Take a walk into First Citizens bank headquarters in Columbia, and it’s not unusual to hear a hearty laughter echoing down the hallways. It’s that sense of humor and love of life that makes the challenges of helping run the largest family-controlled bank in the country that much easier and enjoyable for Sharon Bryant. While her laughter and zeal are contagious, when it comes to her job as regional executive vice president of First Citizens, Sharon is all business.
In her ever-expanding role, Sharon manages a network of more than 160 branches throughout South Carolina, Northeast Georgia and Savannah, Ga., and is responsible for the overall performance of the region, with direct responsibility for the retail and business banking segments.
In today’s evolving landscape, her attention is focused on ensuring First Citizens remains relevant and on point, delivering the services, tools and support that customers desire and expect.
The road to this position began more than 30 years ago when Sharon was pursued by multiple financial institutions — a surprise to this English major with a religion minor who first wanted to go into broadcast journalism. As with many best-laid plans, they often take a divergent road. Family needs brought Sharon back to South Carolina, and her journey into the financial field began.
During the 1980s, there were not many women in banking, but Sharon was not deterred. She found that those hiring weren’t looking for a banking background; instead, they believed it was better to hire a well-rounded person with liberal arts experience and to teach them the skills of the trade. Sharon went through the bank’s management program and quickly found her stride helping with product development, which soon moved into sales and leadership positions.
In 1999, Jim Apple, CEO of First Citizens at the time, reached out to Sharon regarding a potential opportunity in human resources. It was perfect timing for Sharon, who found herself at a crossroads pondering the next step in her career. Jim’s reasoning behind this decision was forward-thinking indeed, as he had been watching Sharon’s career and thought she would one day be at the helm of a bank.
“Jim told me that one of the most critical areas of running a bank is human resources and that I must understand that aspect of the business,” says Sharon. “He wanted someone who was all about people and who was passionate about the job. He believed that taking a bank to the next level required recruiting at the next level.” Sharon thought about it and realized Jim was right. It was an interesting next step for her as she learned a lot about the people who worked with and for her, and she learned even more about herself.
It was this leap of faith that led Sharon to her role today — not only in new responsibilities throughout the region, but also in developing solid relationships that remain so important to her today. She learned many lessons along the way that shaped a mantra she still lives by: pay attention to unintended consequences. “You will get blindsided by things if you don’t thoroughly analyze them,” says Sharon. “So you have to pay attention to the intended and unintended consequences in life.”
On a few occasions Sharon has been caught by the unexpected, when she and her team had to regroup to ensure that the best and smartest decisions were made. One such event occurred during the planning of the very successful First Citizens Café located in downtown Columbia.
“We had the idea, the vision and the property to renovate the bottom floor of the Brennen Building and turn it into a café,” says Sharon. So they began the process and started running things like they were opening a bank branch. “We finally regrouped and realized a café was a totally different line of business. We stopped what we were doing and hired someone with this type of expertise,” adds Sharon. “When you try to break out and do something new and exciting, check yourself and make sure you are doing the right thing. If not, regroup and change course.”
In this case, it was not about the bank or the bankers. It was about offering a good cup of coffee and creating a great atmosphere. It’s brilliant marketing, as well. The café enables the bank to reach a different type of customer. Everyone banks differently, especially with the changes brought by online banking, but Sharon and her team find the café to be a great way to get to know potential customers and answer any questions they may have about their banking needs in a more casual environment.
It’s Sharon’s love of what she does, her love of customers and of her team that have led to her successful career and earned her the respect and encouragement from First Citizens President Peter Bristow. “I truly appreciate Peter’s vote of confidence and support of my leadership style,” says Sharon. “It allows the South Carolina bank to remain focused and continue to thrive. He knows that sales and people are my passion. I’m very competitive, and I love to win. But I love to win with others. He knows that about me and is very supportive.”
Winning today in the banking industry means staying relevant. The banking industry is changing very quickly, and Sharon and her team are always looking for the next big thing. There is still a lot of commonality across banks, and the challenge is to find out what will make a difference to the customer. First Citizens tries to differentiate itself by employing the highest-quality people, offering the best experience, delivering the leading services and truly understanding the customer. At the same time it’s also, “What’s next?”
“The First Citizens brand is huge. We are well-capitalized, we have a history of financial strength and stability, and we have a long-term focus,” adds Sharon. “People look for that kind of strength in the industry. It boils down to the people. My job is to take care of the associate, and if I keep the bank on track internally, the rest falls into place — the customer grows and the relationship grows.”
Make no mistake, Sharon and her team understand that mobile banking has changed everything. With all of its conveniences and the increased functionality it brings, it can also lead to an increase in fraudulent activity and risk. Sharon believes mobile is meaningful … if it works. It’s a very powerful tool, and First Citizens is taking it very seriously by investing a tremendous amount of time and money into its mobile efforts.
It’s this venture into the new that continues to inspire Sharon. “I haven’t changed shingles that much, but I have always loved trying something new,” she says. When given the opportunity to take a personal risk, Sharon is enthusiastic. She thrives on building and fixing things, as well as helping to develop a team and, together, building something great. Sharon’s favorite part of leading people is catching someone doing something right. It’s extremely important to her to stop and say thank you — to recognize her team and spend time with them.
None of this success can be achieved without the proper planning. “When I see businesses that are not successful, it’s often because they have not taken the time to put something in writing,” adds Sharon. “You can’t just fly at the strategic level. You have to get tactical and use your resources wisely. Why recreate the wheel?” Sharon is a true believer in talking to others outside of the industry to find out what surprised them, what they would do differently and what the unintended consequences were. Seeking advice and counsel from others who have traveled the road before is of the utmost importance –– to learn from their missteps so that another path can be chosen.
Seeking advice is also important to Sharon in her personal life. As an avid traveler, Sharon is quick to gain input from others when looking for a new place to visit. “I love to snoop around and do things that are out of the ordinary. I do a lot of research to find those unique places. Again, I talk to those who have gone before me,” she says. Her favorite foreign locale thus far was a tiny out-of-the-way restaurant in Italy. However, no place puts Sharon at peace more than a walk in the woods. She often visits her family’s mountain home and spends time alone on a quiet walk. It’s a spiritual experience that takes her away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. She is also a big theater fan — not only as a guest but also as a participant.
Sharon devotes much of her time to charitable work and philanthropy and is involved with numerous organizations. She is very passionate about her time spent working with the South Carolina Bankers Association, where she helped the association during a critical time of transition and left the organization with a clear plan for the future. Sharon is very involved with the South Carolina Chamber, the Palmetto Business Forum, the Central Carolina Community Foundation and the United Way of the Midlands. She is also a founding member of Women in Philanthropy and serves as the Advisory Board Chairman for Home Works.
Sharon understands that there is no real way to balance it all. For her, the two most important things are her family and her faith. She finds that if one keeps everything in life in perspective and remembers what is important, then everything else will fall into place. “You have to be smart, you have to be committed and you have to love what you do,” says Sharon. “If your job is drudgery and people are unhappy, nothing is done well.” She also strongly believes in keeping a strong mind and body — with good doses of fun and laughter. “I think a mix of faith, an appropriate amount of humor, and genuinely realizing that no one starts the day with the intention of ruining yours, can help us all to be better, happier people.” Well said –– and well led.