Spotlight Career Blog: Thomas Rea President, Bank of the James – Shenandoah Valley
What brought you to this career?
Honestly, I tried to avoid it. I had served as a float teller in college and hated it. Even took a banking course and hated it. When I was a senior, I swore three things: 1) I’d never move back to the Valley, 2) I’d never get into banking, & 3) I’d never follow this Jesus guy my friends talked about. Now I’m firmly rooted in the Valley, have a top-level banking role, and am actively following Jesus every day.
So how it all played out is this…. I came out of college two recessions ago. There were no jobs for a kid with a small network and barely graduating with honors. I wanted to stay away from NOVA, but otherwise was willing to go anywhere. Instead, I ended up in my parents’ basement in Grottoes. First job was working on a turkey farm (fitting for a VT grad), then his son hired me on at a non-profit. I enjoyed it but got burnt out quickly seeing the same kids make the same mistakes. The best part about it was that I met my future wife while working there.
As bills piled up and I got further in debt, my buddy Scott, who has been my friend since middle school and now leads our mortgage division in the Valley, told me about an opening at SunTrust in town. This opening was two levels lower than the jobs I refused to apply for in college, but I needed to get my foot in the door and figured using my finance and management degrees would be helpful. That job got me started in banking and I’ve worked hard, tried to learn a lot, and made some strategic moves that have led me to this.
What is your most memorable experience in your career?
During the downturn of 2008, banking was not fun. Real estate lending and land development loans got killed. That spring I took over a $20MM portfolio for this developer that consisted of about five projects. Appraisals all came in at 80% of what was owed (usually it’s the other way around). For most banks, that sort of situation would have led to foreclosure, losses for the borrower, and losses for the bank.
When we had our first meeting, the customer later told me that his initial thought was “Oh no, who is this young guy? We are so screwed”. Likely his language was a little more colorful. I had no authority and had to manage the fate of this customer and his investment partners while answering to at least three levels of bosses over two geographical areas, plus the attorneys! It took three months of 80+ hour weeks, but I was able to come up with a creative structure that let the borrower work out the loans and the bank did not have to write off a dime.
I had the CEO compliment me at a lenders meeting, my direct boss (who had the most commercial lending experience in all of Harrisonburg) was impressed with the creativity, and even the attorneys felt like they were working with a peer who knew what he was doing. But the best thing was what the borrower told me years later related to his comment mentioned before. While he felt “screwed”, he followed it up with “But I’m not sure there is anyone else who could have orchestrated that deal the way you did.”
He and I have remained friends, and even though I am at a different financial institution, he remains one of my most loyal customers.
What is a typical day like for you?
At its core, I come in, decide what needs to get accomplished that day, what I’d like to get accomplished, and other items to be working towards. Then I have some combination of desk time, time on the phone, meetings, and travel to accomplish everything. Some days have bigger lists than others, but rarely are two days the exact same with what is on the list.
It seems that 40% of my time is dedicated to production and growth, 30% to helping/managing the team and working with internal partners, and 30% dedicated to strategic growth and long-term planning. My role is very entrepreneurial, which fits my personality. I set the vision for the market and it will grow based on my ability to execute and adjust on that vision. I always try to keep in mind the bigger vision and plan, that way I can be flexible and open to new opportunities that may come up that are unexpected but fit into the longer-term vision. I enjoy building things, and this creates a unique challenge that I thrive in.
For the production role, I spend time creating, developing, and growing relationships with customers, prospects and referral sources. Whether it is working on direct requests, trying to take deals from the competition, or laying seeds for future opportunities, it is all customer facing or working directly on their needs.
On working with the team and internal partners, it ranges from building relationships with underwriting, operations, and other back office roles to ensure they have what they need from us and we’re doing what we need to run efficiently and effectively. For the direct team in Harrisonburg, it is helping them catch a vision for what it means to be a banker and helping them grow their brand in this field. Sales training, customer service training, and giving them challenges to grow their own book are all part of this.
Lastly, on the long-term planning component, I always have an eye for strategic opportunities. These can be with customers, but also look like developing relationships with future teammates, opening new offices, and trying to figure out what the bank needs five years from now, not just five months from now.
All of these things are interrelated, and probably the biggest challenge is ensuring that each gets ample attention week to week and throughout the year. Every day isn’t equal, but it must remain in balance for us to remain relevant.
What do you like most about your job; what motivates you throughout the day?
Autonomy is the number one for me. I recognize that I have a lot of ideas and not all are worth pursuing, but the ability to do things my way is what charges me up. Part of my way is building up my teammates and coworkers and trying to make them look better than me. Its rewarding for sure, but more so just the right way to do business.
What has been fun is that when I stepped into this role I definitely had a sense that I was in over my head, but I also felt like I knew what this market needed and that if we focused on doing things the right way, the numbers would take care of themselves. Who knows what the future holds, but the success we’ve had so far has been very affirming and rewarding.
What advice would you give for someone looking to pursue a similar career?
(What education/certifications, skills or experiences would they need, what salary could they expect to make?)
For any career I recommend you focus on how you care/treat others and focus on growing yourself. There were many times that I could have taken better titles and/or more money and I turned them down. When I made moves it was because I felt like I had maxed out my growth potential in that role. Not to say that the banks didn’t have other opportunities, but that would often mean a change in location or work life balance that I wasn’t willing to give up. I didn’t chase the money or titles and ended up with more money and a better title than I could have imagined. One thing I’ve learned is that you really do need to take care of yourself in all areas of your life, whether that be relationally, educationally, spiritually, physically, and make sure those are aligning with your values and then your work will fall in line with that. During different seasons of life, some of those aspects might be more important to focus on, but one thing that is always true for me is that my work is important, but I have a lot of other parts of my life that are a primary focus for me and that’s where I get my energy for my work.
In that same vein, continue to work on you and discovering who you are. Self-awareness is key in leadership. The way I first got connected with CPL was working with Kyle to figure out my personal values. I had a sense of my purpose, and I was living out my mission/vocation, but what were the values unique for me? It takes some years of experience to be able to figure them out, and it took me getting help from a trusted advisor to be able to articulate them. Once I had them, they gave me the foundation I needed to team up with Bank of the James, and also the foundation of how we were going to grow in Harrisonburg. Values first helps me align with the company and helps attract the right people to the team. If you can know your purpose and values and are firm in your identity, then your specific vocation or workplace could change but you will know the key things that need to remain steady for you. This has helped me in my leadership by trying to be a servant-leader, others-focused and wanting to help them grow and develop.
For sure my bachelor’s degree in Finance, and my double major in management have helped me, but much of what I do comes down effectively dealing with people, being able to manage multiple things at once, and a willingness to work hard (though I don’t recommend many 80+ hour weeks, that was a hard season for me).
Certifications can help in this industry, but I would only pursue them from a life long learning standpoint and continued growth standpoint – not to get a certificate. Personally, getting my MBA from JMU was a huge catalyst that allowed me to move up the ranks quicker and I also gained some great relationships from that. But, it isn’t a requirement. None of my current teammates in Harrisonburg have a finance background and only one has a business degree. They are a foot in the door, but people skills, initiative, being a self-starter and a willingness to start new relationships are key. There is a difference in calling on people and building a network compared to just a ‘sales background’.
Most importantly, you have to be willing to fail. Failing at something is not failure. Not trying is failure. So few people today are willing to fail, but I don’t believe you can grow without it and you’re honestly not very useful if you can’t be ok with it. Certainly, it takes the right environment, but you aren’t failing some, then you aren’t trying.
Practically speaking, we don’t have tellers anymore, so most roles start at the customer service level. That range is $30K to $40K depending on experience. Branch managers start out at $50K and move up quickly. Junior lenders start out similarly but can quickly (within five years) get $60K to $80K or more and those focused on commercial lending can go much higher. Banking has always been a low salary entry point, but the ceiling has few caps. If you can add value, you’ll get taken care of.
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