Birmingham’s Oakworth Capital expanding into new markets at ‘inflection point’

Every Christmas for more than a decade, Amelia Ricks goes back in time and steals a look at a picture of the office Christmas party from 2008 – her first year on the job at Oakworth Capital Bank in Birmingham.

The company started in March of that very turbulent year in Birmingham’s financial history.

He was hired within a staff of 24 to manage the lobby experience for the new bank, greeting clients as they entered, serving as a teller. They all did a little bit of everything in those days, he said.

“What attracted me was the story I heard from the management team,” Ricks said. “They wanted to do something different, something that felt old school. Where we know our clients, we know their families, we have a real relationship. That’s very different than anything I’ve seen before.”

Fourteen years later, the formula still works. Oakworth Capital is expanding into the Charlotte region next year, with locations in the Nashville, Mobile and US 280 markets.

Founded as a boutique bank by former executives of Birmingham’s largest lending institution, Oakworth emerged from the banking ecosystem that flourished in the Magic City before the economic collapse of 2008, before consolidations and merger changes the financial landscape of the city.

When Oakworth Capital started, CEO Scott Reed said, its founders raised about $37 million in capital, with the expectation of making about 5.25% overnight, the Fed funds rate at the time. By January 2009, after the market crash, they earned zero. However, the company has never missed a profit target, and there is confidence that it will weather the coming storms.

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Since then, it has steadily built a reputation for consistency. For four years, it has been rated the #1 Best Bank in America to work for by American Banker. It also has a philosophy that it shares not only with high performing banks, but successful companies, said Sanjay Singh, a client and board member.

Singh, an entrepreneur and investor in Birmingham, was one of Oakworth’s first clients, signing on “when I didn’t have a penny to my name,” he jokes. He was introduced to the bank’s founders through a mutual friend, and was looking for experience similar to what he had seen in private, white-glove banks in Europe.

“You see this rise in the prosperity of the middle class in America, business owners — they have all these banking needs,” he said. “But the big banks, the little guys, it’s not for each other. With the big banks, their business, their money, comes from the big companies. It’s a bank based on the premise that, I’m going to consider the every part of your business, every aspect of your life, and integrate it with an assigned banker. I said, ‘Where do I sign up and how fast?'”

CEO Scott Reed said the basis behind Oakworth Capital’s services is to learn more about what its client base wants and to replicate that experience across all its markets. By documenting the mechanics behind the company’s operating environment, Reed said, it can measure results and coach partners to provide a consistent client experience.

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“We’ve spent the last 14-and-a-half years trying to get really good notes and highlight what we’ve done well,” Reed said. “We believe, at this stage, we are at a turning point. We are very excited about what is in store for us in the next 10 years.”

Part of the management approach, apart from the company’s core values, is the study of the client’s experience in all areas. Oakworth Capital looks at well-known brands in other areas – Ritz-Carlton, Starbucks, Chick-fil-A – besides their products. Running at any Oakworth location should feel the same, Reed said.

“They do all the things we talked about, but it’s also familiar to the senses,” he said. “When you go to any of their locations, it feels very similar. And that’s important. If a client is based in Birmingham, and they’re in Nashville or Charlotte, the environment and services should feel the same.

Ricks was part of that experience. Since joining the company, he has worked in operations, client support and business development. A typical day involves working with client advisors from the commercial and private banking side, meeting with prospects and clients. He was always on the phone, she laughed.

“One of my favorite things is getting to know our clients,” he said. “Know their families. Know their businesses. Birmingham is a very small community, so we see these people at soccer games, and at the park, and at the grocery store.

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Singh said he is paying early attention to see if the bank can deliver on its service promises.

“What really impresses me is that they never compromise on the quality of the people who work there,” he said.

On the horizon, Oakworth is eyeing markets that “look and feel” like Charlotte and Nashville, Reed said. That means expansion in the Southeast, but also in markets where geographic ties are not the usual way of entry.

“We can focus on being an expert in providing capital in a specific type of industry, to really provide value beyond our competitors in that field,” he said.

Although the banking landscape in Birmingham is very different from when Oakworth started, the company is still looking to build something that can be successfully replicated and grow as its client experience improves. But grow without losing the core values.

“We really feel like something special is happening here,” Reed said. “There’s no reason we can’t build a world-class organization, known for its particular industry, right here in Alabama. My opinion is, that is not happening enough. We have the skills in this state, in this city, to act on a bold purpose. “


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