Worth Harris Carter, a former grocery cashier who founded a single-branch bank and quietly built it into one of Virginia’s largest community banks, has died. He was 79.

Carter founded First National Bank in Rocky Mount, Va., in 1974 with eight employees and $1.2 million of assets. Over the course of a 42-year career, Carter founded 10 community banks, combining them in 2006 into a single institution that bore his name, Carter Bank and Trust.

As of Dec. 31, Carter Bank had more than 950 employees and assets of $4.5 billion, making it the fourth-largest community bank in Virginia. Except for a Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.-assisted acquisition of a failed $14 million-asset bank in Aquia, Va., in April 1982, Carter built his institution organically, opening branches mostly in rural communities in Virginia and North Carolina.

Carter died on Friday, just a week after the company issued a press release disclosing his diagnosis with cancer.

Worth Harris Carter
Praise for community banker
“Countless businesses would not exist across Virginia and North Carolina but for the genius of Worth Carter in recognizing … the good character of many folks who didn’t fit the mold imposed by big banks,” says the Rev. Jerry L. Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, which received critical financing from Carter.

Virginia Bankers Association President and CEO Bruce T. Whitehurst recalled Carter’s sharp mind and quiet demeanor.

“I’ve been at the Virginia Bankers Association for 24 years, and I knew Worth almost from the day I started,” Whitehurst said. “He was a delight to talk with. Whenever I spoke with him, I would leave after an hour or two, and I had always learned something. He was very generous with his time and compassionate with people.”

At the same time, Carter’s intelligence was “off the charts,” Whitehurst said. “He had an instant grasp of facts, figures and numbers, and his memory was unbelievable.”

Liberty University President Jerry L. Falwell Jr. credited Carter with providing critically needed financing that kept the school — which now boasts about 60,000 full-time students online and on its Lynchburg, Va., campus — afloat during a difficult period in the 1990s.

“His willingness to loan to Liberty when the big banks all said no was key to Liberty stabilizing its finances and growing to become one of the most successful and prosperous universities in the nation,” Falwell said in a statement. “Countless businesses would not exist across Virginia and North Carolina but for the genius of Worth Carter in recognizing the solid business plans and the good character of many folks who didn’t fit the mold imposed by big banks.”

In a follow-up interview, Falwell, who conducted a good deal of his private banking business with Carter, said he had a genius for lending. “He had an uncanny ability to evaluate character, and he understood real estate better than most bankers ever will,” Falwell said of Carter. “I know in Lynchburg, a lot of the big commercial projects wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him. … Carter Bank is going to have to hire 10 or 12 people to replace Worth Harris Carter.”

“After his family, banking was his passion,” Whitehurst said.

To those who knew him, Carter’s appetite for work was legendary. It even attracted the attention of Virginia’s top banking regulator, Commissioner of Financial Institutions E. Joseph Face.

“It’s safe to say there wasn’t anything that went on in his bank that he didn’t know about,” Face said of Carter. “He was a very well-respected banker and he earned the respect of us regulators in what he accomplished. … He was always able to maintain a good relationship with us."

Carter did little to promote his bank or himself. Carter Bank’s annual marketing expenses rarely exceeded $200,000, and Carter himself eschewed most of the status symbols typical of CEOs.

“He drove an older car and would always drive himself up here to meet with us,” Falwell said.

Carter worked as a cashier at Safeway grocery stores in Richmond and Charlottesville to put himself through the University of Richmond, where he graduated in 1958, and the University of Virginia Law School, where he took classes until 1960.

Carter worked as a bank examiner at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond from 1960 to 1964 and as a vice president and comptroller at Piedmont Trust Bank in Martinsville from 1964 to 1973.

“We are greatly saddened by Mr. Carter’s passing,” Carter Bank Vice Chairman James Haskins said in a press release. “He was a visionary and icon in the banking industry for over 40 years and was a devoted father and husband, as well as the leader of the bank. He was a fixture in his communities, an outstanding citizen and trusted friend.”

Carter was still serving as Carter Bank’s chairman and CEO at the time of his death. In the press release, the company said little about its plans, noting only that Haskins and President Phyllis Karavatakis would continue their leading roles.

Karavatakis, who has worked at Carter and its predecessor banks for 39 years, was appointed to the company’s board of directors in February.