published Sunday, April 27th, 2014

First Tennessee's Sanford wins Chattanooga Area Manager of the Year for 2014

Keith Sanford, 2014 Chattanooga Area Manager of the Year, will be honored at a luncheon on June 4.
Keith Sanford, 2014 Chattanooga Area Manager of the Year, will be honored at a luncheon on June 4.
Photo by Erin O. Smith.

About Keith Sanford

* Age: 55

* Job: Market president of First Tennessee Bank

* Experience: Hired in 1980 out of college, 34 years on the job

* Education: Graduate of Virginia Episcopal School in Lynchburg, Va. and Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va.

* Family: Married to Julia Sanford with two sons and two daughters, and twin brother named Kirk Sanford.

* Interests: reading, philanthropy, non-profit service

Source: Keith Sanford

If you go

The Chattanooga Manager of the Year luncheon is at 11:30 a.m. June 4 at the Chattanooga Convention Center. Individual tickets are $45 and corporate tables for eight are $450. Contact Valerie Gifford to reserve a spot at 423-634-3563 or valerie.gifford@tvfcu.com

Keith Sanford is the type of man who knows how to fit $10,000 in each pocket if he needs to transport some cash.

When Sanford goes shopping, he can mentally add up the cost of the items in his cart, calculate the tax, then figure out what he owes before the cashier finishes scanning the items.

These are the types of skills a person picks up over 34 years of managing a bank.

Sanford, market president of First Tennessee, the largest bank in Chattanooga, has performed nearly every job in banking, from overseeing a branch to making loans.

Before computers, he learned how to plot out First Tennessee's financial information on a piece of paper using colored pencils. He's seen the practice of lending transform from a handshake to a half-pound of paperwork. He's worn a tie nearly every day of his life since the seventh grade.

In person, he's funny and self-deprecating, claiming that he's not that interesting or important.

"I'm pretty boring," Sanford said. "I've been at the same place and had the same wife for more than 30 years."

But his peers, who have picked him as the Chattanooga Area Manager of the Year for 2014, disagree.

They cite his laser focus on customer service, service on dozens of area boards and quiet but competitive spirit as reasons for his nomination to the city's top spot for area CEOs.

"Sanford's leadership in utilizing great customer service played a major role in First Tennessee's rise to the largest bank in Chattanooga" said Dan Saieed, chair of the 2014 Chattanooga Area Manager of the Year event, which is scheduled for June 4 at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

The real key to success for Sanford, however, was going to extraordinary lengths to surround himself with good people and making the extra effort to retain those people.

"It's funny, by nature I'm a very introverted person, but I've had to learn how to be an extrovert in this job," Sanford said.

He made friends easily in banking school, developing contacts and colleagues in other banks. Those contacts helped elevate him at age 27 from a branch manager to the head of correspondent banking -- a type of lending banks do with each other -- and eventually head of all retail branches.

When Sanford was 39 years old, the local trust department and First Tennessee's private banking operations in Chattanooga were also folded into his department, and he was named executive vice president.

Making smart, safe banking decisions was never his problem, which perhaps explains his quick rise to to the top of the banking world in the Scenic City. He found the constant evolution of technology to be the bigger challenge, especially as it relates to getting older workers to adopt new tools.

Yet somehow, he managed. First Tennessee in 2011 was the first regional bank in Tennessee to offer mobile check deposits, allowing users to take photos of checks using a smartphone application and send them in electronically.

One year earlier, in 2010, First Tennessee had surpassed rival SunTrust as the biggest bank in Chattanooga by deposits, seizing the market lead in the midst of a recession even as it closed branches to save on costs.

As SunTrust scaled down some of its Chattanooga operations or relocated them to other cities, First Tennessee stepped in and picked up a bigger share of the trust and private banking business that was left behind. Even as big banks relocated authority to make big loans to central offices, First Tennessee retains the ability in Chattanooga to approve loans as high as $25 million.

First Tennessee in Chattanooga now boasts $2.4 billion in deposits, a Chattanooga record, and $1.5 billion in loans. That's more than quadruple the bank's size when Sanford first arrived on the scene, when First Tennessee's Chattanooga operation included $450 million in deposits and $350 million in loans.

"Other banks bought their way in, but we've done it through organic growth," Sanford said.

For a self-described quiet guy, Sanford doesn't mind communicating. In fact, that's another of his keys to success. Nearly as important as communicating directly to customers is the ability to first communicate changes to key staff who will be the ones fielding questions.

"If you're putting in a new service charge and they have to explain that to the customer, explain the rationale and why you're doing it, because they're the ones who have to be able to walk the customer through it," Sanford said.

Many small adjustments, from fee increases to filing changes, were brought on by new regulations that arose after the housing crash and subsequent recession.

"People would ask questions, they'd read that the bank had lost money and they were worried, and you'd have to reassure them," Sanford said. "It was scary because you never really knew what was happening."

First Tennessee had to charge off a significant portion of its value, as loans to real estate developers lost their value.

But with the recession fading into the past, the new problems mostly concern navigating the rules that were enacted to prevent another economic downturn from happening.

The bank makes much of its money from loans, but more stringent guidelines force First Tennessee and other banks to turn away customers. That makes beating the bushes and finding good customers -- essentially selling loans -- even more important, Sanford said.

No matter where he is, Sanford is selling First Tennessee's services, and he encourages every other employee, from tellers to loan officers, to do the same. It's not only about growth, it's about survival.

"When you make a loan, the month after to make it it starts paying down, so you've got to get another new loan," Sanford said. "If we have $7 million per month disappearing in payments, we've got to make $7 million in new loans to cover that."

That drive not only helped him beat SunTrust, but also made Chattanooga one of Memphis-based First Tennessee's most successful markets, period.

At a time when just about every bank, including First Tennessee, is slashing expenses in an attempt to remain profitable in a harsh regulatory environment, Sanford says he's looking to expand in new ways.

One of those ways may be buying another bank to expand to a city similar to Chattanooga, Sanford said.

"We're looking at somebody out there who looks like a Chattanooga in an adjoining state that we could buy for the right price," Sanford said.

In an attempt to grow loans, the bank has also sent teams of lenders to Richmond, Va.; Charlotte, N.C.; Charleston, S.C.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Winston-Salem, N.C.; Raleigh, N.C.; and most recently, Houston, Texas.

Lending is where the rubber meets the road in banking, because it's where the bank can make or lose the most money. Bankers must not only make judgment calls at the time of the loan, but must later decide whether or not to repossess the collateral of a long-term client who has fallen behind on their payments.

If just one 5-percent loan goes bad, it takes the bank 20 good loans to merely break even, he said.

That's where Sanford's long-term service in Chattanooga comes into play. This isn't the first recession he's seen, and it won't be the last. In spits of the ups and downs of the market, he can tell the difference between a good customer and a bad customer. And when a bank shows loyalty to long-time clients, they remember it.

"I was talking to one developer recently who we stuck with through the recession, and he said he's still a customer because we stuck with him through three recessions," Sanford said. "The good part about the business is making dreams come true. Whether it's making a loan to a customer so they can buy a house, or buy a business, or expand a business, or buy a car or have a baby, the best part of it for me."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at 423-757-6315 or esmith@timesfreepress.com with tips and documents.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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