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Say Hello to the CEO
At Lexington State Bank you can, because
Bob Lowe’s desk is right at the front door

By Kevin Brafford

The first thing you notice is the large desk — not for what’s on it but for what’s not on it. On the right is a telephone. In the middle are two pens angled in a stand. On the left is a nameplate.

Behind his chair is a laptop computer, resting in sleep. A couple of small family pictures are nearby, seemingly in perfect symmetry. Books are quiet and in their place.

That’s it.

If you want to catch Robert F. Lowe — as the nameplate reads — with a printout or a memo or a newspaper or a magazine on his desk, you’d best do one of two things: Come when the mail arrives, or come with an attachment.

“My brother Vincent taught me,” says Lowe, the chairman, president and CEO of Lexington State Bank and its holding company, LSB Bancshares Inc., “that you should only look at a piece of paper one time, because you’ll know what you’re going to do with it.”

Call it a Lowe family tradition in a family traditionally rich in banking. L. Vincent Lowe Jr., six years Bob’s senior, was chairman and CEO of BB&T when he died unexpectedly in 1989. Their father was an executive with the former United Carolina Bank. All are past presidents of the North Carolina Bankers Association, and Bob Lowe is currently one of 18 members nationally on the board of the American Bankers Association.

 “Banking is something that I grew up with,” says the 58-year-old Lowe, who was raised in the little town of Chadbourn in southeastern North Carolina. “It was a part of our family, and therefore was always a part of me, something I wanted to do.”

And something that he does well. Lowe came to Lexington — the hometown of his wife, the former Mary Hundley Philpott, in 1970, four years after they married. He spent 11 months at a bank across the street, then landed at LSB, a community-service bank with roots in Davidson County that dates to 1949. He was named CEO in 1984, and LSB quickly took off. As of last September, it was the state’s 10th largest commercial bank with assets of $812 million and deposits of $670 million.

“People say it’s a mini-Wachovia,” says Tony Plath, an associate professor of finance in the Belk College of Business at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “It’s a conservative lender, well capitalized, with a strong brand name, clean balance sheet and efficient operations.”    

The last adjective goes directly to Lowe, says Jim Culberson, who retired as chairman of First National Bank in Asheboro in 1998 and remains a close friend. “He’s a very efficient person in utilization of his time and management,” Culberson says. “At the same time, he’s good at delegating, and that’s what you have to be in order to be a strong leader.”

Lowe maintains that he’s been more fortunate than skilled. He deflects credit to the more than 350 LSB employees who operate the 21 bank branches, mortgage loan center and two subsidiaries in Davidson, Forsyth and Stokes counties. And he recognizes Lexington’s proximity to larger cities like Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem, and appreciates how a small-town atmosphere parlayed with a big-city feel has help accelerate the bank’s growth.

“It’s an ideal place to live and work, there’s no question about it,” he says. “To be within an hour’s driving distance of Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro is certainly beneficial. There are probably a million people in a 50-mile radius of Lexington.

“We have employees who live here and work at our branches in Forsyth County, and we have employees who live in Forsyth County and work here. The accessibility is definitely a plus for both our customers and our employees.”

LSB promotes itself as “the bank built around you.” The message is clear to its shareholders and board of directors: “We have a defined strategic plan to operate the bank as a community institution,” Lowe says. “While we obviously realize that it’s a rapidly consolidating industry, our strategy is to continue what we think we do well.”

To that end, Lowe isn’t too concerned that LSB didn’t offer on-line banking services until the first quarter of last year — about three years behind the state’s largest institutions. And he doesn’t flinch when those same corporate giants put out feelers to see if a certain independent bank is available.

“We’re comfortable with what we do,” he says. “We have a lot of potential, and we have capital to make acquisitions. We’re looking for institutions that think like we do.”

If that sounds like LSB is more likely to be buying than selling, so be it. “We have a responsibility to our shareholders,” he says, “so I think you’re always open to ideas and certainly you have to listen. But there will always be a place for community banking, and that’s what we do best.”

It’s what Lowe does best, according to Bob Oates, a partner in Turlington & Associates LLP, and a longtime neighbor of Bob and Hun Lowe. “He doesn’t toot his own horn,” says Oates. “He’s got a very quiet demeanor. He approaches the bank with the community in mind, and he’s held steadfast in those values through the years. It’s very much the way he lives his life.”  

Chadbourn, N.C., is just west of Whiteville, if that tells you something. You might pass through it on Highway 410 on your way to the beach, but only if you’re lost. Chadbourn is so small that Lowe doesn’t bother mentioning it by name — rather, that he’s from the southeastern part of the state.

Still, the town had Chadbourn High School, and it was from there that Lowe graduated and headed for the big city — Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina.

He earned a degree in economics in 1965 and completed the Young Executives’ Institute in the university’s business school. Among many job opportunities came one from what was then the State Planters Bank (now Crestar Financial Corp.) in Richmond. A few weeks into his first full-time job, he met Hun, a student at the Pan American School.

“A mutual friend gave him my telephone number,” says Hun. “He actually took my roommate out first. Once we began dating, it got serious in a hurry. We actually lived in the same (apartment) complex, just two rows apart, so we saw a lot of each other.”

Both are fuzzy as to when they realized that they would share a life together, only that it wasn’t long. “My mother says she knew in July,” Hun says. “I wrote her a letter and said, ‘I’m bringing a friend home’ (on vacation). When she saw how we treated each other, she said she knew.”

They were engaged in November and married the following May. Three years later, Hun gave birth to twins, Fielding and Cabell. Later that year, they loaded up the baby clothes and headed to Lexington.

“We liked Richmond, but I think we just felt like Lexington was the right place for us, especially seeing that Hun was from here,” says Lowe. “When I was in Chapel Hill, I knew a lot of people from Lexington, Salisbury and the surrounding areas. We wanted to come back to North Carolina, and this was the perfect place.”

It still is, which is one reason why Lowe was able to turn away overtures through the years that would have uprooted the family. “We’ve lived in a couple of nice neighborhoods and got settled in the community and the church,” says Lowe, the latter reference being to First Presbyterian Church, where he’s served as a deacon and elder. “We’ve never really had any desire to leave.”

The twins didn’t stray far from home — or the family business — either. Cabell is a banking officer with Bank of America in Charlotte. Fielding, who’s married and has a 2-year-old son, also works in Charlotte for Oxford Advisors, an investment banking firm.

Bob Lowe made his early mark at LSB as a loan officer. Burr Sullivan, the owner of Dorsett Printing Corp. in Thomasville and a member of the bank’s board of directors, remembers a phone conversation with a man that he didn’t even know.

“Twenty-nine years ago, I was in graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was about to take a job at Burlington Industries (in Lexington),” Sullivan says. “I got a call from Bob asking if there was anything he could do to meet my banking needs. Somehow, he knew I was coming.”

Lowe laughs at the story. “It’s been so long ago,” he says, “that I don’t remember how I knew that.”

It doesn’t really matter, of course, but it was telling as to the young loan officer’s initiative and energy. “He’s always on top of things,” says Culberson, “and always has been. We go back 20 years, and you can see the characteristics he picked up from his father and brother. He has his own ideas, but he’s always willing to let you do the talking.”

When Lowe arrived at LSB, the bank was just beginning to bloom. It had opened on July 5, 1949, the brainchild of local physician J.A. Smith. He and a few close business associates felt that Lexington should be more than a one-bank town. Issuance of 15,000 shares of capital stock was made available, with an individual purchase limit of 300. The more investors the better, Smith thought.

By year’s end, LSB totaled assets of $1.8 million. Nine years later, the first community branch was opened in Welcome, a small community halfway between Lexington and Winston-Salem. Between 1965 and 1978, eight more branch offices opened in Davidson County. More branch offices followed, and a six-level addition to the home office opened in 1988 and still today is the tallest and most striking building downtown. Along the way, Lowe and LSB got behind every worthwhile community project imaginable. “LSB’s been a model corporate citizen,” Oates says.

Franchise expansion continued into the late 1980s and early 1990s. LSB Bancshares’ assets, which totaled $189 million when Lowe became CEO, steadily rose. He took a deep breath in 1997 when the board voted to acquire Old North State Bank, a longstanding institution with seven offices in Forsyth and Stokes counties. The transaction opened eyes in the industry and was, Lowe notes, a learning experience. “That was new ground for us,” he says. “In a similar situation now, I think the transition would certainly be smoother and more efficient.”   

It’s notable that Smith, the bank’s first board chairman and president, kept his office near the front door so he could speak to customers. Today, Lowe’s office is on the ground floor near the front door — albeit in a more modern building one block away. Again, the message is clear: The chairman, president and CEO is there for you.

“I’m up at the bank three of four times a week,” says Sullivan, “and I usually pop in to say hello. You know, I used to kid him about that desk, about him having another office somewhere where he actually did his work.”

If another office does exist, it’s not at 110 Sequoia Drive, the Twin Acres address that the Lowes have called home since the subdivision was developed in the late 1970s. Chances are good that when Molly, the family’s five-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, greets her master at the door, he’s done for the day.

“Bob has always been good about not bringing work home,” says Hun. “Sometimes the hours are long, but his family always has been his top priority. It’s still that way now, even though the kids are gone.”

Her husband’s quiet demeanor and soft-spoken, Southern gentleman-like voice are real and true, she says. “But get him away from work and he’s not that quiet. He’s funny, and he’s always been great fun with the kids. He has a wonderful laugh, but it’s not something that he’ll let go very often at work.”

Ask Lowe his hobbies and the first word out of his mouth is family. He played golf occasionally until the kids were born — then “gave it up for about 25 years.” A regular tennis game took its place, principally because tennis requires less time than golf. Now he’s back playing golf — again only occasionally — save for an annual early Christmas present to himself : He and about 25 other business men head to Myrtle Beach for three days the first weekend in December.

Vacations also are put on the calendar earlier these days. For the past three summers, he and Hun have gone to Europe and anchored for a week in either London or Zurich. In 1989, they began vacationing with their children “at an island every year,” a tradition that has been put on the backburner by the jaunts to Europe.

The beach, however, remains a nesting place, as Hun and her sister have a place at Arcadian Shores, while Hun and Bob maintain an interest at Litchfield. “When we have time, and can, we migrate toward the beach,” he says. “So much of our travel used to be business-related; we’ve decided now that we’ll make a conscious effort to do more leisure travel.”

Leisure travel and early retirement often go hand-in-hand, but don’t believe for a minute that such will be the case for Lowe. “I turned 58 in August,” he says, “and I’ve been in business for 35 years. It really seems to have passed very quickly, and I enjoy it now as much — if not more — than I enjoyed it then.

“From a banking standpoint, the challenges and opportunities have never been greater. When you look at the technology, when you look at the other types of businesses within our industry that you can get into, it’s truly exciting. The rapid rate of change and the necessity to be able to adapt to the wishes of our customers is tremendous.”

If you ever want to talk banking, Lowe’s not hard to find. If he’s at the bank, he answers the phone. That’s become the exception rather than the norm among many top executives in today’s e-mail, voice mail-laden business world. But it’s not the case at LSB, a practice that extends throughout the bank.

“He believes,” says Oates, “and rightly so, that if a customer is calling the bank, the customer obviously needs something, and he or she probably wants that answer from a person.”

It’s all part of the total package, according to Culberson. “The bank truly reflects Bob from top to bottom,” he says. “With him, the customer always comes first.”

Kevin Brafford can be reached at kbrafford@nccbi.org 

COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL. This article first appeared in the January 2001 issue of the North Carolina Magazine.

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