Driven to Lead
SouthTrust Bank's Bradley Thompson remains
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
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
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.
Thompson was persistent, but Amanda was insistent. Five
more times he asked. Just one dance. Five more times she
"After a while," he says, "I walked back
over and told her, 'I'm sorry, that's just not the right
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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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