How faith and finance intertwined in the genesis of NewDominion Bank: Part 1

Bradley Thompson, the founding CEO of NewDominion Bank.
Bradley Thompson, the founding CEO of NewDominion Bank. CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

Editors’s note: This story originally ran on Jan. 9, 2005.

With the Charlotte skyline framed in the office window behind him, Bradley Thompson was about to make a decision that would change his life.

Across the table sat two Charlotte businessmen who were urging him to quit his job at SouthTrust Corp. to start a new bank. They admired his character and dealmaking skills and had been recruiting him for about a year.

Xan Law and Lew Parham, both influential real estate investors, saw a need for another local institution, especially as mergers devoured competition. They also knew startup banks could be lucrative investments. The plan was to raise $30 million in capital - a record for a new N.C. bank.

It was Thompson’s chance to be chief executive of his own bank, but the devout Christian says he wondered whether this was the path God wanted him to follow. He also agonized about whether he should abandon a successful career at SouthTrust and whether starting a new bank would take too much time from his family.

The dark-haired, neatly clipped Tennessee native had been a banker in town for more than 20 years, building a network of relationships among developers, sports figures and business leaders. The frenetic multitasker held doors for people, refilled their drinks at lunch and nabbed them Carolina Panthers tickets. He also knew how to corner them in a room to close a deal.

In Thompson was the epitome of two forces that forged this city: hard-charging bankers and outfront Christians. Charlotte is a city of 700 houses of worship, the hometown of evangelist Billy Graham, smack in the middle of the Bible Belt. It’s also the nation’s No. 2 banking hub, fueled by the national reach of Bank of America Corp. and Wachovia Corp., and a fertile market for entrepreneurs.

The currents of faith and finance had swept Thompson to this point in his life in January 2004.

His wife, Amanda, was encouraging and prayed with him over what to do. A SouthTrust colleague and Bible study partner, Benjie Guion, was willing to sign on as his top lieutenant.

Thompson arrived at Law and Parham’s SouthPark office on the morning of Jan. 16 - his 46th birthday. They weren’t sure of his answer, but had a guess.

“I want to do it,” he said.

This is a story of their quest, a journey that offers a rare window into the workings of the Charlotte business world, its ardent pursuit of wealth, and the integration of religion and the marketplace.

A spiritual awakening

With Thompson, it’s hard to separate the banker from the Christian.

One minute, he is expounding his vision for a bank that would cater to businesses and serve retail customers online.

The next he is tearfully describing his relationship with the Lord and his struggle to be obedient to him.

His spiritual awakening came in 1992, when Thompson says he met Jesus at the Wal-Mart.

He was 34 and already Charlotte city executive for BB&T Corp. Amanda had a busy career selling furniture to corporations. They went to church, but weren’t very active.

That August on a hot Saturday, Thompson passed a long-haired, homeless-looking man outside the Arboretum Wal-Mart and felt an urge to help. Inside, he bought some soda and tucked his change - $13 - in the bag. When he came out, the man was gone. After a futile search, he left the bag by the door.

A few days later, still unsettled by the encounter, Thompson popped a cassette into his car stereo. It was a sermon about a banker. God was calling the young man to give all he could.

Thompson broke down crying in his car. “I want you to be the Lord of my life,” he recalls thinking. He decided that he and his wife had things out of balance.

A few days later, they went to the grassy site where their new church, St. Francis United Methodist, was going to be built. They sat beneath a large oak tree, the wind blowing, and prayed.

They forgave each other for their sins. They decided that in two years Amanda would quit her job to stay home with their 1-year-old daughter, Sallie. They would start tithing.

A month after his conversion, Thompson got a call from Alabama-based SouthTrust. The bank was looking to ramp up operations in Charlotte and wanted him to lead the effort. He says he felt God was behind this. He jumped at the opportunity, which would boost his pay and make it easier for Amanda to stay home.

At SouthTrust, he would meet Guion (pronounced GUY-on), chief financial officer at a Concord-based savings and loan that SouthTrust was buying.

Thompson soon started a men’s Bible study that met in the bank’s board room and Guion joined in. The two would call each other “accountability partners,” helping each other uphold Christian standards in their lives.

Later, the Thompsons, Guion and his wife, Terry, and a few other families would attend a “home church” that met in the garage of a Concord businessman. It was more like a free-flowing Bible study, with an emphasis on prayer and discussion, rather than ritual.

“I don’t think either of us thinks it was chance,” Guion, 48, says of their meeting. “I think God is in charge. I don’t think there are a lot of accidents.”

In search of name, and more

About a week after Thompson committed to the venture on Jan. 16, word about their plan got out. Someone had sent an e-mail to SouthTrust CEO Wallace Malone. The bankers resigned Jan. 23.

Startup banks aren’t unusual in a town flush with ambitious bankers, often spun out of uptown towers by mergers and restructurings. Still, the prospect of launching a bank was daunting.

Thompson and Guion needed to schmooze hundreds of potential investors. They needed consultants to survey the Charlotte market and help them develop a business plan; lawyers to navigate a maze of state and federal regulations; computer vendors to set up complex systems. They needed a headquarters, employees, a name.

Until they came up with something better, the four founders were jokingly calling their venture “X bank” after Xan Law. That’s why in late March, they gathered in a conference room at Price McNabb, a Charlotte marketing firm hired to develop a “branding” strategy.

Led by consultant Bob Davies, the group tossed out traits they wanted in a name. It needed to reflect the company’s emphasis on business customers and Internet banking, personal service by local bankers and strong values, they agreed.

“If you follow biblical principles, it’s very successful,” said Anne Hodges, whom Thompson and Guion knew from church and expected to be an investor. She noted her husband used a Christian values program in his construction business.

After an initial brainstorming session, Davies displayed a list of ideas on PowerPoint slides. Builders Bank, practical. Integris Bank, more abstract. They settled on something in the middle, UBank.

But that night, the founders’ wives panned the choice.

A couple of days later, Davies gave his PowerPoint presentation to Amanda Thompson and Terry Guion at the Thompsons’ house in Cabarrus County. They picked one of the passed-over suggestions: NewDominion Bank.

Amanda liked the “New” because the bank had a different strategy. She also saw a religious connotation in “Dominion.” The word goes back to Genesis, she said, when God told man to take dominion over the Earth. Not by force, but in fellowship, she says.

The name would stick.

Creating the blueprint

Before Thompson and Guion could seek any investments, the N.C. Banking Commission had to approve their stock-offering circular, which would describe the strategy and risks of the venture.

The commission also would tell them how much capital they had to collect from investors for loans and reserves.

The more they raised, the more they could lend to their target customers - small and medium-sized businesses and real estate projects. If they reached $30 million, they could make loans as big as $4.5 million, and even larger if they partnered with other banks.

Of course, there was no guarantee the bank would get off the ground, much less make big profits anytime soon.

In late April, the four founders gathered a half-dozen prospective board members at Price McNabb, mostly developers and business owners. They were still picking the directors, key players in the bank’s development.

Besides monitoring management, board members were expected to draw in possible investors and customers. In addition, each board member would invest a minimum of $100,000. Thompson and Guion were looking for more diversity on the board, as well as a financial expert required by the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate governance law.

Guion started things off by handing out thick stacks of paperwork. These were extensive financial disclosure forms each had to fill out for the bank’s Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. application.

“We have some homework for everyone,” Guion said. “We don’t make up the FDIC stuff they require.”

Next Thompson told the group, sitting in a semicircle of comfortable black chairs, that the bank’s plan was to have few branches, which were costly to build and staff. They would serve retail customers largely through the Internet, hoping to attract them with better interest rates. They wanted to open by year end.

Thompson also said he and Amanda planned to invest $300,000 themselves in the bank, three times the minimum.

“We are interested in maxing out and benefiting from this,” he said.

Big changes in short time

As spring slipped by, the bankers were making progress, but not always as fast as they would like.

They were struggling to find the ideal spot for their office. They were eyeing the midtown area of Charlotte, a little south of the I-277 loop, but might have to settle for temporary space.

During a conference call with their lawyers, Thompson and Guion discovered they still had lots of blanks left to fill in their regulatory applications, from what computer systems they would use to the bank’s environmental impact. “Wow,” Guion said when they hung up.

Meanwhile, they were trying to balance their work lives with their personal lives. So far, they found they weren’t away from home much more than they were in their SouthTrust days. Money to live on also wasn’t a problem.

To finance the bank’s early operations, they took out a $1 million loan, secured by the four founders and six other directors. Thompson would make $16,667 per month during the startup phase, while Guion would earn $15,834 per month. They also would have a chance to cash in with stock options if the bank did well.

They weren’t taking a big pay cut, but in their late 40s had given up the security and some of the benefits of an established company. Just before Guion left SouthTrust, he and Terry had bought a new house in Davidson.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t ask myself, ‘Am I prepared to be OK with things changing,’ “ said Terry, a counselor at Jay M. Robinson High School in Concord. “I had to pray about it. I had to let go of things that are not that important.”

‘What it’s all about’

Although he couldn’t officially solicit investors yet, Thompson set up an introductory meeting with a few business contacts at the Charlotte City Club uptown in early May.

The group included local real estate investor Larry Reed and his partner, Ken Lockard, who was visiting from Iowa. They met in a private room overlooking the city.

After introductory chatter, Thompson told them he was excited about the new bank because at SouthTrust he mostly focused on newcomers to Charlotte. Now with Law and Parham’s connections he also could go after the city’s blue bloods.

He admitted he almost backed out in December 2003.

“I got cold feet,” he said. “The Lord showed me that was false.”

“You feel like it’s a real calling?” Lockard asked.

“I wanted to be obedient to him,” Thompson said. “When I stand for the final performance review that is what it’s all about.”

Aware that he was among a crowd of fellow Christian businessmen, Thompson told them about his weekend. He had been invited to a seminar for business leaders sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. It was at the Graham training center called The Cove in Asheville.

The speakers included Tyson Foods Inc. CEO John Tyson, motivational speaker Ken Blanchard and former ServiceMaster Co. CEO Bill Pollard. About 200 invited guests discussed how to mix faith and the marketplace.

How faith would show up in NewDominion was still to be seen. Thompson had prayed about whether to start it. The name had religious meaning. The bank’s mission statement might mention the Golden Rule.

Many of the contacts Thompson and Guion would tap for investments were Christians, but that was largely a result of the associations they had developed over the years through work and church. They were pragmatic businessmen, as well, and would solicit potential investors regardless of their faith.

The bank wouldn’t have “pews and preaching,” Guion said. Thompson acknowledged an overdose of Christianity could be a turn-off to some investors and customers.

In his early days at SouthTrust, he said he often was in a “Bible-thumping” mode, but had learned to tone that down. Thompson did not want to be perceived as self-righteous or as knowing all the answers.

At the conference in Asheville, he had been surprised to discover how prevalent integrating faith and work had become. One expert said there were about 1,200 U.S. nonprofit groups involved in the movement, compared with a couple of hundred a few years ago.

The issue had become important to Franklin Graham, CEO of the association launched by his father, Thompson told the table.

“Franklin wants to plant the flag of the Gospel in all key areas of the world, including the workplace,” he said.

An ambitious goal

A couple of weeks later, the bank was closer to getting its circular, the prospectus for the stock offering, approved.

The four founders drove to Raleigh to meet with N.C. Banking Commissioner Joseph Smith and his staff. They hoped the regulators would set the minimum capital they needed to raise.

They guessed it would be about $18 million to $20 million, much higher than the $6 million to $12 million of most new community banks. That’s because they wanted to make bigger loans and because their focus on business customers was riskier. Retail customers provide steadier streams of revenue from service charges and smaller loans.

At the commission’s Raleigh office building, Smith and Ray Grace, director of bank applications, questioned them about their plan. NewDominion was different than most startups they reviewed.

“What they’re attempting is challenging,” Smith said after the meeting.

Before heading back to Charlotte, Thompson and Guion had lunch with a former Thompson client, Chuck Fuller, once a staffer for former U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C. They met at the Cardinal Club, an upscale dining room in Raleigh.

In the middle of lunch, Thompson’s cell phone rang. It was Grace, the applications director. He had set the minimum at about $22.5 million, the biggest in N.C. history.

Hitting the trail for funds

In early June, Thompson and Guion gathered their directors in a borrowed conference room in a SouthPark office building. The mostly complete board, now with 13 members, included Hodges, Charlotte businessmen, developers and retired pro football star Reggie White.

Guion told the group they were putting the final touches on their circular. They also had found a midtown office to lease at 1100 Kenilworth Ave., across the street from Carolinas Medical Center.

“We have everything we need from regulators to sell stock,” Guion said.

To attract more shareholders, they had cut the minimum investment in half to $50,000 - or 5,000 shares at $10 a piece. Directors were still required to put in $100,000.

Although their plan was based on raising $30 million, their goal was to reach $40 million, the maximum allowed under the circular. In the coming months, they would have to persuade hundreds of investors to write five-figure checks and bigger.

Thompson encouraged board members to hit up their friends, family and business contacts for investments. They would meet with anyone, anytime.

“We’re prepared to go on the campaign trail,” he said.