published Sunday, September 1st, 2013

New CEO brings problem solving to Northwest Georgia bank

Stephen Rownd, the new CEO and President of Northwest Georgia Bank, is interviewed at the company's headquarters in Ringgold.
Stephen Rownd, the new CEO and President of Northwest Georgia Bank, is interviewed at the company's headquarters in Ringgold.
Photo by John Rawlston.

Stephen Rownd took his first job in banking out of necessity but quickly learned to love its challenges.

“I needed a job and Barnett Bank was hiring,” Rownd said in describing his start in the banking career in 1982.

What he thought might be a short-term job quickly developed into a lifetime passion for solving problems and taking on challenges at dozens of Barnett and other banks across the South over the past three decades.

“I learned early that every time you go into a different bank there are unique challenges and opportunities,” the 54-year-old banker said. “I like tackling problems and finding solutions to make the business work. People think banking is vanilla, but every situation is different and the industry is continually changing, which I like.”

Rownd is putting his problem-solving experience to work at Northwest Georgia Bank, the biggest bank in North Georgia which hired Rownd as its CEO two weeks ago.

Rownd succeeds Wesley Smith, who retired in February after 35 years as president of the Ringgold, Ga.-based bank. Under Smith’s leadership — and his son, Scott, during the past six months — Northwest Georgia grew to nearly a half billion dollars in assets with nine offices in Georgia and Tennessee.

But the Great Recession hit the bank just a few years after its Tennessee expansion, weakening its real estate portfolio and hurting loan repayments from nearly all lines of business. The real estate slump and economic slowdown pushed the bank into five years of consecutive losses totaling more than $30 million.

Northwest Georgia did not receive any of the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) loans. But like hundreds of other banks hurt by the economic downturn, Northwest Georgia was placed under a regulatory consent order for heightened scrutiny in 2010 as its capital position weakened.

Hugh Peterson Jr., the chairman of the executive committee at Northwest Georgia Bank whose family owns a majority of the bank’s stock, has invested additional capital in the bank but is looking for other solutions to put the bank back on sounder footing.

“Mr. Rownd has tremendous experience and we’re going to pursue whatever avenue is best to maintain the bank and grow it and bring it back to its former self or even better,” he said. “Naturally we would prefer to remain independent, but we’re looking at all feasible options.”

Rownd, who calls himself a pragmatic problem solver, has helped address troubled loans as a chief credit officer at several banks. He also has helped put together several bank stock sales and mergers, including at his last job when Capital Bank of North Carolina bought 90 percent of the stock in Green Bank to recapitalize East Tennessee’s biggest bank.

“I don’t have a strategy yet after only a week on the job, but by the next monthly board meeting my intention is to have some definition around what we can expect,” he said. “I don’t have any preset agenda.”

Amid the challenges, Rownd sees great opportunities to grow Northwest Georgia in Chattanooga’s growing $9 billion banking market. Northwest Georgia is the fifth biggest bank in the metro area and with nine offices, Rownd sees opportunities for more growth once the bank gets back in the black and rebuilds its capital.

“I did not know Chattanooga until I got involved in looking at this job, but as I got to know this market I saw a tremendous opportunity and I think there is a lot of potential in that from a bank franchise standpoint,” he said. “We clearly want to grow the footprint and the franchise as we move forward.”

Rownd has moved frequently over his 31-year banking career, but with his grown son in nearby Atlanta and the opportunities of his new job, he isn’t looking to move again right away.

“I’m buying a house in September so I’m all in here,” he said. “We have to assess our opportunities here, but I wouldn’t mind staying and retiring right here.”

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340

about Dave Flessner...

Dave Flessner is the business editor for the Times Free Press. A journalist for 35 years, Dave has been business editor and projects editor for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, city editor for The Chattanooga Times, business and county reporter for the Chattanooga Times, correspondent for the Lansing State Journal and Ingham County News in Michigan, staff writer for the Hastings Daily Tribune in Nebraska, and news director for WCBN-FM in Michigan. Dave, a native ...

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