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Executive Profile

Driven to Lead
SouthTrust Bank's Bradley Thompson remains 
well grounded despite his rapid ascension to the top


By Kevin Brafford

He's 42 years old and the chief executive officer for fast-rising SouthTrust Bank, the fifth largest bank in the Southeast. Seersucker is his preferred summertime business attire. And bow ties are the norm, regardless of season.

But while clothes make some men, they don't make Bradley Thompson. His look is not about ego, but about comfort and style. One can have the latter without the former, just as one can have a sundae without the cherry.

He is a shameless self-promoter - for his bank, that is. Thompson's voicemail at work informs the caller of his whereabouts that day, and oh by the way, "We're still offering a special on home equity lines. It's prime for life, based on a $50,000 line amount; a $25,000 draw for 12 months. We would love to assist you with one of those. . . . Have a great day."

That's one side of Thompson, the consummate salesman who would prefer not to take no for an answer. Here's the other: "If you'd like to skip the rest of this message and leave a message for me, you can do so by pressing the 6 key." A caller hears those words earlier in the voicemail. Translation: Once is enough for my sales pitch.

Thompson spent the first years of his life in the rolling East Tennessee hills not too far from Johnson City, although he was born in Bristol, Va. "It was the closest hospital," he says, "even though it was out of state." His family packed up and headed down Highway 187 to Spruce Pine in 1960, then farther south to Shelby five years later.

That became home to him and his three younger brothers - Mark, John and Brian. "It was a great place to grow up, a small tight-knit community with a lot of pride," he says. "Football was a big thing on Friday nights. There was a lot of tradition."

The Thompson boys were into sports, and the oldest played them all - football, basketball, baseball and golf. Of those, football and golf were his best, "although I probably peaked a little early on the football field."

He was a backup quarterback as a junior and senior, but by then his interest had turned more toward golf. Most college-bound high school seniors make their higher education choice based on either academics or cost. Thompson headed for Appalachian State just as much because he was familiar with the school and "because I wanted to play golf." Of course, paying in-state tuition was a bonus.

Golf wasn't his only interest, however, which was probably a good thing considering that he wasn't a great player. Thompson did contribute as a walk-on for four years, but along the way he found a better fit in accounting, where he discovered that crunching numbers was easier than making birdies.

He also discovered Amanda Cranford, one year his junior. Or maybe she discovered him. "He was a popular guy on campus," she says. "I would go by his fraternity house, and I'd speak to him, trying to start a conversation. He'd say hello, and that was it.

"People thought he was stuck up, but I found out that wasn't the case at all. He was just really, really shy."

Thompson finally got up the nerve to string together a couple of words. It was Friday, classes were over for the week, and it was time to kick back. In a room filled with music and laughter, Thompson sidled over to Amanda.

"Would you like to dance?" he asked.

"No."

Thompson was persistent, but Amanda was insistent. Five more times he asked. Just one dance. Five more times she said no.

"After a while," he says, "I walked back over and told her, 'I'm sorry, that's just not the right answer.' "

Finally, she relented to something she had wanted to do all along. "I wasn't going to make it that easy," she says. "I figured my strategy had to be totally different. I didn't want him to know that I was interested."

What if there hadn't been a seventh query? And what about the shy, reserved Bradley Thompson? "I'm shy, but I'm very persistent," he says. "If there's something that I want to do, I'm not going to give up."

Three and a half years later, while Thompson was studying for his master's of business administration at ASU, they married. Eighteen years later, Amanda fondly recalls that Friday exchange. "I've been dancing ever since," she says.

Thompson had offers from accounting firms and banks when he finished graduate school in 1982. Amanda was a successful interior designer, so her husband could pick and choose. He chose BB&T.

The newlyweds managed to get through six months in Wilson and eight months in Fayetteville before Thompson landed in Charlotte as an assistant vice president and manager of a Queens Road branch. He quickly worked his way up the corporate ladder and was named a senior vice president and Charlotte City Executive at the uptown corporate office in October 1989.

"I tried to listen and learn as much as I could," Thompson says. "I wanted to soak everything in, to absorb knowledge from as many resources as possible."

Lynn Daniel is the owner and president of The Daniel Group, a strategic planning research company based in Charlotte. He met Thompson during this period, and it was the beginning of both a business and personal relationship.

"Two things strike me about him that are remarkable," Daniel says. "First is his energy. He never stops. Second is the genuine concern he has for his customers and employees. People say that about a lot of leaders, but there is nothing at all false about that in him."

Wallace Malone, the chairman and CEO of Birmingham-based SouthTrust, was duly impressed. His bank was looking to grow, and Malone entrusted North Carolina to Thompson, naming him SouthTrust's state CEO in January 1993, the same month he turned 35.

"You can talk about age all that you want to, but he was extremely competent," says Bill Coley, the president of Duke Power and a member of SouthTrust's Board of Directors. "Good judgement, good values. In that sense, I don't think Wallace took much of a gamble."

Thompson said his decision was a no-brainer. "I believed in North Carolina and in Charlotte," he says, "and I believed in Wallace. It wasn't magic that we showed up here. We wanted to focus on those areas in the Southeast where the local population was forecast to grow faster than the U.S. population.

"The company basically redeployed its capital base from a no-growth state in Alabama to the high-growth areas of the Southeast - Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and now Texas."

SouthTrust opened in North Carolina with three offices. In the past eight years, nine have been acquired, 26 have been built and two have been closed. That's 36 offices today, which are filled by more than 550 "teammates," as Thompson calls them. Only Bank of America, First Union, Wachovia and Sun Trust are larger in the Southeast than SouthTrust, a $43 billion financial institution.

"They're aggressive, but they're conservatively aggressive," says Coley. "They pay a lot of attention to the fundamentals of their business, and they have an idea of who they are.

"That's Bradley, too, although he's also inclined to do some things you wouldn't expect. I've seen him in some multi-color wigs in front of his employees and his state board."

Thompson is not a traditional CEO in that he doesn't spend each day behind a desk. Rather, he spends most of them behind the steering wheel of his four-year-old Buick, enough so that its odometer reads more than 136,000 miles. You won't find a bigger fan of e-mail and mobile phones.

"One of the things Wallace taught me is that you have to go out there and see what's going on with your teammates," he says. "What I try to focus on is my personal growth and my leadership skills. We're probably in the most competitive banking market in the country. When you're competing at that level, you get to sharpen your sword every day."

Thompson sharpens it in other ways as well. He's on the board of directors for the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce and this month will join the board of trustees at ASU. That's in addition to having served on the university's foundation board since 1996.

"Bradley has stood out as one of our leaders, as a visionary who's willing to work behind the scenes," says Siegfried Herrmann, the vice chancellor for university advancement and the foundation president. "He and Amanda both have been very active."

Indeed. Thompson served as the fund-raising chairman for the McKinney Alumni Center Project at ASU. Thousands of phone calls, letters and handshakes later, $1.5 million in donations - entirely through private support - was raised.

"I met him about five years ago at an alumni event," says Herrmann, "and my first impression was of someone who was loyal and a dedicated professional who wanted to make sure Appalachian was going to move ahead in a number of areas. One of them certainly was in fund-raising."

Thompson gives as well. He has been a driving force behind NCCBI's Young Executives program, both financially and otherwise. "SouthTrust is the originator and prime funder for Young Executives," says NCCBI President Phil Kirk. "However, Bradley contributes more than money to this program. He attends all of the meetings and gives us ideas for the programs. His mind is constantly thinking of how he can help others."

Thompson isn't sure he still qualifies as a young executive, but says the program is instrumental. "In our business, we're trying to focus on building relationships with the up-and-comers. In the future, I believe there will be a multitude of people making decisions - more so than today - and it's important to be there with them."

Be there with them. For Thompson, the expression fits both in business and at home. Amanda put her career on hold when Sallie Katherine was born nine years ago. A son, Ellison, will turn 5 later this year. "Family is so important," Thompson says.

The first Sunday each July, a whole mess of Thompsons, their spouses, their children and grandchildren convene at a farm in East Tennessee that's been in the family since 1815. "We had 120 this year, and they came from as far away as Texas," Thompson says. "We always shoot fireworks, and this year the kids got to drive one of the old farm trucks in the front field - and they can hardly see over the steering wheel. Those are memories money can't buy."

It's a delicate balance, that of being a CEO in two places. Thompson asks as many questions as he answers, and rarely does he answer quickly. An exception comes when he's asked his favorite hobby: "Watching my kids grow and learning from them. We ride bicycles, go swimming. My little boy and I, we might play a hole of golf or we might sit in a sandtrap and build a road with his Tonka trucks."

Who has more fun? It's difficult to say. Daniel tells a holiday story from four or five years ago. "Bradley loves Christmas. There were a group of us meeting at Anderson's (a Charlotte restaurant), and we're waiting on him. All of a sudden, in comes this guy wearing a Santa Claus hat with green suspenders and a red bow tie. He then proceeded to pass out candy canes to all the customers."

Ah, the bow ties. Reserved before for holidays and special occasions - and of the clip-on variety - the real things are new for 2000 as a part of Thompson's daily business attire. The closet contains seven at the moment, which is seven more than Amanda would prefer. "I hate them," she says. "I'm not a bow tie person at all, but he's decided that's what he wants to wear. Did he tell you about the first time he wore one?"

It was Jan. 3, and wherever Thompson had to be that day, knew that he was late. That's because "it took me an hour and 15 minutes to tie the thing to where it looked halfway decent," he says.

The purpose, he says, is to be noticed in an understated way. "In our business, it's a lot about impression. There are a lot of bankers who wear regular ties. When I looked around, there weren't many, if any, wearing bow ties."

He got the idea from watching the late Payne Stewart during practice rounds leading up to last year's U.S. Open golf tournament at Pinehurst. It was a championship that Stewart, long recognized for his knickers, would win.

"On Monday, he was in a pair of slacks and I didn't recognize him," Thompson says. "On Tuesday, he was in his knickers, so you knew it was him right away.

"When he died, the story came out about where he had come up with the idea of his dress. It originated from his dad, who was a salesman, I think. He would distinguish himself by wearing a different colored sports coat each day. And that's how people remembered him."

Bow ties or not, chances are that Thompson needn't worry about being remembered.

COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL. This article first appeared in the September 2000 issue of North Carolina magazine.

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