by Jon W. Sparks
Bryan Jordan might have been perfectly happy to be a CPA his entire life, but we’ll never know.
He spent some eight years working with columns and rows in public accounting but was drawn to banking in the early 1990s. Jordan quickly developed an interest in finding out how it all worked and was soon on the path to leadership. Now, he’s chairman, president, and chief executive officer of First Horizon National Corp., the parent company of First Tennessee Bank and FTN Financial. And he’s become something of an expert on being an effective CEO.
He took the helm at a turbulent time in financial history — just a week before Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac failed in 2008. But he brought a steady hand to a steady ship, and First Horizon is today one of the 40 largest banking companies in the United States in asset size and market capitalization.
Jordan says he’s always had an interest in leadership and has cultivated that whenever he could. And with all the preparation and training, it made him ready for the surprises he’s encountered.
“I never stepped into a job where it wasn’t more complicated and bigger than I expected it to be,” he says. “I was amazed at the sheer strength of culture that First Horizon and First Tennessee had, and I see that as one of our very strong assets.”
A strong culture, he believes, is essential to helping a company work through times of great change or tough economic environments.
Jordan has always made the most of working closely with customers and the community. “I had a real strong sense of the significant role that our organization has played in helping to weave the economic fabric not only here in Memphis but across the state of Tennessee by supporting the development of dreams in businesses and home ownership and all of those things that banking organizations do,” he says. “The most exciting and interesting part of stepping into a leadership role like that in a period of change is being part of putting together a leadership team to tackle the challenges. I feel very good about who we’ve been able to pull together here over the last few years — our people who have long-term experience with the organization along with people who are relatively new. It’s a good blend that has helped shape the strong culture we have.”
One area that’s crucial for a financial institution to master is that of innovation. Jordan has made sure to stay on top of it.
“Technology has become a bigger and bigger part of the way we provide services to our consumer customer base as well as our commercial customer base,” he says. “That change is only going to accelerate. For example, customer visits to branches drop about 3 to 4 percent a year. They have the ability to interact online or with mobile banking or with the call center. The financial center, though, is still the heart and soul of our relationship-building with customers.”
The new trends and changing interactions are full of opportunities, Jordan says. He’s mindful of the changes that led from a Blockbuster to a Netflix world, noting that “business models are changing at an ever-accelerating pace and we have to adapt to that, serving customers in a way that they want to be served. We can’t be early and force customers to bank in a way they don’t want to bank and we can’t be late and not enable customers to bank in a way that they want to bank. It’s important that we get the timing right.”
Jordan says serving the community is a priority for financial institutions as well.
“Those of us with First Tennessee today have the benefit of a great 152-year legacy in serving our customers and our communities,” he says. “We are an inextricable part of the economic fabric of the communities that we serve and we won’t do well if any of the markets we serve don’t do well.”
And while the company gives considerable sums to nonprofits and community-based institutions, Jordan says he’s most proud of the work done by employees.
“We have hundreds of people who are involved in boards and volunteer activities in the community they participate in,” he says. “I expect we underestimate it by a significant amount, but we can track more than 20,000 hours a year in terms of people just giving paid time back to their communities.”
The role of CEO might seem daunting, but Jordan says there are a few key things to keep in mind. “Some of the best advice I ever got was to view it as a marathon, not a sprint,” he says. “Think about developing your skill set and your tool box in a colorful fashion over a period of time. Look for opportunities to gain experience in different aspects of the business so that you have a broader understanding of the business.”
Another critical aspect, he says, is “investing in the skill set around people and leadership and how you influence the organization, particularly in periods where change or difficult decisions have to be made. You want to feel that you’re building a broad and successful place for people to grow and to nurture their careers. One of our main objectives here is to make sure that our broad and diverse employee base has an opportunity to be successful to meet their career objectives and to do meaningful work in serving customers and communities. It’s important for leaders to think that way about how they build their organization for the future.”
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