Speight’s career road a winding one

lmorris@macon.comDecember 21, 2013 


State Bank and Trust Chief Operating Officer Dan Speight grew up in Dooly County where learning the family business -- wholesale groceries -- led him to study law and become successful in community banking.

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Dan Speight’s road to a banking career involved family connections, mergers, acquisitions and long relationships along the way.

His 30-year banking journey began in Dooly County, home of his family’s wholesale grocery business, before bringing him to Atlanta and Macon.

Now, Speight is the chief operating officer and vice chairman of Macon-based State Bank and Trust Co. and its holding company, State Bank Financial Corp., based in Atlanta.

He’s been with the company since 2009 when he was part of the investment group that bought Macon-based Security Bank after state and federal authorities shut it down.

Speight is happy with his career and loves his work, but it’s not what he thought he would do with his life.

“Even though I wanted to be a lawyer from the time I was in high school, I always thought I would end up back at the (grocery) warehouse,” he said.

Speight, 56, was raised in Unadilla in a close, extended family. His grandfather founded Unadilla Wholesale, a wholesale grocery business in the 1930s that serviced grocery stores, restaurants and schools within a 50-mile radius of the Dooly County town. Speight’s father, uncle and mother worked in the business.

“We all grew up working in the warehouse,” he said.

When he was about 10, Speight would rebox bulk candy for delivery to customers. As he got older, he unloaded trucks at the warehouse.

“I can remember having to unload a train car load of sugar that came in 60-pound bags,” he said. “That was one of the reasons I decided I needed to go to school.”

The experience in his family’s business “molded me,” he said. “We were extremely fortunate that we had a patriarch. ... I learned a lot about sales and the clients who loved (his family).”

While operating the warehouse business, Speight’s grandfather, father and uncle also served at various times on the board of the former Exchange Bank of Unadilla. During a bank robbery in 1965, the bank president was killed, and Speight’s father was named president. But that was a title only, and he never worked in the bank, Speight said.

During the 1970s, Exchange Bank bought several other banks, including one in Pinehurst. In the early 1980s, the bank name changed to State Bank and Trust Co., which was the original State Bank and Trust. This bank’s charter was the one used to buy Security Bank in Macon.

Speight fulfilled his teenage dream of getting his law degree in 1982.

“I wanted the ability to (practice law), but I thought I would end up back in the wholesale grocery business when I got out of school,” he said.

He worked for the former Nunn, Geiger & Pierce law firm in Perry during law school and for a year afterward mostly handling real estate transactions.

But when he was offered a job in 1983 at the former Citizens Bank in Vienna, his grandfather told him that “I should come back and go to work for the bank. I said ‘Yes, sir.’”

Speight became the branch manager of the bank’s Byromville office, and his banking career picked up speed quickly.

Shortly after the president of the Vienna bank left, Speight told his father he thought he could do the job.

“I became the interim president of a bank at 27 years old, and then later that year I was named president and CEO of the bank,” he said.

Speight acknowledges he got the job because his father and uncle were on the bank board at the time, but he still had to be able to do the work.

“I was given an opportunity, but what I think people don’t realize is the pressure is much (greater),” he said. “You want to please your parents ... and you don’t want to mess up. You always fight the fact that the only reason you got the job was because of who you are.”

During the next several years in the position, Speight was involved in buying banks and growing the business. In the early 1990s he became president of the Community Bankers Association of Georgia.

About the same time, Joe Evans -- a banker who then competed with Speight -- came up with a plan to put a branch office in a separate county from the home bank office, which was not allowed at the time.

The banking association sued Evans and won. By the mid-1990s the law was changed and all banks were allowed to cross county lines.

Bank leaders join forces

Even though Evans and Speight were competitors, Speight always admired him.

Through the early 2000s, both men bought and sold banks until their separate paths merged.

Evans needed a place to house loans he and some investors acquired from a sale to BB&T, and he approached Speight, who was then CEO of bank holding company Flag Financial Corp.

William “Billy” Anderson II, founder of Southern Trust Insurance and a former director of Flag Financial, had been friends with Evans for years. Anderson met with Speight and later gave Evans his opinion about going into business with Speight.

“I thought we would be getting involved with another really strong, super player that could help make things happen in the future,” Anderson said. “That happened.”

He said Speight has the qualities for a good business leader.

“Dan is a very warm, compassionate, outgoing person who cares about the community, and that makes me extremely proud because I think what causes us to do well is try to do right by others,” Anderson said.

Speight and Evans made a deal and joined forces.

Flag grew until it was sold in 2006. Speight and other Flag members then started Bankers Capital Group, a private investment firm based in Atlanta that bought distressed loans and made other investments.

Bankers Capital was doing well, but Speight said his job wasn’t too demanding. For a while, he also worked as an attorney with the former James, Bates, Pope & Spivey law firm in Macon.

In 2007, the Bankers Capital team began to ask: “How much further up can you go?”

“That really drove our decision to sell,” he said. “We didn’t see the bottom coming, but we knew it couldn’t be as good as it was for us in ’06.”

Bankers Capital found a buyer and sold the company.

“The best thing that happened to us is they made us sign noncompetes, because we probably would have been too stupid and get back in too quick,” he said. “We couldn’t work at a bank for two years.”

Speight and the investor group realized by 2009 the only way to make a successful investment was to find a bank that was going to fail, he said. But in order to do the deal, they needed to raise capital, have a bank charter and find the right target.

The target was right in front of them. Macon-based Security Bank was struggling to stay afloat.

“We knew Security Bank, and we knew the people,” he said. “It was the perfect size. It was well positioned in Middle Georgia.”

Speight and Evans spent a few weeks traveling across the country to raise the needed money. They came up with $300 million “fairly easily because of the story we have,” Speight said. The investment group then got an option to buy State Bank and Trust Co. in Pinehurst for the charter it needed.

The FDIC prepared to take over Security Bank and put it out for bids, but Speight said his group didn’t know it was selected as the winner until the day before Security was shut down July 24, 2009.

“That Friday morning, we took our capital -- the $300 million -- and put it in State Bank in Pinehurst” and took over Security Bank that afternoon, he said. “Security went from the worst bank in the state to the best bank in the state in one day.”

Evans was named chairman and CEO of the new State Bank and Trust and its holding company. The bank made six more bank acquisitions through the FDIC.

“It’s never easy, but the process got easier,” Speight said. “We knew what to expect, and we got good at it.”

State Bank has nearly 600 employees with about 350 in Middle Georgia. It has about 15 locations in the midstate and five in Atlanta. It bought Altera Payment Solutions in 2012, a payroll services company, now a division of State Bank.

David Thompson, vice president of business development with Piedmont Construction Group LLC, had done business with Security Bank for years before State Bank took over. He and Speight have “bounced in and out of each other’s lives” over the years.

“He’s extremely smart, (and) he has self-deprecating humor,” Thompson said. “He has a very playful personality.”

He said Speight also works well with people.

“His skills to understand who he’s dealing with and (his ability to) work collaboratively is strong,” Thompson said. “While he’s smart, he doesn’t put you off. He puts you at ease.”

Speight said his career has been fulfilling.

“Banking has been a wonderful job for me,” he said. “You get to build something, you get to see employees succeed, (and) you get to watch clients succeed at the same time. ... (Banking) is a great start for anybody whether you want it for a career or not.”

But Speight agrees the business can be challenging.

“The lending environment is still tough, and we think that’s going to be that way for awhile ... but we certainly think we’ve seen the bottom,” he said. “Pockets in places are doing better, but we haven’t seen that economic engine rolling that everybody gets to participate in.”

Speight still takes to heart a piece of advice he got from his father.

“My father always told me to do business with my friends, to build relationships and understand people,” he said. “You should make a fair profit from those relationships ... and make sure they pay you,” he said. “If you don’t make them pay you, they won’t stay your friend.”

To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.

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