Editor’s note: This story first ran on Jan. 11, 2005.
Just after 9 a.m. Monday, NewDominion Bank Chief Executive Bradley Thompson invited employees and visitors to gather in a circle in the lobby.
Less than a year after Thompson and partner Benjie Guion quit jobs at SouthTrust Corp. to start the new Charlotte bank, after tapping 500 investors for millions of dollars in capital, and after completing a checklist of hundreds of tasks, they were ready to open.
Dressed in a dark suit and bow tie, Thompson thanked everyone for their work. He then asked John Austin, regional director of a Christian youth group program called Young Life, to say a prayer.
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“Lord, we dedicate this bank to you,” said Austin, who knows Guion from Young Life. “We pray for the employees and Benjie and Bradley.”
A city built on finance and religion had another bank, one steeped in the faith of its founders.
When Austin finished, Thompson glanced toward the bank’s entranceway. “We want to be a blessing to each other,” he told the group. “We also want to be a blessing to all who walk through that door this day forward.”
In January 2004, Charlotte real estate investors Xan Law and Lew Parham had persuaded Thompson and Guion to start a new bank. In early December, they hit their goal of raising $40 million, a record for a Carolinas startup bank.
The last few weeks had been a race to get ready for the opening of their midtown Charlotte office at 1100 Kenilworth Ave. They had to get computer systems fine-tuned. Hire and train employees. Pass a review by the N.C. Banking Commission.
As they built the bank, Thompson and Guion’s Christian faith had played an important role. It wouldn’t be reflected too overtly in how the bank operated, but the partners said their beliefs would be shown by the way they interacted with customers and employees.
Web business is key
The bank’s strategy is to cater to small and medium-sized businesses and serve retail customers over its newdominionbank.com Web site. Carrying this out in the months ahead will be a challenge.
Charlotte is packed with competing banks. Some rivals suggest the bank could have trouble finding enough good loans for its $40 million in capital, especially as the economy remains uncertain. Raising a lot of capital gives the bank more money to lend, but it also puts more demand on making loans that can produce profits - without being too risky.
“The challenges are a little different,” Guion, chief financial and operating officer, acknowledged. But with their larger-than-usual capital base, he added: “You can make larger loans. You can have more experienced bankers.”
He expects NewDominion to start making monthly profits in the middle of its second year.
Monday’s launch was for friends, family members and directors. The bank will make its debut to the public next Tuesday.
Between answering phones and tapping at their computers, employees - about half with SouthTrust connections - chatted in groups or sampled a breakfast spread that included pound cake baked by Guion’s mother, Betty Hunter. The 72-year-old became the bank’s first customer when she opened a certificate of deposit account, although she admitted she was a little “skittish” about Internet banking.
The bank’s plan is to have few branches and no ATMs. Later this year, the founders hope to add satellite loan offices in the region.
More work lies ahead. Some of the bank’s online functions still have to be activated. More lenders are to be hired. The bank is operating in temporary space on the second floor of its building before moving into a renovated downstairs this spring.
‘Better than ... thought’
NewDominion has 19 directors, who were required to invest $100,000 each. Many are business owners who will likely become customers. Under federal regulations, however, they can only take out loans under terms that would be offered to other customers.
Law, now one of the board members, used his contacts to nab about one-fourth of the $40 million. About 500 shareholders invested an average of about $80,000 in the bank.
“I think it went better than anybody thought,” said Law, 63.
The largest investment was about $2 million by an undisclosed institutional investor. One of the more prominent shareholders is John Hammons, 85, a Missouri hotel magnate and a friend of Law’s who is developing a convention center and hotel in Cabarrus County.
Now that the bank has raised its money, Law doesn’t plan to be around the office much. “I need to get back to the real estate business,” he said.
Parham, 72, the board’s chairman, plans to be active on the bank’s loan committee, which will review bigger deals. He wasn’t sure they would reach $40 million, especially after their first pitch to a sure-fire prospect didn’t pan out.
“After that, most everything was positive,” he said. “Most of the stock I sold, people called me.”
About two weeks before the bank opened, one founding director, retired NFL star Reggie White, died suddenly at age 43. The retired defensive lineman was known for his Christian faith as well as controversial remarks in the 1990s that were critical of homosexuals.
Thompson and Guion had met White about eight years ago at a community development conference and Thompson recently took some Hebrew lessons from him. White was learning the language so he could read original scriptures. “He was clearly a man in pursuit of God’s heart and truth,” Thompson said.
One of the bank’s goals was to have diversity on its board, which has three female members. White was its only person of color. Guion said the bank did not track the ethnicity of its investors. Its work force of more than a dozen employees includes women and African Americans.
“We’re still looking for more diversity,” Guion said of the board. “We’re trying to identify the right directors.”
Over the past year, Guion, 48, said he has been home a little less than usual, exercised a little less and slept a little less. But he and his wife, Terry, stayed active at church. More like a Bible study, it meets in the home of Concord businessman Doug Russell, who has become a spiritual mentor for a number of families, including the Thompsons. Russell is on the bank’s board.
Thompson, who prayed over whether to start the bank, says he made the right decision. Not someone who believes in coincidences, he notes Wachovia Corp. bought Alabama-based SouthTrust soon after they left.
“I think I’m supposed to be here,” Thompson, 46, said.
Over the past year, he said starting the bank sometimes took time away from his wife, Amanda, and their two children. Still, he and his son, Ellison, jetted to Michigan for a day in September to watch the Ryder Cup. They took a nap in the rough.
Over the past year, he has attended Russell’s church less regularly. His children want to get involved in a youth group, so he has been exploring other churches.
He said the biggest challenge for NewDominion is executing its business plan. After a year of raising money, it’s time to be a banker again. He has a few deals in the works.
“The journey has just begun,” he said.