In an era marked by debates about the merits of delegating decision-making authority, James B. Williams, chairman and chief executive officer of SunTrust Banks, takes a pragmatic approach.
"My managers have autonomy until they aren't making money. Then they don't have it anymore," Williams said. "Rather than wake up at night wondering what's happening in the 50 banks we own, I want the guys who are running them to wake up at night."
If that's so, Williams' team might be in need of a catnap. Suntrust is sagging under $673.3 million in nonperforming assets, and Williams allows: "We're a little scared of making loans." Even so,, observers generally give the CEO high grades for his stewardship at $34.6 billion-asset SunTrust, citing his decision to play up the bank's strengths and take a hands-on approach.
"I know something about everything at SunTrust," Williams says. "I think I spend more time watching our assets than the average banking CEO does."
These days, with SunTrust's Florida divisions burdened with sour real estate loans and its Tennessee market in a recession, Williams is keeping an eye on the trust business, traditionally one of the bank's strongest profit producers. In 1991, trust earnings hit $200.1 million. Williams notes: "Trust income drives this bank." The reason: a slate of high-profile trust customers, including Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, which keeps its original soft drink formula in a safe-deposit box at SunTrust. "I believe one of the good things we've got going for us is our identification with that company," Williams acknowledges. SunTrust owns 12 million Coca-Cola shares, valued just shy of $1 billion, which it acquired in 1919 as a $110,000 transaction fee. Williams sits on Coke's board and on the boards of the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation and Emory University.
Overall, SunTrust ranks among the top 20 American banks in assets and market capitalization. Trust Company of Georgia, the company's core bank, has generally been careful with its loans over the years, and when it did stumble, it was fortunate enough to do so just before the boom years of the 80s. "We took a big hit, a year's earnings, in real estate in the mid 70s," Williams recalls. "We learned our lesson then."
In 1991, SunTrust reported net income of $370.7 million, up 5.8 percent from $350.4 million the year before.
Despite tough times in the banking industry, Williams is already planning for expansion. "We have to wait on the economy," he said. "When we get down to $300 million or $400 million in nonperforming assets, then we'll charge."
As the auto industry languishes, more and more people are repairing cars they might normally have traded in for new ones. Whether they do it themselves or rely on a mechanic, their old cars need new parts. Or, as Larry L. Prince might say, they need Genuine Parts.
As chairman and CEO of the nation's largest auto parts supply company, Prince heads an organization that distributes 125,000 items through almost 6,000 NAPA outlets. Retail auto parts sales in America amount to $60-$65 billion annually.
"The market is so large," says Prince, "yet it's highly fragmented. We are the largest, yet we still have only about 5 percent of the market available to us."
Steady but unspectacular growth has been the rule for Genuine Parts Company since it was founded in Atlanta in 1928. Today, the company's revenues ($3.3 billion in 1990) make it bigger than CBS, but a resolutely low profile has kept it relatively unknown to those outside the industry.
Stockholders, however, have been pleased by Genuine Parts' 35 consecutive years of dividend increases. In 1990, the corporation had a net income of $206.6 million, up 4 percent from 1989. That was also a 21 percent return on net worth. Genuine Parts' largest earner (64 percent) is the Automotive Parts Group that serves 6,000 NAPA stores through 64 nationwide distribution centers. Only about 10 percent of the NAPA stores are company owned; the rest are informal partnerships, agreements made "with a handshake," according to Prince. NAPA provides the parts, accounting, insurance, and other support. "All we ask of the dealers is that they be aggressive in the market," he says. "When things slow down, we try to work with the owner, and this is usually successful.
NAPA will continue to grow slowly but surely under Larry Prince's leadership. "We seek to improve our market penetration little by little over the years," he says, "rather than throw a lot of money at something that won't succeed." Emphasis is placed on careful inventory controls and knowledgeable personnel: "You can only grow as fast as you can train people to service their markets."
Larry Prince has been with the company since he started in the stock room of the Memphis office 33 years ago. At 53, he's only the third CEO in Genuine Parts' history. A quietly influential member of the Atlanta business community, he's also chairman of the sixth district Federal Reserve Bank.
Though his company is doing relatively well in the recession, Prince wants to see the auto industry on its feet again. "We would rather that new cars just steadily sell. Our market begins about three years after purchase, so we want to keep the car population up."