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“You Will Never Have Everything You Think You Need” With Ryan James, CEO of Surety Bank

“Products that are produced with limited resources have a better chance to thrive. If your next great idea can only be executed with X employees or X amount of money, it’s not a good idea.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan James, CEO of Surety Bank. Ryan is the youngest bank CEO in the state of Florida and has navigated some big transitions for his Institution. With a passion for his community and a dedication for doing the right thing for his customers, Ryan is setting a new standard within the community banking world.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

My pleasure! I grew up in DeLand, Fla., the same small town where I live and work today. After high school I went to Florida State University, earned my bachelor’s degree in Finance and Real Estate, and eventually made it back to DeLand to build a family and a career. For nearly 20 years since college, I have worked in a number of different capacities in the banking industry, and each job helped me to develop into the leader that I am today. When I transitioned into my current role as CEO of Surety Bank in 2009, I was met with the worst economy our country had seen in decades and was driven to find innovative solutions to solve problems for our customers and the bank so we could remain in business. The lessons my team and I learned through that experience made us stronger, more resilient and confident that we are providing the best service possible. I’m excited to continue leading this team into the future as we continue to redefine community banking and work to serve a larger, national audience. Outside of the office, I’m passionate about giving back to my community through volunteer efforts. More than anything I love spending time with my family.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I became the CEO of Surety Bank in 2009 just as the real estate market collapsed and the The Great Recession took hold. My plan for growing the bank came to screeching halt and I had to pivot into working out our existing loans, raising capital and saving the bank from becoming another statistic. We worked through each loan with the goal of modifying terms to avoid foreclosure. As a primarily commercial lender, each foreclosed business could potentially impact many families, which would lead to even more foreclosures. Unfortunately, the bank regulators didn’t want us to work with our clients in this way. Once we lowered an interest rate and reduced payments, the loan was flagged as a troubled debt and the whole loan was considered toxic, even for our customers who had never made a late payment. The government then used these lowered rates against us and increased our insurance premiums. This practice of trying to force us to foreclose on good loans was bad for our customers, and not complying put us at risk for going out of business. This was absolutely the craziest thing I’ve experienced in my time as a CEO. What we saw happening, first hand, was the exact opposite of what was being put forth by the media. We are so grateful we made it through that season. Unfortunately, many other community banks our size can’t say the same.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

After seeing how the banking regulators treated community banks, I noticed that other industries were also being treated unfairly by regulators. One industry in particular was money service businesses (MSB), which fill a viable need in their communities by providing financial services in underserved areas. The government vilified these businesses and convinced banks not to provide accounts to them. The large banks were closing down their relationships with MSBs, so it was scaring away all the smaller banks and hurting the communities that need these services the most. After seeing this injustice, I spearheaded the building of a department that underwrites, monitors and banks money services businesses. We may be small, but we have the most robust and talented MSB banking department in the country.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

Absolutely! We just went through a whole bank core software conversion. After two decades of delayed implementations and cost overruns with our old system, we have moved to the cloud-based Nymbus SmartCore system. Our new system allows us to easily integrate the best products so that our customers can have the banking experience that they want. This is really exciting for us because it gives us the opportunity to expand our banking business beyond our three existing brick and mortar locations.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Your employees need to be in the jobs that match their skill sets. That may sound obvious, but far too often good employees are promoted out of their skill sets into jobs that they want but aren’t necessarily cut out for. Although this can be an uncomfortable conversation, it’s important to address this issue early on before it’s too late. I learned this difficult lesson the hard way.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Absolutely, the most influential person in my life is my father. He was responsible for getting me into banking in the first place. Plus, he has supported and encouraged my stance on banking with nontraditional businesses, which has helped give me confidence that we are headed in the right direction.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

The best part of my job is the opportunities that we have to help fulfill the business dreams of our clients and create jobs in our community. In order to do that we carefully review each individual and company that applies for a loan with us. Too many banks are so big that they are unable to take the time to really get to know their clients’ needs and they end up trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. In every step of the lending process we ask ourselves, “does this make sense for both the client and the bank?” And when the answer is yes, we get to celebrate knowing that we are a part of building dreams in our community.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Get comfortable with the unknown. There is no road map when you are CEO, you have to create your own. I learned this lesson as I took the helm of Surety Bank in the midst of the worst financial crisis our country had seen in decades. There was no obvious path forward so I had to trust my instincts and my team and blaze a path for my company.

2. Be flexible. I love a plan as much the next guy, and I think it’s responsible as a leader to plan as much as you can. But realistically, planning is simply guessing what will happen next. Things rarely go exactly to plan, so a great leader needs to be flexible and ready to change course whenever it is necessary. Once you actually get down to business, what seemed probable in the planning phase rarely reflects the road ahead of you.

3. Start executing your ideas immediately. As CEO, you may have a clear vision for the future of your company, but if you keep all of your plans and ideas floating around in your head, your business will never go anywhere. Write them down and share them with your team so you can begin to see movement in the areas that need it most.

4.Look for inspiration and ideas outside of your industry. I credit the inspiration I’ve gotten from outside the banking industry for driving our high ROE. If you only look at the businesses in your industry for inspiration, you’ll continue to have the same results as they do. By seeking out new inspiration, you can push your company to be more creative and innovative than your competitors.

5.You will never have everything you think you need. Products that are produced with limited resources have a better chance to thrive. If your next great idea can only be executed with X employees or X amount of money, it’s not a good idea.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

This isn’t my favorite quote; in fact, I hate to hear it, but it can be very powerful. When I hear an employee say, “we’ve always done it this way,” I know there is a good chance that whatever they are doing is antiquated, they do it by default, and they probably don’t really understand why. I hear this frequently in the banking industry, and while it’s a hurdle we have to overcome, I know that whatever process or policy a person is referring to when using this quote holds great potential for new opportunities for innovation within the company.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)

I would love to have lunch with Tim Ferriss! Tim is a true entrepreneur, and as a young business leader I am inspired by his creativity. And, as a husband and father who is juggling life at home with life in the office, I love his writing about being more effective at work in a shorter amount of time.