Jim Wells, Chairman and CEO of SunTrust Banks Inc. spoke at Goizueta March 31, detailing key aspects of his career ascension, the state of the banking industry and opportunities for the future.
The CEO was joined by Vice Dean for Programs Rob Kazanjian, who led a discussion on current issues and strategy.
“This is my seventh recession, so I have some perspective,” said a matter-of-fact Wells when asked about the state of the economy and financial reforms.
Wells began his banking career in Richmond, Va., as a management trainee with United Virginia Bankshares. United Virginia later became Crestar Bank, where Wells last served as President. Crestar is now part of SunTrust Mid-Atlantic. He was named to his current position in 2008, having served as President and Chief Executive Officer of SunTrust since January 2007.
He said the global scope and political influence in the most recent recession is a key difference than those of previous decades but government involvement was necessary to prevent disaster.
“Had they not done something I think the abyss would have been there for all of us,” said Wells, who also commented on SunTrust’s recent buy back of stock under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).
“It’s a critical thing for society to have banks… Basic banking will always be there,” he said. “There can’t be no banking. You have to have it. There’s no way for commerce to work unless there’s a system of banks.”
An English major at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and later a student at the American Bankers Association (ABA) Stonier Graduate School of Banking at Rutgers University, Wells also detailed his career path through most every job a bank has to offer — from real estate to capital markets.
“Banks are wonderful places to work because there’s something for everybody to do,” he said. “It’s a very interesting place to work because there are a lot of opportunities and I’ve had a lot of them.”
In offering advice to students in attendance, the long-time executive said one should “take responsibility” for his/her skill set, not balk when asked to take on a risky assignment and “embrace and cause change to happen.”
“The reality is this business is different every morning and you have to really want change,” he said.
Wells also talked about culture at SunTrust — a company of more than 28,000 employees or “teammates.” More than 14,000 of them, according to Wells, responded to surveys the last time the company looked for brand messaging. The tag, “help people and institutions prosper” was an agency and employee favorite.
“We were blessed with the opportunity to establish something that worked with our firm and we didn’t have to change our culture,” he said. “That’s who we are.”