By NASH NUNNERY
The ‘work hard play hard’ maxim has become a rather common mantra in America, but E. Robinson “Robin” McGraw discovered ‘life balance’ as a boy growing up in Louisville, Miss. Situated in the rolling “Red Hills” of east central Mississippi, the quaint town exudes Southern charm but was built on hard work and fortitude.
So was young Robin McGraw.
The Renasant Bank chairman and chief executive always had a job in his youth. Drugstore clerk. Lifeguard. Men’s clothing associate. Post hole digger. Rights-of-way grass cutter. And clock painter – McGraw spent a blistering summer painting timepieces in a local factory.
But he also found time to play, whether excelling in football and baseball for the conference champion Louisville High Wildcats or enjoying carefree days on the water at picturesque Lake Tiak-O’Khata.
“At the time, there were probably less than 5,000 (residents) living in Louisville,” McGraw said. “But the great thing was you knew everyone in town. We had wonderful churches and terrific schools. The lessons I learned in Louisville were the building blocks for success in my career.”
Success is no stranger to McGraw. He joined Renasant Bank (formerly The Peoples Bank & Trust Co.) in 1974, assumed the reins as chairman, CEO and president in 2000 and has led the financial institution to unprecedented growth. McGraw’s vision of expanding the bank’s original footprint began in 2004, when Renasant Bank of Memphis was acquired. The next year, he led the charge to acquire Alabama banks in Birmingham, Huntsville and Decatur, and later, banking locations in the Nashville area.
In 2013, Renasant bought the Kosciusko-based First M&F Corp.
McGraw is quick to say he owes whatever success he’s had to the Renasant culture.
“The team we’ve put together here is special,” McGraw said. “We’ve worked very hard to create cohesion and the right culture. Let’s face it, you spend more hours in a week with the people you work with then you do at home. Our goal was to create a culture at Renasant that’s comfortable. Everyone here respects and enjoys each other’s company.
“It’s a fun place to work and we have a great atmosphere.”
McGraw earned a BBA degree in banking and finance from the University of Mississippi and began his banking career with the U.S. Treasury Department in Atlanta. However, he got sidetracked when the Ole Miss law school beckoned.
“My plan was to get a law degree and start my own practice,” he said. “I got the opportunity to intern with some major firms and saw the practice of law up-close-and-personal.”
Still, McGraw’s heart was in banking.
Upon graduating from law school, he promptly went to work in the Estate Planning Division of First National Bank in Birmingham. He’s never looked back.
“I’m very satisfied with the direction I went,” McGraw said, without hesitation, “and glad I stayed the course.”
However, the law degree McGraw earned hasn’t gone to waste. In today’s complex banking world, a bank CEO with a juris doctorate is more common than not, according to McGraw.
“You can look across the country and you will find that most leaders of banks these days also have law degrees,” he said. “The industry has seen lots of acquisitions over the years, and in that process, having a law degree and understanding the various banking laws and regulations has been very beneficial.”
Asked to describe his leadership style, McGraw is succinct.
“Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and be receptive to suggestions,” he said. “The buck stops here.”
To the uninitiated, being the chairman of a bank is much more than a fancy title or dollars and cents, said McGraw. He understands that banks play a vital role in the communities they serve. A past chairman of the Mississippi Bankers Association, McGraw also has served as a member of several boards, including the North Mississippi Medical Center, Mississippi Economic Council Board of Governors and Boy Scouts of America, among others.
“There is great satisfaction in giving back (to the community),” he said. “Professionals who say they don’t have time? I’d say to them, ‘Look around to see who’s active in the community – it’s people that make time despite a full plate.’ There should be no excuses.”
With a career in banking spanning four decades, McGraw has witnessed many technological advances in the industry.
“Banking and the way people bank has really evolved since I started,” he marveled. “But no matter how far we’ve evolved, ‘brick and mortar’ banking locations are still important. Online banking and apps are wonderful tools, but research tells us that customers still want a (physical) location to visit.”
In spite of a busy schedule, McGraw and his wife Mimi enjoy spending time with their two grown children and grandchildren at their lake house. Inquiries about his golf game elicit a chuckle. “I play golf. Period,” McGraw said.
McGraw’s father, a former Louisville mayor, was the bearer of the best advice he’s ever received, personally or professionally. “My dad always said, ‘Life isn’t about taking the easiest route. It’s about taking the best route,’” he said.
For Robin McGraw, cutting right-of-ways and digging post holes under the hot Mississippi sun was the right path to success.
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