Main Street Banking: A Talk with Mike Sarvis

By Amanda Ellis and Sarah-Grace Battles

We sat down recently with the Chamber’s incoming Board Chair, Mike Sarvis, President and CEO of Cohutta Banking Company, a division of Synovus Bank.

A South Carolina native and alumni of Clemson University, Sarvis personalizes his office with an eye-catching Clemson tiger statue and family photos of his wife and children. Sarvis, a banking industry veteran of 27 years, enjoys golfing in his spare time and also hopes to reenergize a local Clemson Alumni Association.

Q: What do you like to do in Chattanooga?
A: We just love coming downtown and walking around. There are so many great options for activities with Coolidge Park, Discovery Museum, Aquarium and the Lookouts just to name a few. With three kids, most of our eating venues involve pizza and chicken fingers, but when the adults get to choose, our favorite restaurant is 1885 Grill.

Q: Where was your first job?
A: I worked in the bindery at Colonial Printing Company in Columbia, S.C. In hindsight, to me it was much more than just a minimum wage job for some gas and spending money when I went back to school. The bindery is the last stop. You’re either punching holes or gluing — menial things, but they can mess up a whole print job. That job helped form the way I hope we build a team and a culture. Everybody’s role is important and everyone can be a leader. From a leadership perspective, leadership isn’t a title — leadership is about making others better, taking ownership of what you do and being a good teammate.Often we want others to understand our perspective first, but really the more we understand where others are coming from, the easier it is to find common ground. I think the earlier you learn that in life the better, both professionally and personally.

Q: What was your first role at your first bank?
A: I was in a training program as a teller and I was an awful teller. I hated balancing, and many functions were done manually back then and it just wasn’t my strong suit. Then, I was a personal banker and consumer lender, and then a branch manager for about two years and then moved into commercial banking. I’ve done just about everything.  

Q: Do you think bank positions are good training for other types of jobs?
A: Historically banks, particularly larger ones, invest heavily in training and I was a beneficiary of that. I started at a South Carolina bank with a robust training program. We’re all sales organizations, which is very different than 25 plus years ago when I started. I got into banking because I didn’t want to be a salesman, but now there’s a focus on soft and interpersonal skills, how to communicate and build relationships. The technical pieces of it are either learned in undergrad through finance, accounting or economics, or you’re learning it in credit training. I think it’s easier today for somebody to transition to something unrelated because of the training they receive.

Q: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry?
A: Technology has revolutionized pretty much everything for all of us, but beyond that the regulatory environment we work within is much more complex than it used to be. Many regulations have come about since the recession to protect consumers, but certain aspects of this can hinder our ability to help customers at times.

Q: How do you maintain a culture of outstanding customer service?
A: Our products are really commodities. All banks have pretty much the same products; we all push money. So you strive to differentiate with service and relationship. Synovus operates in five states, so we have the resources of a regional bank. But we also get to operate like a community bank, which generally means flexibility and responsiveness, accessibility and creativity. A bedrock of our company is servant leadership — putting people first and creating an environment your team can be successful in. When you do that, you’re going to have happier, more productive employees, and your customers benefit. They see it; they experience it when they come in your bank. If they don’t, then we’re not really any different than anybody else.

Q: What advice do you have for first-time home buyers?
A: That’s a good question because mortgage is a big piece of our business right now. My advice: for your first house don’t buy as much house as you’re told you can afford. I think the tendency is to borrow as much as you can get approved for and buy as much house as you possibly can. We see folks use all their cash and equity to get into a house, and then when the air conditioner breaks they don’t have any money. Save some for a rainy day because something will happen.

Q: Any other thoughts in the realm of advice?
A: A great environment exists here in Chattanooga for entrepreneurship and starting a business. But often by the time entrepreneurs get to us, we’re the last people in the conversation. They often don’t have the appropriate capital infusion and want the bank to be their investor, but we’re the most risk averse piece of their capital structure. It’s important not only to have a strong business plan, but to get a good accountant, a good lawyer and a good banker to all work together as early as possible to help get companies and entrepreneurs off the ground.

Q: Do you have a favorite book?
A: “The Lords of Discipline” by Pat Conroy. I read it 30 plus years ago as a teen. Conroy is from South Carolina and he went to the Citadel in Charleston. The book was based on a fictional military school, but it was interesting to me because I had friends at the Citadel and could relate to a lot of the story line. Plus Charleston is one of my favorite places and we try to go back there as often as we can.

Q: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve done?
A: I ran a marathon in Rome, Italy 15 years ago. I wasn’t a runner and really had no desire to be a runner, but I started running to train for this marathon with my wife. We did it through the American Diabetes Association and raised $10,000 in the process. When I moved to north Georgia, everyone thought I meant Rome, Georgia when I said I ran a marathon in Rome.