A Certain Future for Certus Bank

By Brandy Woods Snow
November 01, 2012

Popular definitions for the word “certain” are:  definite; reliable; dependable; established beyond doubt; and having or showing confidence. So it’s no wonder why the word’s Latin equivalent, “certus,” was chosen as the name of one of Greenville’s newest financial institutions – a bank that, according to Co-CEO Walter Davis, is focused on bringing integrity and credibility back to the industry. For Certus, the name is not just a name – it’s an attitude of banking, redefined. “The idea for Certus sprang out of the question of ‘What do we do post Big Bank?’” says Davis. “The crisis in the industry presented us with an opportunity to create something new and different, and the timing was perfect.”

He adds, “We asked ourselves what kind of business could we build that would truly be something special? We weren’t looking to just build a bank but instead put together a financial institution to take full advantage of the whole white sheet of paper afforded to us by the current state of the industry.”

CertusBank, a subsidiary of Blue Ridge Holdings, was created by Davis and three other former high-level executives from Bank of America and Wachovia. “We were invited by a group of investment bankers to go on a road show in order to raise capital for the new bank,” says Davis. 

“We raised $500 million in the midst of the economic crisis from investors who believed in us and trusted our expertise.” In 2010, Blue Ridge Holdings received a shelf charter from the Comptroller of the Currency through the program established by the OCC in late 2008 that grants conditional preliminary approval of a national bank charter to private equity firms.

The leadership team decided to focus its growth efforts along the I-85 corridor, and particularly in South Carolina which, according to Davis, is “poised to become a true state where the economy continues significant growth.” Davis says South Carolina’s diverse economy was an important and attractive factor in the decision. “We already knew the I-85 corridor was strong, and Greenville is situated right in the heart of it, uniquely positioned between Charlotte and Atlanta in the middle of the Upstate. “

CertusBank made its first acquisition of deposits and six branches of failed CommunitySouth Bank and Trust of Easley, establishing an important foothold in the Upstate. In May 2011, CertusBank announced the location of its headquarters in Greenville’s new mixed-use property ONE at the corner of Main and Washington Streets downtown. Subsequently, CertusBank has gone on to make several other key acquisitions: two Georgia-based banks – Atlantic Southern Bank in Macon and First Georgia Banking Co. in Franklin; an investment brokerage firm, Sage Southeastern Securities of Atlanta, which added a full menu of advisory services to the Wealth Management platform; and, in August 2012, Charlotte-based Myers Park Mortgage, Inc., which substantially grew Certus’s mortgage service offerings.

Currently, CertusBank has $2 billion in assets and 31 branches, with more under construction. Certus officially has a presence in four Southeastern states, from North Carolina to Florida, and the first retail branch has opened in Charlotte. The portfolio of products and services, include real estate properties, home mortgage loans, business banking and lending services and personal banking and lending services.

The Faces of CertusBank

CertusBank is committed to “bringing certainty back to banking.” The first step was putting together a venerable leadership team of high ranking industry executives who had already earned their stripes in the financial industry with banking giants such as Wachovia and Bank of America. “We all had really big jobs at really big companies,” says Davis. “We are trained to effectively and strategically manage, and we are well seasoned in thinking through and surviving ambiguity. With more than a combined hundred years of service in the financial and management sector, our leadership team has the skills and the expertise to fulfill the vision of putting together a financial institution like none other.”

Executive Chairman Milton Jones, Jr. joined CertusBank in 2009 after spending a 32-year career with Bank of America where he worked in executive leadership roles, sales and process management, coaching and problem solving. He previously served as Bank of America’s Global Quality and Productivity (Q&P) Executive in direct report to the CEO and was responsible for quality and Six Sigma initiatives. He went on to Georgia Market President of an institution with $12+ billion in retail deposits, 155 branches and 7,000 associates in the Atlanta area. Jones has held numerous civic roles as the Director of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, the Charlotte Center City Partners, and a Trustee of Georgia Research Alliance, Inc. in addition to a number of other community and non-profit committees. He graduated from Notre Dame.

Born and raised in Greenville, Davis’s return to the Upstate with CertusBank is a homecoming of sorts. After graduating from J.L. Mann High School, he went to the University of South Carolina in pursuit of a Psychology degree and an intention to attend medical school. It was during this time, Davis decided against a career in medicine in favor of embracing his entrepreneurial yen and building a career in business. He went on to Clemson University to further his education in the industry and worked the first six years of his career here in Greenville before moving on to Charlotte and a long career with Wachovia Corporation, where he held various high-level executive leadership positions. As the Executive Vice President of Retail Credit and Direct Lending, he supervised Wachovia’s originations, servicing, settlement services, and default management organizations for the bank’s $70 billion consumer credit portfolio. At CertusBank, Davis provides direction for the firm and critical oversight for several key outlets.

Davis chalks up his career success to a never-ending ambition to push himself to that next level. “I have a strong desire to win, to always better myself and those around me. I don’t mind putting in the time and effort to develop the skills needed to succeed and that plays a big role in what we’re doing here at Certus.”

Co-CEO Charles “Charlie” Williams provides executive direction and oversight for Wealth Management, Capital Markets, Commercial Banking, Treasury Services, and Operations and Technology. Williams has worked extensively on Wall Street and was specifically called in to help with the infamous Salomon Brothers debacle.  Previously, he served as the former Managing Director and Chief Administrative Officer of Bank of America’s Global Corporate and Investment Bank (GCIB) and also operated in a strategic advisory role to the GCIB’s president.

K. Angela Webb, President of CertusBank, is originally from Winston-Salem, N.C., and earned her degree in Psychology from University of North Carolina Charlotte before returning home to begin her career in the banking industry. Webb spent the previous years of her career at Wachovia and served as the corporation’s Senior Vice President and Head of Mortgage and Retail Credit Human Resources, where she managed human capital for many consumer businesses across the country as well as being involved in sales and operations and the development and execution of human resources strategies. In her executive leadership role at CertusBank, Webb wears several hats, managing all human capital strategies as well as handling marketing and communications and customer analytics.

Webb believes her expertise, as well as the well-rounded knowledge and experiences of her colleagues give CertusBank a competitive edge. “The experiences from which we’ve come, the large banks where we’ve seen so many things – these diverse backgrounds covering a gamut of issues in the industry, are the total experiences we bring with us to our roles in Certus. Together, we operate as a cohesive unit, sharing the responsibility of decision-making and collaboratively setting direction for the bank.”

The State of the Banking Industry

While the financial sector remains forever changed by the chaos of the previous years, the Certus leadership team doesn’t dwell on the negatives of the industry but instead faces the obstacles head-on as an opportunity to further define and develop their brand of doing business. “Positively speaking, there will continue to be consolidation in the banking and financial industry, and stronger financial institutions will emerge the winners,” says Davis. “This will have many positive implications for the industry as a whole and for the consumers who are looking to regain trust and assurance with their financial advisors. This is what has given Certus the ‘blank page’ in the upstart of our operations.”

Davis does recount several hurdles that continue to plague the sector, including the loss of consumer confidence, rock-bottom interest rates, and more government oversight. “There’s the reputational hurdle – the industry has suffered, and there must be a rebuilding of confidence as it relates to financial institutions. Concurrently, we are in the midst of a period of extremely low interest rates, where many banks will struggle and find it difficult to actually make money. Lastly, financial institutions are operating in one of the most stringent regulatory environments we’ve ever known, and the industry must find a way to effectively manage the risks,” says Davis. “At Certus, we see these negatives as an opportunity for us – an opportunity to define who we are, how we work, and where we are going in the industry. We are different from anything else in the country, and we’re going to allow the public see that difference in every aspect of our work.”

Finding Its Niche

Some might say Certus is an up-and-coming community bank, but, if you ask Davis, he hates that designation. “The term ‘community bank’ doesn’t accurately describe the caliber of what we bring to the table,” he says. “Our portfolio of services and capabilities is more sophisticated than any other traditional community bank, and our level of expertise is congruent with a larger, national financial institution. Our derivative programs and our wealth management platform are unheard of at a community bank level. There is absolutely nothing you could find at a much larger, national bank that you couldn’t get right here at Certus. We have the large-scale expertise, the insight, the service offerings, but we have it on a much smaller scale. This is one of our greatest assets – to maintain a top-notch level of operations without relinquishing that friendly, part-of-your-community human touch that our customers desire. CertusBank offers a level of sophistication and customer experience unmatched by community banks and national financial institutions alike.”

In fact, Certus’s approach to its financial operations is in itself revolutionary. The leadership team, all veterans of “big banking,” has been through the ups and downs of the industry, learned first-hand the lessons of what does and does not work, and brings that expertise right down to the foundational level of CertusBank through its Guiding Principles of integrity, accountability, excellence, teamwork and leadership.

“In an industry recently marred by such controversy and fiscal irresponsibility, it weighs heavily upon our shoulders to ensure Certus’s customers are our main priority and that we represent them to the best of our abilities,” says Davis. “Integrity is a non-negotiable.”

Davis says Certus strives to maintain a true culture of excellence throughout their firm. “I have a little tag on my desk in plain view. It says, ‘Is this your best work?’ I ask myself this very question with every action I take, with every decision I make, and we encourage our teammates to live by this mantra as well. We call ourselves solutions-providers, not bankers, because we approach our jobs in more than a one-dimensional way.”

Webb said the CertusBank team is perhaps one of the financial institution’s most defining characteristics. “We don’t refer to the people who work here as employees. They are teammates, because we are all in this business together, and the success of Certus depends on each of our contributions,” says Webb.

She adds, “Our people are respected by the customers and the community. Together, they comprise a formidable team that not only have the education but also have the high-level expertise needed to provide our customers the best care and experience they deserve. Banking is a people business, and Certus is focused on nurturing the careers of our team members and fully serving the needs of our customers at the same time.”

A Certain Future

CertusBank is looking to the future with an aggressive growth and marketing plan. Webb says, “Through more strategic acquisitions in our portfolio and with substantial organic growth, we hope to reach $5 billion in assets in just a couple of years.”

But the team doesn’t plan to fulfill its aspirations haphazardly by buying just any banks – they are approaching all acquisitions in a strategic and thoughtful manner, and have even turned down potential acquisitions that didn’t fit seamlessly into the growth plan. Davis says the bank will continue to expand its franchise through traditional routes and via non-interest income business while focusing on the service piece of the business and adding specialized tools to enhance the customer experience. “We’re not focused on just buying banks and ‘being big for big’s sake,’” says Davis. “CertusBank is focused on being recognized as the best all-around financial institution in the country.”

Davis says CertusBank and its team members are dedicated to serving and giving back to the community it calls home. The financial institution is committed to responsible lending within the community, the support of local small businesses, environmental stewardship, and the promotion of civic and community growth. CertusBank team members are encouraged to immerse themselves in the community through board positions and civic activities.

“There’s just something about having a strong financial institution that’s based in your city. We make excellent customer service the cornerstone of our business philosophy, and that includes being here for our customers as well as our hometown,” says Davis. “It is our mission to be a good corporate citizen, and we believe it is important to invest in a place that invests so much in us. CertusBank is committed to Greenville.”

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