Analytical skills are matched by Southern charm
By Tim Rausch| Staff Writer
Monday, January 25, 2010

Susan Hunnicutt is going through her fifth merger.

When she started in banking in 1986, she joined Georgia Railroad Bank. After 24 years and some mergers and acquisitions, she's leading Wachovia in its last steps to becoming Wells Fargo.

In a wood-paneled office on the third floor of the Wachovia building on Broad Street -- to be known as the Wells Fargo building in November -- Hunnicutt runs the largest bank in Augusta as Wachovia's market president.

Though the banking industry is no longer as male dominated as when she started, her new role with Wachovia represents a first: She's the first woman president for that bank in Augusta.

Hunnicutt recognizes the milestone, but doesn't dwell on it.

"I do think what it does for other females. That has been some of the best support that I've gotten," she said. "We make strides in the work force every day ... I do see it as an honor."

Richard Fairey is the former market president for Wachovia -- he now serves as region president for Regions Bank.

"I could not be more proud of the company. She was the rightful heir for it, so to speak," Fairey said of Hunnicutt's promotion. "She has taken all the jobs that nobody wants and made really good strides with them ... I couldn't think of anybody better to take that position than Susan."

Wachovia has 20 branches in Augusta and more than 200 employees. With $1.5 billion in deposits, it is also the largest bank in Augusta.

"Susan has in-depth analytical skills accompanied with a wonderful Southern charm," Fairey said.

And that makes her one of the best bankers in the state, he said.

"She understands the importance of running a big bank like Wells Fargo and how to move the community forward," Fairey said.

"We need to get businesses flourishing. The economy has been tough on our customers. We see good things happening," Hunnicutt said.

There is a credit crunch, she admitted, in that banks have tightened up on credit.

Credit is available, but the challenge for businesses is to find a bank that hasn't reined in the lending for a particular industry, such as real estate and hospitality.

"We've got through the rebalancing by making sure we don't put new credit -- we're not running off existing customers -- we don't put new credit that we're overexposed," she explained.

And if Wachovia can't help, there's a gentle nudge to one of the other banks in town. It is something that isn't advertised, Fairey said, but is done with the good of the community in mind.

"We got a lot of banks in our community. There's enough good business for everybody. It is competition, but it is friendly competition in Augusta," Hunnicutt said.

Carol Counts has been her right-hand assistant for the last nine years.

"Everything that she has set to do, she will get it done, no matter what it costs to her personally," Counts said. "She has a husband and children and she keeps them going. She keeps all this going. I don't know how she does it.

"And I reckon she knows everyone in Augusta, because everybody calls us."

A village

Hunnicutt was raised with her three siblings near Daniel Field.

Her mother, Joan Tabb, and father, Warner "Rip" Tabb, moved to Augusta in the 1940s. Her father was a hardwood sales manager for Georgia-Pacific, which had its headquarters in Augusta then.

"He was always doing business. That was his way," Hunnicutt said. Even on vacations, he would stop at a pay phone to call back to the office or a client sawmill, she recalled. He died in 1991.

Hunnicutt attended Episcopal Day School and Augusta Prep, schools where she would send her own children. After graduating in 1982, she went to Vanderbilt University to study economics, later transferring to the University of Georgia for a business degree.

Since her brother, Warner III, and a sister, Mary, both went into banking, she followed in their footsteps.

"I felt comfortable in that world. Did I see it as a career? Absolutely not. I never anticipated still being here," Hunnicutt said. "Banking was big back in the '80s. The beginning of mergers, and so I was intrigued."

She got more than a degree out of the University of Georgia. That's where she met her husband, Greg, a native of Moultrie, Ga.

"He was studying accounting. I was studying finance," she said.

They met in a finance class. The professor broke up the cliques and randomly assigned seats. They sat next to each other.

"It wasn't love at first sight, but at the end of the semester..."

With degree in hand, Hunnicutt returned home to Augusta and applied to work for Georgia Railroad Bank, getting a job two weeks later.

"I've been here ever since."

The climb

Hunnicutt started her banking career as a management trainee, learning how to work in all areas of the bank.

"I had to stuff checks in envelopes. That was part of my training, spending a month in deposit operations, learning how the back office works," she said.

She was also sent to all the branches, spending time on a teller line, and making loans.

"It taught me such respect for all the jobs. Everybody is vital in delivering that product. And our product happens to be money," she said.

Then came the first merger, an acquisition by First Union in 1987.

"(First Union) had a big belief that you needed to go spend a couple of years learning how to prove yourself, learning on your own," Hunnicutt said.

She spent the next two years in Griffin, Ga., which is south of Atlanta.

"Did not know a soul," she added.

But she learned credit as an analyst, renting a cottage behind a home there. Greg Hunnicutt, not yet her husband, was working in Atlanta at the time.

After her lesson in independence, the president of the Augusta market called her back to the city. "I guess I earned my stripes."

She married Hunnicutt in the fall of 1989 after returning to Augusta. The bank employed her as an assistant manager at the Daniel Village branch, where she learned other facets of banking.

She spent the next decade there, being promoted to the branch manager along the way.

"I loved it and had not planned on doing anything different," she said.

The bank was Wachovia by then, and the call came for her to transfer downtown and get back into commercial banking.

Another nine years sped by in the Wachovia Building when the call came for her to take over as the market president, in September.

"What about becoming market president? I don't think I raised my hand for that job," she laughed. "I was never the type of individual that looked toward the next position. I thoroughly loved what I was doing at the time."

She was a senior vice president at the time.

"Looking back, each role was a stepping stone," Hunnicutt said. "I love this company and I love this town, so I said yes."

Customer interaction is what drives her every day, she said. She had it written into her new job description that she would keep her role in business banking.

She hasn't put anyone in her old job yet.

In her 24 years with the bank, there have been offers to leave from time to time, but only one was tempting -- long ago from a mentor, and she turned it down.

"People are amazed that I stuck with the same organization for so long. In today's environment, it is rare, because bankers move around a lot," Hunnicutt said.

She said her satisfaction in working for the bank, her commitment to the company, started with her management training.

"It was about doing the right thing, customer service, understand the fundamentals."

A walk

Hunnicutt laughs when asked about her pastimes outside of the office. There's not a lot of time in her schedule for much more than walking and gardening.

"I love a great walk at the end of the day," she said. She does most of that walking in her neighborhood in Grovetown. It was a rural area when they built their house, but the sprawl has caught up.

Gardening is a hobby she enjoys with her husband.

"Living out in Grovetown, we have a lot of clay. The biggest challenge is manipulating the soil," she said.

The juggling act between work and home couldn't be done without her husband and mother.

"Every morning at the breakfast table, my husband and I say 'What's on the agenda today?' "

Her mother, Joan Tabb, now in her 80s, lives nearby.

"She played a huge part with me being able to have the banking career and raise the children," Hunnicutt said. "She's picked them up from school since they started school. They have two homes. It has really worked."

The youngest child, son Phelps, is 11, so there's a decade of educating and raising them to go before she considers retirement.

"She is very involved in her family. She has a great sense of work-life balance," Fairey said. He worked with her for more than three years. "I've never seen anyone organize a day better to ensure that she doing the right things as a mother, second of all taking care of all her customers."

When Hunnicutt is in the community, she often gets requests for funding -- not people seeking loans, but charitable organizations looking for assistance.

The newly renamed Wells Fargo Foundation gives out $200,000 annually to help causes in Augusta.

"I used to call it the best-kept secret in town, but it isn't a secret anymore. The agencies know of us," Hunnicutt said. "I wish we could fill every grant request we receive. We make that money spread as far as we can."

Hunnicutt attends the same church where she was baptized as an infant, Church of the Good Shepherd on Walton Way.

She has served on the boards for Episcopal Day School and Augusta Prep.

Over the years, Hunnicutt has helped the Family Y, Augusta Symphony, St. John's Towers and the Junior League.

"I got involved with organizations, maybe in a committee, which evolves into (being) a board member. By the time you've done your term, you rotate off, but you never lose your commitment to that organization," she said. "And I think they know that."

Reach Tim Rausch at (706) 823-3352 or timothy.rausch@augustachronicle.com.

SUSAN HUNNICUTT

TITLE: Wachovia president for Augusta market

BORN: May 18,1964, Augusta

EDUCATION: Business administration-finance, University of Georgia

FAMILY: Husband, Greg; children, Selden, Wythe and Phelps

HOBBIES: Walking and gardening

From the Monday, January 25, 2010 edition of the Augusta Chronicle
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