It’s been a long road back from the brink of a financial crisis, a journey that at times angered shareholders of Synovus Financial Corp,, prompting some to be more vocal than others.
On Thursday, Julie Werner, a Warner Robins, Ga., resident and investor of Synovus stock since the late 1990s, was back once again at the regional bank’s annual meeting podium, asking questions of Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Kessel Stelling.
But it was clear the edge was off any anxiety or tension she may have felt while addressing the executive during the annual gathering in 2011 — before the company had repaid the nearly $1 billion it owed the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program, money borrowed in the heat of the Great Recession.
“First, I personally want to congratulate you and your team,” Werner said. “I wasn’t a very happy shareholder about six years ago. I am a very happy shareholder now.”
That’s because Synovus has steadied itself and repaid the TARP money and become profitable again and is now — as Stelling refers to it — back in the business of establishing critical relationships with customers across the bank’s five-state footprint.
The exchange between CEO and shareholder Thursday was one of the highlights of the annual meeting, which took place at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center, itself an old ironworks that long ago had been saved from the wrecking ball and converted into a major meeting and activity facility.
Stelling, however, reiterated during the meeting that the world has changed for banks, its employees and the customers to which they cater. Werner followed up her opening congratulations by asking him how personal relationships can be established — like human branch staffers have done in the past — when mobile banking eliminates that personal touch and may make it even easier for consumers to set aside loyalty and change banks, presumably to one with fewer and cheaper fees.
“As you know, if you’re talking about your son or my sons, they don’t want to go to a bank,” Stelling said. “They want to do everything remote until they have a problem. And then they want to know that I can call a person who knows me, that will treat me like I am somebody and resolve things. We continue to do that.”
The CEO was emphatic that there is no turning back. He noted technology is not for everyone and that the company routinely examines its branch staffing models. But, amid the industry trend, it has had to cut branch locations from 320 before the recession to under 250 today.
“We’ve seen branch banking trend down 8 percent just since the introduction of our mobile banking” improvements late last year, he said.
Still, despite the transition the banking world is now experiencing, Stelling said Columbus-based Synovus — parent company of Columbus Bank and Trust — is on solid footing and making progress quarter by quarter.
“2013 was a year of achieving critical milestones that further strengthened our company and better positioned it for long-term sustainability,” he said. “2014 was a year of refinement and implementing our go-forward plan, and crisply executing on well thought-out strategies by our leadership team.”
Recapping 2014, the executive pointed out net income, or profit, grew from just under $119 million in 2013 to $185 million last year. Earnings per share rose from 88 cents to $1.33. Loans grew, core deposits held steady and non-performing loan ratios were much improved and are getting better each quarter.
Stelling said Synovus is in the process of repurchasing $250 in common stock, has increased its dividend from 7 cents to 10 cents per share, and is investing in e-technology, key talent, new sales tools, training and redesigned branches for the changing times.
But the company that has gone through a major restructuring since 2007 — cutting its employee base from more than 7,000 to about 4,500 — is still pinching pennies everywhere it can, he said.
“I have to mention aggressive commitment to expense management,” Stelling said. “It’s pervasive. It is a way of life around our company. I’m proud that we’ve been able to invest in talent and new technology while keeping our expenses flat. We’ve guided to flat for the year (2015) because of our total commitment to being more efficient.”
On a more personal note, the CEO did applaud his workforce for its work in the various communities in which the company does business in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee. He said staffers combined for 12,000 volunteer hours and participated in nearly 1,600 community projects last year.
But even with the overall progress in 2014 and in the most recent first quarter, Stelling said the company’s “teams are ready to put our foot on the gas to accelerate our performance and continue making measurable progress in several key areas.”
As an aside early in the meeting, he mentioned receiving an email from a prominent investment banker on Tuesday after the firm reported a $51.4 million quarterly profit.
“I thought his very short sentence summed it up. It was congratulations on a solid quarter. But he said perseverance and sound execution can truly make a difference,” said Stelling, quickly thanking his employees and fellow management for helping to turn that observation into reality.
Among those gathered at this year’s annual meeting were two retired Synovus chairmen and CEOs — Jim Blanchard, who lives in Columbus, and Richard Anthony, who gave up the CEO role in 2010 and the chairman’s position in 2011, primarily because of a life-threatening illness.
“My health is good,” Anthony said after the meeting. “I’m very fortunate. I’ve gotten my strength back. I owe a lot to UAB (Hospital in Birmingham, Ala.) for the care that they gave me and put me on a good track.”
Anthony said he’s enjoying retirement with his family — playing golf, visiting his Lake Martin retreat, and serving on charitable boards, as well as sitting on the board of First Commercial Bank in Birmingham, a Synovus division.
But he’s also been watching Synovus climb its way, step by step, out of a financial crisis that no one really thought would be as bad as it turned out. He also communicates frequently with Stelling and visits Columbus on occasion.
“I’m really proud of what I’m seeing and hearing,” said Anthony, conceding he does miss his old job. “I’ve told some people that, over the last day or two, how much I appreciated the relationships I had with them. And I’m proud of how they’ve carried on and what they’ve accomplished. I think what we put in place back in that difficult period (2007-2011) is bearing fruit.”