“For a guy from Radford, Virginia,” John Asbury says, he has had a “crazy career path.”
Asbury has lived in every time zone in the contiguous U.S. during his 31-year banking career, working in the Pacific Northwest, Deep South, Southwest, and Mid-Atlantic. The institutions have included the multinational Bank of America, where he spent 17 years; the multi-territory Regions Financial Corporation, where he was a senior executive vice president; and the privately-held First National Bank of Santa Fe, which he led as president and CEO.
Open to new experiences
Growing up in a small town, Asbury says “I never dreamed I’d have such a wide range of experiences in such a variety of locations.”
It happened, he says, because he was willing to try different things and, in an era of transformation in the banking industry, showed early signs that he could lead change. “I used to wonder, with each new role, if I was actually qualified to do it but always figured it out and got the job done.” Eventually, he realized that tackling change and taking on new responsibilities was his core competency and that, one day, he could head a bank.
Attributing his career choice in part to a summer job in his hometown when he was a finance major at Virginia Tech, Asbury says he admired the people at what was then United Virginia Bank. A couple of executives were not only his role models but the industry’s advocates. From them, he sensed that commercial banking might be a good fit for him — a role where finance could help businesses and their communities prosper.
We know these markets and are a part of the fabric of the communities we live in, do business in, invest in, and serve.
Upon graduation, he joined Wachovia Bank and Trust’s commercial training program in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
After two decades away, Asbury returned to Virginia in 2016 to be president of Union Bankshares Corporation that October and CEO in January 2017. “I never imagined I would come full circle and take part in recreating something that has not existed in nearly 20 years — a Virginia-based regional bank, much like the place where I began my career.”
Coming back hadn’t been a likely prospect since 1998, when he left Richmond, where he was working at NationsBank, for San Francisco to assist with the bank’s merger with Bank of America.
He had to abandon his home state if he was to advance professionally, Asbury says. “Richmond had become simply a regional office for the super-regional and national banks that had taken out the six great Virginia regional banks.” Even today, opportunities here for senior executives are no better at the largest banks, he says, where management roles are stretched over vast regions comprising multiple states.
The six statewide, independent banks Virginia once had “looked a lot like Union does today,” Asbury says. “Crestar, Signet, Sovran, First Virginia, Central Fidelity, and Dominion. Most Virginians and Virginia businesses banked there.” Disadvantaged by Virginia’s long history of arcane banking laws, they all fell like dominoes during the 90’s — bought up when banking laws changed and interstate banking swept the nation.
“Today you would recognize them as Wells Fargo, Bank of America, BB&T, and SunTrust. These four banks control over 50 percent of the deposits in the commonwealth, about 75 percent of all deposits in the Richmond area.”
Arguing the importance of having an independent, sizable Virginia-based bank like Union, Asbury says: “We know these markets and are a part of the fabric of the communities we live in, do business in, invest in, and serve. And, I must say, it is we who make the decisions; our team doesn’t take orders from anyone in Atlanta, Charlotte, San Francisco, Winston-Salem, or anywhere else.”
The buck stops in Virginia
In fact, when calling on business customers, Asbury says a point he and Union Bank & Trust president Maria Tedesco love to make — and clients love to hear — is “the buck stops here.” Clients want to deal with decision-makers, he says, and “Virginia needs a bank where customer needs are decided here and not somewhere else.”
Looking ahead, Asbury says Union found the perfect merger partner in Access. “It closes an important gap in our franchise in Northern Virginia, the state’s largest and most populous region. It adds tremendous talent with their commercial banking teams, their attractive retail banking operations at Middleburg Bank, and greater scale for our wealth management group from their Middleburg Trust subsidiary.”
He says the merger “establishes Union as the first Virginia-based regional bank in 20 years” and pledges to “make Union the most that it can be to serve our customers, communities, shareholders, and teammates!”
Now that he is back in Virginia, Asbury has stepped up his engagement with the university. He has joined the finance department’s advisory board, shared his expertise with students, provided guidance on the curriculum, and contributed funding.
Grateful for his Pamplin education and to finance professor George Morgan for sparking his interest in banking, Asbury says he sees an opportunity to give back.
“I enjoy speaking with students and sharing my own experiences, some of which involved painfully learned lessons. Mike Clarke and I both feel passionately that banking remains a noble and rewarding career, and we would like to try to create more interest in our industry. When we were students, the bank training programs we entered were among the most competitive and highly sought-after jobs coming out of Pamplin.”
Asbury advises anyone aspiring to senior management ranks to seek broadening experiences. A diverse skill set enables executive leaders to have a holistic view of the organization and to understand how different parts work together.
Subject matter specialists would still be in demand, Asbury says, but “if you wish to rise into the executive ranks, a deep and narrow career path is likely not going to get you there.”
He notes that early in his career, it was his technical skills that made him successful and got him promoted. “As I became a leader, I realized it was the softer skills — the ability to make things happen through others, assess and develop talent, motivate, and manage conflict constructively — that was most important.”
With career trajectories today, he says, “it is more likely you will zig and zag, sometimes taking lateral moves and not move straight up.”
Overcoming his own reluctance to make lateral moves, Asbury accepted many such deployments that were different in scope and not a promotion. Indeed, there were times “when I suspected I had in fact been demoted,” he says.
“But my willingness to be flexible eventually had the unexpected outcome of differentiating me with a broader skill set than many of my peers. Had I not been willing to take a nonlinear career path, I would not have been selected for the role I have today.”
Read more about Clarke and Asbury on the following pages.
– Sookhan Ho