Talk with Gene Perkins and you hear him use the word “opportunity” a number of times. Part of that is because the new senior director over private wealth management at Synovus Financial Corp. has grabbed opportunities much of his life.
His college path was through the Reserve Officer Training Corps program, a route in which he traded an obligation to the U.S. military for a scholarship at Mercer University. It also meant he eventually would serve more than a decade in the U.S. Army Reserves, including about nine months on a peacekeeping mission in the region of Bosnia, Croatia and Hungary.
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When he got the chance to work for a solid big bank, he took it at SunTrust, the largest in Georgia and one in which he could learn much more on the investment and wealth management side of banking equation. The tradeoff there is he held dual roles — overseeing wealth management operations in west and middle Georgia up to Augusta, while eventually taking on the additional responsibility of market president and chief executive officer, with an office in Columbus.
But then another opportunity arose when Columbus Bank and Trust President Billy Blanchard left the company at the end of 2016 to work with his father, Jim Blanchard. Upon Blanchard’s exit, Heath Schondelmayer was promoted from wealth management director to the helm of CB&T, the flagship bank of Synovus. It didn’t take Perkins, 46, long to make the decision that he wanted to be with the bank he respects and help it to develop more “opportunities” for growth in the area of private wealth management.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited recently with Perkins — a so-called “Army brat” and Baker High grad — to discuss the job he took earlier this month and what he hopes to accomplish in the role. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
Q. What have you been doing in your first couple of weeks on the job?
A. I’m really trying to focus on getting my feet under me here in Columbus. This is day number nine. I’ve got a lot to learn.
Q. How did it happen that SunTrust let you go and Synovus brought you aboard? Were you recruited?
A. I was with SunTrust about 19 years in my career, so it was not an easy decision. It’s a good company; I made a lot of good friends. But, for me, coming to Synovus is just a great opportunity. It’s a great company. I’ve always respected the company. I know a handful of the leaders relatively well, and there was just a mutual interest and we started a dialogue not terribly long ago. Heath Schondelmayer played a part in that, and (chief community banking officer) D Copeland and (regional CEO) Mark Lane, and I know Kevin Blair, the CFO, who’s relatively new from our former time at SunTrust. So that played a part in my decision as well.
Q. It all went fairly quickly, it sounds like?
A. Yeah, it happened pretty fast.
Q. But this also keeps you in the community that you partially grew up in and want to remain part of in the future?
A. That’s some of it, absolutely. I think there’s an opportunity for me to grow at Synovus and do it while I’m here in the community that I love and where I and my family want to stay. Again, I wouldn’t have done it just for any company, so it wasn’t about that. It really was about the opportunity, and I think (private wealth management) is an important business within the Synvous bank model. I think there’s an opportunity to grow it and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.
Q. It helps that you know Synovus and the market well, and the wealth management side of the business, because that’s been the bulk of your career?
A. For the most part. I’ve been in financial services for right at 24 years. I spent about two and a half or three years on the consumer side of the bank, in retail, running branches. I was an assistant branch manager and a branch manager for a little while.
Q. That’s called cutting your teeth?
A. Cutting my teeth, that’s right. Then I was in the management associate program for a brief period of time, and then basically got into private banking in my fourth or fifth year in my career. So I’ve been doing private banking, which obviously has evolved into private wealth management, for 19 or so years.
Q. Did you always want to be in banking, or perhaps become an astronaut or fireman?
A. There was a period when I thought I was going to be a marine biologist, and then I thought I was going to be a marketing major when I got to college. I started taking a couple of economics classes, and there was a college counselor, a guy named Dr. Andrew at Mercer University, and he was a real influence on me. I loved economics right out of the gate. So I changed my major and when I started looking at what I wanted to do after school — I looked at a couple of things — but banking was what I was very interested in. I was up in the Midwest at the time because I had been commissioned through the ROTC program at Mercer.
Q. Thank you for serving.
A. No, it was my honor to do it. I met a lot of great people. I got a lot of experience and saw parts of the world I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. But I did the Reserves for 12 years. I had to do four years active or eight in the Reserves because of my obligation through the scholarship. So I opted for the Reserves and ended up doing 12 years because I really enjoyed it.
Q. You mentioned that your father retired from the Army here in Columbus?
A. My dad retired here. He was in 24 years, a non-commissioned officer. He retired as a master sergeant. He enlisted with his three brothers and all of them went to Vietnam. All of them came back. My grandfather on my father’s side was a World War II veteran. I’ve had lots of cousins that served in the military, Army mostly, all non-commissioned. And one Marine; we had one outlier. (laughs) My cousin Jeff was a Marine. But I was the first one to be an officer.
Q. When you entered banking, did you know you would be mostly in the Southeast and close to home?
A. I can’t say that I really knew that ... But I applied at several banks in the Midwest because that’s where I was for my officer’s basic course, so as I was winding that down, it was just easier to apply for jobs in Indianapolis where I was. Two winters ... I made it two winters and then I knew I wanted to get back down to the South. I had a lot of friends in Macon because of the Mercer connection and ended up going to work for a bank there in 1995.
Q. Then you really began to learn the business?
A. I really fell in love with banking pretty early, especially when I got to Macon and was able to see how banking really is as an industry. I feel like it does so much for the business community — but just in general and is particularly noticeable to me at Synovus — what we do to invest in the community and really lift up the entire community.
Q. Synovus is located in larger cities now, but it’s roots are fairly modest here in Columbus?
A. Well, Synovus and CB&T has a very rich history here. I’ve known and respected the company for a very long time and I’m proud to be on the team. Even things like today, with the Boys & Girls Club and being involved in that book drive and meeting the kids, and last week I got to go to the Page One Award winners luncheon that CB&T has hosted for years now ... I’m going to a Boy Scout dinner tonight where the chairman of the CB&T board is being honored. There is this constant commitment to the community.
Q. Is your private wealth job and mission at Synovus similar to that at SunTrust? What will you be doing?
A. On the surface, there are a lot of similarities. But I think at the same time there a number of differences. In my prior role, I was managing director of private wealth management for a pretty big geographic area. So I was pretty spread out and I was serving as the market president for Columbus and LaGrange. So I’m not doing that anymore. That’s (bank president) in the capable hands of Heath Schondelmayer here. So I’m able to really focus on the wealth management side of the business. That’s one distinct difference.
Q. You now are concentrating on one job instead of two?
A. To some extent. But this is great. There are tons of opportunities. It’s a great business. I think it’s a really important business for Synovus as we’re looking to grow, in general, the bank. The core private wealth management business is really strong here in Columbus. We have pockets where it’s successful. Hopefully, as I mature in my role here and get to know the system and people and the Synovus way of doing things, I hope I can add some value and help to grow the business across a little bit broader footprint in our region. I’m working very closely, obviously, with Heath Schondelmayer, but also the regional CEO Mark Lane.
Q. When we’re talking about wealth management, are we speaking about people who own Coca-Cola stock and some who have inherited money? Can you describe the customer base?
A. Sure. There are some places (banks) that have very hard and fast rules that you have to meet to qualify for private wealth management. That is not the way we choose to approach the business.
There’s a certain level of financial success that people can reach where their situation becomes a little more complex, so their needs for planning — whether it’s retirement planning, education planning, estate planning and so forth — just become a little more complicated. I think that’s where our teams can really help people and approach it from a comprehensive perspective, bring multiple experts into the relationship and help people from an investment management perspective … help with the loans and deposits and traditional banking as well. But, really, it’s creating somewhat of a one-stop shop almost.
For everybody, I think the definition of private wealth management is a little bit different, and we really don’t have a hard and fast rule. We work with a lot of professional executives, a lot of situations where there are families that inherited wealth through the years from previous generations. People who have sold businesses. Even helping people that have businesses prepare for succession planning, especially when they’re wanting to monetize the business, we play an important role there. It’s pretty broad.
Q. How many people report to you?
A. We have six private wealth advisers, and then we have multiple financial consultants that are on the Synovus Securities investment platform. And we have Synovus Trust as well. So it’s a really big group.
Q. Are those staffers mostly here or are they scattered out at other banks?
A. We have a core group here in Columbus, obviously, but then we do have really talented people in other markets all over the company. Not every market has a private wealth adviser, but that goes back to what I was saying earlier, there are probably some opportunities in select markets to build out (our business).
Q. Is there anything that you would like to add?
A. Just know that I love what I do because everyday we come to work, really, to help people. I think that is awesome. And if I can help my team help people, then ultimately everybody wins. The shareholder wins. You know, helping somebody buy their first home or their dream home is a great feeling. Or helping them plan for their child’s education or a retirement is a great feeling ... knowing that you’re helping people. It’s just a very rewarding thing. I love it.
Hometown: An “Army brat” who considers Columbus home. Fort Benning was his father’s last duty station before retiring as a master sergeant. He attended middle and high school in Columbus
Current residence: Midtown area of Columbus
Education: 1989 graduate of Baker High School; earned a business degree from the Stetson School of Business, with a major in economics, at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.
Previous jobs: Spent two years with Union Federal Savings Bank in Indianapolis, three years with Capital City Bank in Macon, Ga., and 19 years combined in Macon and Columbus with SunTrust Bank, covering multiple markets in Georgia
Family: Wife Meg, who is from Carrollton, Ga., and two sons — Hap, 15, and Alec, 13
Leisure time: Enjoys fishing and bird hunting
Of note: Participated in the ROTC program while at Mercer and was commissioned a second lieutenant when he graduated; attended advanced camp between his junior and senior years at Fort Bragg, N.C.; completed his Officer’s Basic Course at the now-closed Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana. He had a commitment to serve either four years on active duty or eight years in the Army Reserves after being commissioned. He ultimately served 12 years in the Reserves and was deployed for about nine months in support of peacekeeping mission Operation Joint Guard (Hungary, Croatia and Bosnia); he held positions as platoon leader, detachment commander and battalion staff officer during his time in the Reserves