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Hancock Whitney CEO Hairston took a career curve from chemical engineering

By BECKY GILLETTE

When John M. Hairston was named CEO of Hancock Bank in 2008, the bank had about $4 billion in total assets. Since then, Hancock merged with Whitney Bank becoming Hancock Whitney Bank, and expects to finish 2019 at more than $30 billion in total assets.

John Hairston

“Regardless of how large we become, Hancock Whitney measures our success by how our clients and communities feel about us,” said Hairston, who is now is CEO of Hancock Whitney Corporation and Hancock Whitney Bank. “Size is simply a result of doing a great job at listening to the people we exist to help.”

Hairston said a priority is to test all that they do and say against their culture.

“Our mission is to help people, businesses and communities achieve their financial goals and dreams,” Hairston said. “Our purpose is to help create opportunities for people and the communities we serve.”

While the bank’s goal is to be one or the pre-eminent financial services institutions in the Gulf South, Hairston said they don’t look at growth for the sake of simply getting larger.

“But scale does matter when it comes to product and delivery channel offerings,” he said.

Banking is definitely changing especially with online banking that has diminished the important of bank branches.

“I expect the number to financial centers (branches) to diminish over the years, but the value the banking industry brings to Main Street USA will continue to grow,” he said.

Currently there is a concern in banking about an increase in non-bank lending to risky borrowers. Hairston said the most recent financial crisis occurred when a very few greedy organizations put common sense in a closet and lent money foolishly.

“Some of the provisions of Dodd Frank will prevent banks from doing the same thing, but there are plenty of organizations prepared to make the same mistakes again,” he said. “They are not regulated as we banks are. I am not worried about a dramatic crisis—the people who lived through the last one are still around and can react to emerging weaknesses. But, when all those folks are gone from leadership positions, when all that knowledge is gone, it will happen again.”

Hairston grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

“It was a fantastic childhood—rebuilding old cars and shrimping with my dad, tending a garden with my mother, catching soft shell crab and gigging flounder by the light of a Coleman lantern,” Hairston said. “I have nothing but fond memories of growing up on the water.”

Hairston started working at age 12 washing and waxing vehicles near his home. He took a job washing dishes and busing tables at a restaurant at age 13, and at 14 started working at a Pizza Hut on the night shift, along with running two or three paper routes.

After graduating from Gulfport High School in 1981, he planned to attend Mississippi State University (MSU).

“My dad suffered a very difficult illness two weeks after my graduation, so I stayed on the Coast for a year to help take care of him,” Hairston said. “We were not just father and son; we were very dear friends. He made progress, and I left for Starkville the following fall. I paid my way through MSU, working every other semester as an engineer. I spent holidays working for my brother on a tow boat.”

He graduated in 1987 with a B.S. chemical engineering, and initially expected to spend his career in the petrochemical business. Then a friend at Arthur Andersen’s consulting group (now Accenture) persuaded him to try the consulting part of engineering.

“It did not pay nearly as well, but the idea of understanding the business aspects of the industry was intriguing,” Hairston said. “It turned out to be a life-altering choice.”

  When he finished college in the ‘80s, the energy industry was in a slump. Many companies had failed, and in doing so, created a real estate crisis in Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma. Andersen landed a large contract with bank regulators to find energy-related assets at failed banks, value the assets and prepare them for liquidation.

“The assignment became much more than that, trying to understand how the companies failed and where the banks chose a bad path leading to failure versus managing through the crisis,” Hairston said. “I love the banking industry. We are unjustly maligned by some politicians and sometimes the press. There are always bad apples, but this industry is packed with hundreds of thousands of committed bankers who spend their careers helping people realize their dreams and get through tough times. I am proud to be one of them.”

Early mentors include his parents.

“My dad quit the 9th grade to join the Navy after Pearl Harbor and married my mother while home after his ship was badly damaged at Corregidor,” Hairston said. “My parents were deeply committed to all their kids finishing college, which we did.”

Other mentors included Bill McIntyre, Alan Fioreza, his first boss Tommy Mann, and Trey Bradley, all at Andersen and all of whom took extra time to help him. Then, Hancock’s longtime leaders Leo Seal and George Schloegel instilled in him a love of and devotion to history and the importance of prizing the soul of a company (its culture) and the team, instead of solely the next quarter.

“Jim Estabrook, retired chairman of our company, reminded me that people will almost always surprise on the positive side, so expect and even demand it,” Hairston said. “My wife is my hero. She raised two great kids while pouring her soul into caring for a terminally ill child. When it comes to strength, Ann is the toughest person I will ever know.”

He met his wife, who is from Hollandale, at MSU. Their eldest daughter was valedictorian of her high school, graduated from MSU as a chemical engineer and is in her fourth year of medical school at William Carey. Their second daughter was also valedictorian and graduated in May from MSU in chemical engineering. She will begin her Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Michigan (Ann Arbor) in a few weeks.

Their third daughter was stricken with illness as a child and passed away when she was six.

“She was beautiful and looked perfect, but suffered through her short life,” Hairston said. “She fought a great fight, and it was a family affair to keep her going. That fight is where our oldest daughter found her inspiration to be a physician.”

Hairston considers his work also his recreation.

“Every day in the banking business is a vacation day,” Hairston said. “When my team gets tired of me, I take a few days every year to go fishing. We also enjoy traveling as a family.”

Hairston is a past member of the American Bankers Association Board of Directors and Audit Committee. He is past chairman of the Gulf Coast Business Council and vice chairman of the Board of Trustees for the World War II Museum in New Orleans. He is past chairman of the Mississippi Information Technology Services Board of Directors, the Mississippi Gaming Commission and the Mississippi State College of Business Advisory Board.

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About Becky Gillette