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Inside Bulloch Business with DeWayne Grice: Synovus CEO sees bright future in the Boro
Kessel Stelling CEO Synovus Web
Kessel Stelling, above, chairman and CEO of Synovus Financial, talks recently to a group of community business leaders. - photo by DeWAYNE GRICE/Staff

"I love Statesboro!" is how Kessel Stelling, the chairman and CEO of Synovus Financial, began our interview.

Synovus is the parent company of Sea Island Bank, which has locations in Statesboro and Savannah. Stelling was in town recently, meeting with the Sea Island Bank team, SIB customers, plus local and community business leaders. He stressed the reason for the meeting, in addition to getting know the community better, was to thank the community for standing behind Synovus and Sea Island Bank for the past 127 years that SIB has served Statesboro.

The past decade was tremendously troubling for the banking industry and for Synovus as a company. Stelling has had a long career in banking and joined the Synovus network of banks after selling his "Bank of North Georgia" to Synovus in 2006. He continued operating the subsidiary $4.7-billion-asset bank after the sale, until he moved to the corporate office in 2010.

Stelling thought the move was going to be an interim job, working as a top deputy to Synovus CEO Richard Anthony. Just three months after the move, Stelling replaced Anthony, who was suffering from a rare blood disorder as the leader of the publically traded, top-50 bank holding company. Synovus at that time was dealing with unprecedented losses on bad real estate loans in communities they served that were hit hard by the financial crisis.

"That was a challenging time," he said. "We reduced our work force from 7,500 to 4,500 and cut $150 million in expenses. In addition, we saw two capital raises, the consolidation of 30 separate charters and a shift from our emphasis on real estate lending.

"Because of this, we now have a $29-billion-asset bank in Synovus that has emerged as a stronger and more diverse company. I believe there were three keys to getting us through - a great team of employees who didn't quit, local boards with great leaders like Bruce Yawn who stuck together and a secret sauce, which were our clients who hung in there with us."

It is no surprise that in the annual American Banker/Reputation Institute Survey of Bank Reputations, Synovus came in at No. 2 on the overall ranking this year, based on how well it rates with both customers and noncustomers.

Among existing customers, it was part of a select group of banks to receive an "excellent" score - above 80 on a 100-point scale - for two years running. Even more interesting is Synovus' climb from No. 10 last year to the No. 1 position among noncustomers.

Stelling believes that the climb with noncustomers is due in part to Synovus now more than ever focusing on being a compassionate organization that is integrally involved in every segment of the communities they serve.

Stelling points to Darron Burnette, the CEO of Synovus' Sea Island Bank in Statesboro, as a great example of his point in action.

Burnette is co-chair of Statesboro's Blue Mile revitalization effort that involves restoring the one-mile stretch between the bank's downtown headquarters and the campus of Georgia Southern University. In addition to helping lead this effort civically, SIB is also offering low-interest loans to business owners or developers as an additional incentive to locate in the Blue Mile business zone. Because of their efforts, several new businesses and over 80 new residential units have located in the zone. This project serves as the centerpiece project for the America's Best Community competition that Statesboro is a finalist for the $3 million prize.

In a recent story published by American Banker, Burnette explained that the America's Best Communities initiative is a huge source of pride in Statesboro. The bank's involvement has helped it attract new customers, what's more important to him is the help the bank is giving to its hometown.

"We are making a difference not by going into our bank every day, but by being engaged in activities that are vital to keeping an area thriving," he said.

In closing Stelling stressed that he expects Sea Island to continue to lead our community not only in market share, but in every area of the community and with every customer they serve.

Please email DeWayne at or give him a call at (912) 489-9499.



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