James B. Williams

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.”

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