "I acknowledge that we have an efficiency opportunity. Our [efficiency ratio] goal for 2014 is 64% and our long-term goal is sub-60."
Hennessy posed another question, asking how executive compensation is "tied to expectations for greater efficiency." Rogers turned that question over to Doug Ivester, SunTrust's lead independent director. Ivester is a former chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola, holding those titles from 1997 to 2000.
Ivester told Hennessy that SunTrust has shifted a big portion of its long-term incentive compensation to performance-based measures, rather than time-based factors. About 80% of long-term compensation is now based on performance, up from 50% recently, he said.
"From a board perspective, there is a robust discussion and dialogue at each of our meetings about efficiency ratio [and] return on assets," said Ivester, who now serves as president of Deer Run Investments. "Every meeting, it's a constant theme."
Several other former CEOs of big Atlanta companies, including Georgia-Pacific and Southern Company, also serve as SunTrust directors.
Few companies have historic ties that run as deep as Coca-Cola and SunTrust, however. SunTrust's predecessor, Trust Company of Georgia, was there at Coke's origins, serving as underwriter on Coca-Cola's 1919 initial public offering.
SunTrust also was the official custodian of Coke's secret formula for decades, holding it in a bank vault in downtown Atlanta. That changed in 2011, when Coke moved the secret formula to a vault located inside its new World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta.
More recently, SunTrust disposed of its longtime holdings in Coke stock. The bank sold 59 million of its 60 million shares of Coke in September 2012, partly as a result of Basel III capital rules that would have made it more expensive for SunTrust to retain the stock. SunTrust donated the remaining 1 million shares of Coke stock to the SunTrust Foundation.