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Banker began career in 1972

Darnell sees major changes since management trainee days

Jackson — There are three things to sell in banking — confidence, integrity and service, according to Tommy Darnell. After 33 years in the industry, he boils it down to that.

“Banks have a lot of competition and must produce the products and services that people expect and deserve,” he says. “We must have a great, dedicated staff to do that.”

Darnell is the Hinds County president for BancorpSouth. In that capacity he has oversight of the premiere banking, commercial and real estate lending and retail lending divisions. Learning about multiple businesses and their needs and then delivering what business people need is what he likes best about banking.

“I’m very passionate about that — matching what we offer to what a business needs,” he said. “That’s the real fun part.”

He’s a hands-on banker who likes to tour a business and see how it operates. Maybe the business carries a lot of inventory, needs a lot of machinery or a new building or has a large fleet of trucks. This information helps him match what the bank has to offer with what the business needs. “At the end of the day, I want to have a happy customer,” he said.

If he could change one thing about banking it would be to maximize time spent with customers and never losing sight of that. “I would want to make sure that we don’t lose focus; that we keep the main thing the main thing,” he said. “We have to make sure that we don’t get caught up at our desks doing paperwork and be responsive and out there in the community meeting needs. That’s a challenge to all of us as bankers.”

Darnell, 54, grew up on a small family farm near Okolona in Northeast Mississippi where his dad was a dairy farmer and his mother taught elementary school for 30 years. “Those were the good ole days of small town banking where everyone knew everyone and I often went to the bank with my dad,” he recalls.

After graduating from the Okolona public schools, he was drawn to Mississippi State University because he had visited the campus. He got into the business school and was influenced by a banking professor, Dr. Harvey Lewis.

“I really enjoyed his classes in banking and finance, and that was the foundation for my interest in banking,” he said.

Getting started

In 1972, the young college graduate walked into the human resources office of First National Bank in Jackson and asked about a job. He had to list the position he was applying for and noticed that someone ahead of him had written ‘management trainee.’

“That sounded good; like I should try it so that’s what I put down,” Darnell said. “After we finished taking the test, everyone was excused except ‘Mr. Darnell’ and I wondered what I had done wrong.”

He was then given a lengthy algebra problem and was fortunate to have had a good algebra teacher in high school because he passed that hurdle and a few weeks later was invited to meet the bank’s president and become a management trainee.

“I didn’t really know what I was getting into, but I learned a great deal by going to all the bank’s departments over a couple of years,” Darnell said. “After completing training, I was placed in the Highland Village branch.”

Darnell also earned an MBA from Mississippi College. He received certificates from the American Institute of Banking, completed the Graduate School of Banking at Louisiana State University and programs of the American Banker’s Association.

Things have changed since he signed up to become a management trainee. The process is more formalized with banks visiting college campuses to seek out top students. He believes a bank’s number one asset is its people. “So many times, people look at buildings and that’s what they think is the bank, but our people really make it what it is,” he says.

He describes himself as a definite people person, having spent most of his career on the front lines doing what he likes best in commercial lending.

If there’s one thing Darnell doesn’t like about banking it’s the numerous state and federal regulations that must be followed. “We’re all faced with making sure we do things right and must constantly make sure we’re in compliance,” he said. “It’s good for consumers to know banks are held to a high level and good for banks, too. We have opportunities to be the best we can be.”

Changing times

Things have changed since the days of that small bank in Okolona. Darnell remembers when 70% of what banks did was free. There was one kind of checking and one kind of savings account. Now customers can buy all kinds of annuities, certificates of deposit and insurance and there is a wide array of checking and savings accounts. He says banks want to be financial partners with customers and do that by offering every financial service and product needed.

“Our industry has evolved in many ways. We can branch anywhere we want to and be interstate and intrastate,” he said. “That small bank in Okolona couldn’t go beyond 100 miles (in the past). Today banks are very sales driven. We’ve tried to diversify the revenue stream and provide more for shareholders.”

There has also been a great deal of consolidation with the number of banks reduced from 15,000 to between 9,000 and 10,000. He thinks there will be more consolidation in the form of strategic acquisitions in contiguous markets and also acquisitions within markets where they already exist.

The BancorpSouth philosophy suits Darnell because it’s a regional community bank that’s decentralized. “Our model is to still be a community bank. We’re committed to operating like that,” he said. “We still have autonomy and the ability to make local decisions about what we support. Much is centered about not what we take but what we give back.”

When not working, Darnell’s number one activity and hobby is his family — wife, Lisa, and daughter, Rachel. That togetherness sometimes includes boating and traveling. They attend Christ United Methodist Church and Darnell serves on the boards of Magnolia Speech School, St. Catherine’s Village, MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce and Louisiana State University’s Graduate School of Banking.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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