By Jay Albrecht
UCBJ Associate Publisher
UPPER CUMBERLAND – Effective March 1, 2020, SmartFinancial (parent company of SmartBank) acquired Progressive Savings Bank (six branches in four counties) and The Rains Agency (an independent insurance provider), paving the way for a new banking presence in the Upper Cumberland region.
So, who is SmartBank and what do they stand for? This is the first of two stories introducing SmartBank to the area.
See related story: SmartBank looks to build on Progressive’s solid foundation
How It All Began
SmartBank began to form in 2006 when Tennessee natives Bill and Billy Carroll (father and son) decided to organize a financial institution along with several other Sevier County area business leaders. The first bank opened in January 2007 in Pigeon Forge, with the vision to build an innovative, dynamic company with an image, values and service unlike any other community bank in the market.
“We didn’t want to open just another community bank,” related Billy Carroll, SmartBank President and CEO. “We wanted something that felt a little different…still with the same general banking model, but with an emphasis on branding and culture.”
Then the “Great Recession” set in soon after a successful launch. What could have been a devastating blow turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“Our bank was new, so we didn’t have any loan problems or legacy issues,” said Carroll, who is based in Knoxville. “A lot of banks were playing defense while we built a really nice base and grew to about $300 million in assets.”
As a result of many banks having regulatory issues due to the recession-related banking crisis, SmartBank realized its first expansion opportunity in 2012…only it was in the panhandle of Florida, a good distance away from Sevier County.
“We originally said ‘No, it’s not close enough,’” shared Carroll, who eventually signed off on the deal after further analysis. “We had talked about expanding geographically. This acquisition took us to $500 million (in assets) and two states overnight. It opened our eyes that we could handle acquisitions well and take the next steps for growth.”
SmartBank was off and running with a combined organic and acquisition growth strategy that would enable increased efficiencies of scale, greater lending ability and a deeper bench of banking professionals. One of those professionals was Miller Welborn, who is now chairman of the board at SmartBank and based in Chattanooga.
In 2014 while Welborn was chairman of Cornerstone Community Bank in Chattanooga, he and Carroll got together to discuss a possible merger. Cornerstone was already a publicly traded institution, something Carroll was intrigued by.
“We put it on a scratch pad and laid out what we wanted to do,” said Carroll about the deal that took the combined company to $1 billion in assets.
As president and CEO, Carroll handles the day-to-day operations of the entire group of banks. What Welborn brought to the table is more of a strategic view of where the bank is going. This was a missing piece that enabled SmartBank to grow even faster.
“It’s on anyone’s bucket list…to be able to take it to the Nasdaq and ring the bell in New York was a very big milestone for us,” said Welborn about qualifying to be traded in one of Wall Street’s biggest stock markets. “But it really wasn’t the ‘Okay, we’re there now’ moment. That was more of a starting line rather than the finish line.”
“Over the last five years, we went in and completed acquisitions in Alabama, Middle Tennessee, the Plateau region, and Cleveland (Tenn.),” said Carroll. “In that time, we became a $3 billion publicly traded bank in some of the best markets in the Southeast.”
What Makes The Bank So “Smart”
With a name like SmartBank, company leaders are challenged to constantly ask themselves “Is this smart?” as they make decisions in all aspects of the business.
“Our goal is to deliver great experiences and operate with a lot of energy and passion,” said Carroll. “That’s what separates us. There are a lot of good banks in good markets, but, for us, we want to set a really high bar for ourselves. At the end of the day, we define being smart by creating that ‘wow’ experience for our customers.”
According to Carroll and Welborn, it’s also smart to be big enough to handle businesses of all sizes while maintaining that community feel.
“We have a unique ability in that we’re large enough we can bank a lot of big business but, at the same time, we know how to go into a smaller community like Jamestown (Tenn.) and that’s a unique skillset,” said Carroll.
Welborn added, “A really good business will outgrow a $300-500 million community bank pretty quick. We’re big enough to help those businesses.”
Of course, part of the “wow” experience centers around technology.
“With a name like SmartBank, we have to be a little smarter on the technology side,” said Welborn. “You can buy all the technology, but it’s how well our people use those technologies that matters.”
Another “smart” attribute the company has focused on is the geographic placement of its branches.
“We like the footprint that we have…the Southeast is the hub of the economy,” stated Welborn. “The diversification of our markets we think helps us tremendously. Our efficiency is improving every quarter because we’re getting a little more dense and better at operating in a bigger footprint.”
In the end, Carroll and Welborn agree that it all comes down to people.
“It really goes back to recruiting and retaining great people,” emphasized Carroll. “I measure success in watching our team members excel and become a bigger part of the organization.”
“We are a large family company; we put family first and invest a lot in team members’ families,” said Welborn.
SmartBank stands ready to assist businesses and consumers alike in the communities they serve.
“We’ll take an advisory approach to both the retail consumer and the business client,” offered Carroll. “If you’ve got a financial need, just let us know.”
SmartBank now operates 36 branches across Tennessee, Alabama and the Florida panhandle, employing approximately 480 associates and voted a “Top Workplace” four years in a row. For more information about SmartBank or to contact a branch, please visit https://www.smartbank.com.