SmartBank: Culture drives success as ‘Top Workplace’

By Jay Albrecht
UCBJ Associate Publisher

UPPER CUMBERLAND – Being recognized as a top workplace is tough. Maintaining an industry reputation as one of the best banking institutions to work for is even more difficult.

For SmartBank, it didn’t come easy. In fact, it took more than a decade to achieve the first of several accolades for being a “Top Workplace.” Now, the bank routinely scores high marks in workplace culture across its geographic footprint, but that lofty rank didn’t come without a lot of strategic effort.

According to SmartBank President/CEO Billy Carroll, it was a founding organizer and board member Geoff Wolpert (Peddler Steakhouse and The Park Grill in Gatlinburg) who originally pushed for emphasis on building a sound culture to drive the employee aspect of the business.

“Geoff came in one day early on and asked how we were doing and I said ‘It’s unbelievable. We’re killing it!’” shared Carroll. “But I told him we just don’t seem to be in sync.

“He asked me if I’d told them what we want it to look like. And I said, ‘Well, no.’ As bankers, we tend to focus on loans and deposits. What we were missing was a focus on culture, creating a great place to work, and getting the buy in from our associates.”

The rest is history, as Carroll and other key executives quickly started the process of building a sustainable company culture that would help guide SmartBank’s success.

Kelley Fowler, SVP, Director of Marketing & Public Relations for SmartBank, led the charge at the management level.

“Geoff told us we needed to describe what it meant to be a great place to work,” shared Fowler. “That’s really how we built our core values and the ‘SmartBank Way.’”

“It started with sticky notes all over the wall,” reminisced Carroll. “That translated into a set of core values.”

One of the key elements to instilling the “SmartBank Way” into existing banks and new acquisitions was to establish Culture Days. Fowler explained that Culture Days, usually two to three per year, consist of a blend of associates and locations, all working together to better understand what makes SmartBank successful.

“We found it was more important to bring folks to the ‘mother ship’ in Sevier County, where the bank started and the only place you’ll find employees who have been with the company since day one,” said Fowler. “It all starts to click with our associates after Culture Day. They better understand our purpose when they walk away.”

Especially with newly hired associates and new acquisitions, establishing the “SmartBank Way” is critical in evaluating how people fit within the organization and keeping everyone working toward the same goals.

“For example, Progressive (Progressive Savings Bank) had a certain culture (before SmartBank acquired it in March),” said Carroll. “Theirs wasn’t wrong. But we have to have one culture in the SmartBank family. The explaining of ‘why’ is probably the most important thing we do in making that happen.”

“There’s potential to try to force a culture on somebody,” said SmartBank Board Chairman Miller Welborn. “Culture is something you just get…there’s a fine line between brand and culture. For the associate level person, this (Culture Day) is the first time they get to hear and see it from us. When they see and feel the passion, they know it’s real. They see people living it and breathing it.”

So, what are the aspects of the SmartBank way that set it apart as a “Top Workplace” in the banking industry?

“We set expectations. We’re going to run hard, work hard and we’re going to have fun doing it,” said Carroll. “We want you to be rewarded personally and professionally. But our expectations are going to be high. We feel like our clients sense that when they walk in the door.”

“The team concept is so contagious. Our entire group lifts each other up,” added Welborn. “One of the things I love about SmartBank is the passion, the culture and the energy. Banking can be slower moving, antiquated, old school, and a little stuffy. We make it fun, happy, and also encourage the younger generation to get involved in banking. 

“I think we’re one of the more successful companies in bringing younger people in because it’s not looked at as an exciting industry these days. I think we’ve been able to make a couple of acquisitions because ‘these people can bring something to the table in addition to the balance sheet and income statement.’”

Now that SmartBank has earned recognition as a “Top Workplace” from the Knoxville News-Sentinel among others, what is the payback?

“Better retention than industry average. Better recruiting. Better efficiencies,” said Welborn. “For the most part, you don’t see people hitting the door running (at quitting time). They’re willing to put the extra 30 minutes in for the team.”

“The bigger we make it, the bigger it becomes,” said Carroll. “But you have to pay attention to it. It has paid dividends, and it will continue to pay dividends.”

Fowler added there are many other aspects to building and maintaining the “SmartBank Way” other than just Culture Days. Those include culture committees, community engagement/giving opportunities, internal recognition for delivering the “wow” factor, team building activities, and even SmartBank branded apparel.

“We want our associates to be recognized the minute you walk in our doors,” said Fowler about the branded apparel perk. “And it takes the issue out of ‘what am I going to wear today?’”

Culture, branding, and the overall “SmartBank Way” – it all goes toward upholding the company’s reputation and providing top-notch customer service.

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