In an exclusive Monitor interview, John Geist, president of Synovus Bank’s Equipment Finance Group, discusses what drew him out of retirement and back into the equipment finance arena.
John Geist knows good things don’t come to those who simply wait; they come to those who make it happen. About a year ago, the industry veteran saw an opportunity worth seizing and came out of retirement to make it a reality. While Synovus Bank did not have a dedicated equipment finance group at the time, Geist felt the bank, which had a “very attractive footprint” in the Southeast and a desire for quality earning assets would be a good fit for him, so he made a call. He presented himself and his proposed business plan to the Synovus leadership team.
“I pretty much invited myself into the team,” confesses Geist. “I could see that the industry was rebounding so it wasn’t a giant leap of faith. I had been retired for a couple of years from the industry, and was interested in getting back in – my timing turned out to be just about right.”
Geist received a call back 30 minutes later from a bank executive, and the conversation turned to how Geist, now president of Synovus Bank’s Equipment Finance Group, could make his vision a reality. “Synovus had given some thought into some other ways of starting the business, and these weren’t suited for what they really wanted to do — thankfully for me,” he says. “What I proposed seemed to strike them as what they were looking for. That’s how I got here.”
Business Plans from Scratch
The bank had been contemplating forming an equipment finance unit for about a year or two prior to Geist’s proposal. As the recession and its residual effects began to come to an end, Geist says Synovus and others in the industry could see the need for more equipment financing: “The bank had already started some other specialty units within the large corporate banking group, and equipment finance was one of the glaring openings.”
This was not the first time Geist had started an equipment finance division. At Nations Bank, where he served as executive vice president of the U.S. Corporate Banking Group, he had been asked to join the investment banking team and develop an equipment finance business plan “essentially from scratch.”
“I was somewhat shocked by that, as I had not done any specialty type of business or investment-related business before, and our U.S. corporate banking unit was doing extremely well,” he explains. “I was delighted to be asked, and so I took that on, and started the business at Nations Bank essentially from ground zero and grew it to a very sizeable $7 billion to $8 billion company in about seven years.”
Drawing on his experience building something from virtually nothing, Geist instilled in Synovus the confidence that he would be able to do the same for the bank’s new venture. In addition, he was pleased that Synovus had built a platform for booking, billing and tracking transactions, saying the in-place systems would accommodate and support what he and management were planning to do in the equipment finance arena.
“We did not need to develop any back-office operations systems for ourselves. I sat down with my credit policy counterparts and drafted an equipment finance policy manual for us,” Geist says. “We put that in place and developed some procedures for how we go about originating, approving and booking business just from a systems standpoint. Since I’ve been in this business for 30 years, I had a pretty good handle on that.” Having developed similar policies at Nations, he says the equipment finance business hasn’t changed much over the years.
What has changed, he notes, is personnel. Since the official launch, Synovus has filled out its first round of key hires, including many marketing positions. Among his seasoned team, which boasts 200-plus years of cumulative experience, are Dean Waters, Ricky Mims, Jim Shaw, Tad Herrin, Bill Orr, Jeff Bauer and Chris Legris. Of the industry veterans, Geist refers to Waters as the “youngster,” clocking in at about 20 to 25 years of experience — the most experienced has about 30 to 35 years of experience. Waters, Bauer, and Mims serve in a geographic calling officer capacity.
Shaw, the transaction and documentation manager; Herrin, who runs the business aircraft group; and Orr, the syndications professional, all held the same or similar positions at Nations Bank and Bank of America, along with Geist.
Legris joined as the asset management director. Geist says his department is “essential” since it does all the valuations of the assets financed at inception and over the life of the transaction. Having worked with many of the team members in the past, Geist says they are “delighted” to be a part of the Synovus equipment group. All have a true passion for the business.
Advantages & Challenges
Geist says the equipment finance group’s primary advantage is efficiency. “We are a small but experienced team and we can respond quickly. We also enjoy a high level of management support from the CEO on down. That’s an essential part of launching any business,” Geist says.
While the support Geist and his team receive has bolstered their ability to build the business, they are presented with a tough challenge. Despite Synovus’ presence in the Southeast, the name “Synovus” isn’t used in all markets since the bank’s umbrella covers a combination of 28 local market names. “The corporate bank, which operates under the Synovus name, has grown very nicely in the past four years, and we will do the same,” Geist says. “It just takes some conversation and some marketing.”
Partner with Clients
Geist describes Synovus’ client policy as one where the bank’s specialty groups run parallel with its commercial clients by collaborating rather than just selling. “I think the bank’s philosophy is one of being a solution-driven partner — not just offering products for sale,” he explains. “That’s precisely what we do on the equipment finance side.” Geist explains that this mindset allows the team to structure the transaction in a way that meets the clients’ goals, often in a manner they may not have envisioned.
Geist notes the relationship-focused bank encourages and acts on intra-bank referrals. “If we sell a client on an equipment financing idea, we would also try to attract their treasury management and general corporate banking business as well. We would expect the bank’s treasury management and corporate groups to do the same. I think the bank is well-versed in the relationship profitability of cross-selling across business lines. We certainly are supportive of that.”
The equipment finance group’s short- and long-term goals center on cultivating relationships, both old and new. “We’d like to find ways to do business with existing and historic customers, as well as working with prospects to convert them to customers of Equipment Finance and the Bank,” explains Geist. “It will take time for us to get our people introduced to all the bankers and the communities.”
Ultimately, booking business is the “primary goal” for the group. “We’ll grow through our current relationships and contacts that we have outside of Synovus,” Geist says. “And [we] will take those skills and expertise and call on customers of the bank and try to expand those relationships using the equipment finance product as an entrée. Of course, the reverse will also be true as we prospect for new business, hopefully succeed and turn an equipment finance customer into a client for the bank. That’s an ongoing goal.”
Current volume of opportunities, growth and pricing have left the industry somewhat underwhelmed, but competitive. Geist is hopeful that the number of opportunities and industry growth will pick up, but so long as activity remains steady or there is slight growth, he’s happy. “We’re expecting volume this year, compared to last, to be up slightly. We were hoping for more pronounced growth, but I do believe the industry will be up a few percentage points compared to last year,” Geist said.
With the advent of excess liquidity, he says pricing has become more competitive. “Many of the companies in the industry were [also] expecting a more robust rebound in the industry, and perhaps have some lofty goals out there, and there is some price cutting in the business, which is making it a challenge — for everybody,” Geist continues.
Coming Back for More
Geist has been in the commercial banking business for more than 30 years, half of which have been spent in the equipment finance world. After his time with Nations Bank and Bank of America, Geist spent a number of years managing the corporate finance group for a Bahrain-based bank. He then returned to the States when “things got pretty quiet” post-recession, and continued to do some consulting work with his Middle East-based clients. He retired a few years ago, thinking he’d be content. “After a couple of years, I realized I missed the business,” he confesses. “I missed being in the game and the enjoyment I had realized there. So, I jumped back in.”
The thrill and love of the game, accompanied with the support of his management team and the rest of the Synovus equipment finance staff members, has solidified his decision to re-enter the equipment finance arena.
“I can’t think of any call or visit I have had with any member of executive management that did not end with the statement, ‘Let me know where I can help you,’” Geist says. “And that includes and starts with the CEO. The responsiveness and support that we’ve seen there has really excited our team. It makes us even more eager to get out and get this business up and running and be successful. It’s a great company and a great opportunity.”