Lighting the Way to Financial Wellbeing and a Stronger Community: An Interview with Jim Vaughn

Amanda Ellis

“You don’t like sports, huh?” I comment upon meeting Jim Vaughn, East Tennessee Region President for SunTrust, in his office. Sports memorabilia crowd the cabinets behind his desk. A side table displaying a trove of family photos exhibits Vaughn’s personal accomplishments as a devoted husband, dad and grandfather.

He’s dressed impeccably in a suit and tie with a warm smile and an easy laugh. Even though I’m here to interview him, he’s the sort of interviewee who also asks about me.

A Tennessee native from Culleoka (about 50 miles south of Nashville) and 30-year veteran of Chattanooga, Vaughn grew up on a farm − the perfect foundation for his first banking job as an agricultural lender. He went on to work in Special Assets and retail banking before continuing his career by moving to Chattanooga with his young family in tow.

This year, Vaughn’s putting expertise gleaned over his 40-year banking career to work as the Chamber’s 2019-20 board chair. We sat down to talk about his goals for the year, his career and family and that time he rappelled off the 18-story SunTrust building for a good cause.

Trend: So you’ve seen a lot of changes over 30 years in our city.

Vaughn: Yes. I had a white car parked outside the first day I was here. It’d been washed, cleaned and detailed but when I came back out later, it looked like a gray car. Now that wouldn’t happen, although it might look like a yellow car from all the pollen during springtime.  

Trend: Why are you excited to chair the Chamber’s board?

Vaughn: It's a way of giving back to the community. I’m excited about the Chattanooga Climbs campaign and the work we've done with Velocity2040, having the community involved in the strategic direction. From a timing standpoint, I'm at the forefront of the legacy launched 20 years ago when the Aquarium sparked our renaissance.

So now we're at a new era, that next springboard to move forward. My ultimate focus? Let's have a successful Chattanooga Climbs campaign. That’s No. 1 because if you don't have the capital, you can't go out and execute.

Trend: The SunTrust/BB&T merger has been big news in the industry lately. How many mergers have you been part of in your career? Why are mergers common in the banking industry?

Vaughn: This will be my sixth. Our industry is consolidating. There are almost 7,000 bank brands in the U.S., and there were double that several years ago.

You need to continue to invest in technology. We need to continue to be innovative in products. It takes capital. Consolidation creates synergy and those savings can be reapplied to those needs.

(Vaughn recommended I fact check his numbers here but he was spot on. For comparison he suggested I research Canada’s banking landscape. Canada’s banks are limited to a “big five” with a handful of second-tier institutions.)

Trend: What’s your advice for students who might be interested in pursuing banking as a career?

Vaughn: Do you want to make a difference in people’s lives? If so, then the banking industry is a good profession. You get to be part of their personal goals, strategies. And what's more rewarding is to see them obtain those goals. If it's to obtain a mortgage, we lay out a game plan and one day you get approved and you go and move in.

I’ve had moments later in life when somebody comes up to me and says, ‘JV, I remember 20 years ago when you helped me out when I needed help. And you got me over that hump.’ or ‘I had a vision, I had a goal, and you were part of that. Now I'm successful and I've never taken the time to say thank you.’

It's pretty impactful when someone tells you that you were part of their success.

Some people think that because our industry is a commodity, it’s all about the highest price on deposits, the cheapest price on a loan. But it's the connectivity of someone who says: ‘Where do you want to be in your financial life five years from now?’

Trend: What is the most interesting thing you remember about your time as an agricultural lender?

Vaughn: The most rewarding and unique thing is watching farmers plant their crops and then go back in the fall and harvest. That’s how they make their money. My work included assisting people borrowing money to plant their crops or provide capital for their operation. I worked with someone who wanted to purchase a combine – a farming equipment item with a big wide swath cutter in front. You sit in the middle and as it cuts the stalks, it all goes into a self-contained bin. For the first time ever, I financed and rode a combine during harvest that year.

Trend: Do you think technology will transform banking to a point where there aren't brick and mortar locations?

Vaughn: Definitely online banking has provided another delivery point for people to have immediate access for their banking needs 24/7. I'm an advocate for online banking. I do a lot of my business online. Even though I work here every day. It's quick, convenient and I can do it in my time frame versus the standard times of opening and closing procedures.

At the same time, there are times we need that face-to-face interaction no matter what age group we’re in. At SunTrust, we focus on providing financial advisory services. Our mission is to light the way to financial wellbeing. We help people reach their goals. Maybe your goal is to purchase a house. So let's talk about where you're at today, the journey you need to go through to accomplish that. That’s deeper than the convenience of doing everything online.

Trend: Chattanooga’s seeing an influx of downtown rental housing that hasn’t yet reached capacity. Will it even out, based on your expertise?

Vaughn: Any time you go through cycles in the real estate business, it’s hard to use a staircase approach that is equal to demand. Therefore you have ebbs and flows. You will have not enough inventory for the demand and therefore rentals go up in price. Then you get to a point it's time to build additional capacity. So they do, but they all do. At the same time. Then there’s more inventory than demand.

Demand incrementally catches up to the inventory. Plus when people have lots of choices, rental prices are more competitive. We're fortunate in Chattanooga with companies relocating and expanding. People want to live in the surrounding areas. So that demand will take care of the capacity.

Trend: What are some interesting things you've done? What do you do for fun?

Vaughn: Well, I rappelled off this building to promote the Boy Scouts of America fundraising campaign. How's that for scary?

This building is 18 stories. So we had food trucks, we had TV and radio coverage, we had everything set up. Picnic tables, tents all day long. Our marketing director and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. It created a major buzz.

The hardest part was − when you’re 18 stories up with your back to this empty lot, and you've got to trust a harness and fall off backwards. That’s the most daredevil, thrilling thing I've ever done.

But my calmer hobbies are threefold. First, I love to be with my four grandchildren. Number two, my lovely wife and I like to go out and experience dining at different restaurants. Third, I love to play golf for not only exercise but also stress release. There's four hours of time focusing on that. I don't answer phones. I don't do anything. It's my quiet time.

Trend: Anything else you'd like to add?

Vaughn: I'm very blessed from a personal and professional standpoint with my family and profession. I'm blessed to work for an organization that allows me to lead this team. Lastly, that my professional peers in this city believe in me as chair for the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce. Many people have input on that decision. It’s cool to feel trusted with that. I know it's going to be a great year.

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