published Thursday, May 10th, 2012

Banker Mike Butler brings circus experiences to SunTrust

Mike Butler, head of SunTrust Bank's East Tennessee Region, talks about the challenges facing banks in the 21st Century from his office on Market Street.
Mike Butler, head of SunTrust Bank's East Tennessee Region, talks about the challenges facing banks in the 21st Century from his office on Market Street.
Photo by Tim Barber.

Name: Mike Butler

Age: 53

Position: Chief executive of SunTrust, East Tennessee region

Career: 32 years in banking, some circus work

Education: Florida State University

Family: Wife, Kim; son, Joseph and daughter, Julia.

Home: Signal Mountain

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Running off to join the circus is considered more of a figure of speech these days than something people actually do.

Mike Butler actually did it.

The current president of SunTrust Bank’s East Tennessee region juggled axes, walked a tightrope and catapulted from a teeterboard during the 1970s — a time when most kids his age rebelled by growing their hair out and listening to the Rolling Stones.

“It was the most significant event in my life,” he said.

If he’s exaggerating, it’s hard to tell. Butler has found a way through the years to connect those heady days in his late teens to the three-ring spectacle of balancing the needs of clients, shareholders and regulators at the helm of a bank.

In fact, Butler never really left the big top behind.

He even has a juggling routine worked out for when he gives speeches.

“That way, they’re sure to remember it,” he said.

As SunTrust celebrates the bank’s 100th anniversary in Chattanooga, Butler hopes that his management of the bank, informed by his unorthodox background, will keep the consumers coming back for another century.

He was trained by retired circus professionals in Sarasota, Fla. As part of his instruction, Butler had to learn to trust his fellow performers and keep up his end of the act.

When something went wrong, he couldn’t let the audience see the failure in his face. That ruins the spectacle.

“Sometimes you miss your trick, but you learn to smile in style,” he said.

About two years into his finance degree at Florida State University, he left the circus behind to concentrate on money management, which he says isn’t as drastic as it appears.

His father, too, was a banker, and the younger Butler relished the idea of following in his dad’s footsteps — albeit by a slightly different path.

“We don’t have a lot of former circus performers at the bank,” Butler said.

Over the course of his 32-year banking career, he’s adopted a different type of juggling.

The head of Chattanooga’s second-largest bank has to walk the tightrope between growing the bank and maintaining intimate relationships with business and individual customers.

Local competitors have worked hard to eat into SunTrust’s lead in the wealth management arena, and have taken advantage of loopholes that exempt small banks from the more onerous portions of new Dodd-Frank rules.

Butler said he takes it all in stride.

“The way I look at it, the small bank will give you their own best thinking, but Suntrust will give you the best thinking available, period,” he said. “I would challenge anybody in the market on service quality.”

To give his people an edge, Butler helps employees practice by role-playing as the client, challenging his workers to dig deeper and ask better questions.

“It isn’t Shakespeare, but I have to see what it is they’re doing to be better prepared,” he said. “It’s a complex business.”

Life is a lot simpler after business hours.

From his office in the old American National Bank building where SunTrust is based, Butler likes to look out over his adopted city and pick out his favorite landmarks. An avid biker, he doesn’t shirk from physical challenges like 60-mile mountain rides, even at 53 years old.

His favorite thing to do on the weekends is park his car at the Chickamauga Dam and bike downtown with his wife and two children for lunch.

“I spend virtually all my free time with my family,” said the Signal Mountain resident.

Aside from spending quality time with his family, he finds the best way to keep a smile on his face is to focus on the client relationship and not worry too much about what his competitors are doing, he said.

“When I think about serving a client, I see that the same way as in the circus,” Butler said. “If you do a great job and they talk about what a great time they had, they’re going to come back.”

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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