First Tennessee Bank celebrates 150th anniversary

Nathan Baker • Apr 2, 2014 at 12:52 PM

Americans who bemoan the current state of the nation’s economy could take a lesson from First Tennessee Bank, a company born 150 years ago amidst uncertainty and turmoil.

Chartered as the First National Bank of Memphis on March 25, 1864 – less than two years after the Union Army’s capture of the riverside city and only a year after the federal banking act that made the institution possible – First Tennessee Bank has weathered civil and world wars, disease epidemics and economic depressions.

“It’s amazing really when you think about it, that it’s 150 years old,” Northeast Tennessee Market President Gerald Hallenbeck said last week from his corner office in the monolithic gold building on North Roan Street.

From a time before mobile banking and debit cards, when the financial health of the healing country was still uncertain, the bank grew from its Memphis charter to be the market leader in the state as a whole and hold the top market share in the East and West regions.

In his oversight area in Northeast Tennessee, Hallenbeck said First Tennessee holds approximately $1.3 billion in assets.

He attributed the bank’s success to fierce perseverance and the 4,300 dedicated employees who keep operations running smoothly at the 170 branch locations.

“One story we like to tell is of an employee by the name of Charles Q. Harris, who was a bookkeeper in Memphis in 1878,” Hallenbeck said. “Around that time, Memphis was a town of about 50,000 people, but they had a yellow fever epidemic and the population went down to 16,000.

“Charles Harris volunteered to stay and keep the bank open, even though everyone was leaving the city and he was surrounded with this disease. We use that a lot now to put the hard times in banking since 2008 in perspective.”

To honor his steadfast dedication, First Tennessee gives exceptional employees Charles Q. Harris Leadership Awards for outstanding service.

Those employees deserve the credit for the bank’s growth through the years, Hallenbeck said.

In 1971, to better match the institution’s expansion across the state, the holding company changed its name to the First Tennessee National Corporation. Six years later, the First National Bank of Memphis changed its name, too.

In 1992, the banking company acquired a portion of Home Federal Bank’s interests in Northeast Tennessee, giving First Tennessee the familiar gold-sided office building on the north side of town.

An official resolution on the wall of Hallenbeck’s office commemorates the acquisition.

With consolidation a common occurrence in the industry, he said he hopes First Tennessee will remain the aquirer and not the acquired, relying on keen management to see the institution through the most recent housing market crash.

In the years leading up to the crash, the bank expanded heavily outside the state under the name First Horizon, increasing its nationwide mortgage holdings.

After the bubble burst, the bank sold off some of its expanded facilities to focus more on its core market.

“We were heavily into mortgages,” Hallenbeck said. “It really says a lot about the management of the company, getting us through that with the kind of exposure that we had.”

But, like during the Civil War and the yellow fever, First Tennessee soldiered on.

By focusing on customer service, Hallenbeck said he hopes the bank will keep marching for another 150 years.

“Working with the customers, that’s what makes it fun,” he said. “You’re really looking at it one day at a time. You look at the challenges that come up, and I think we’re really well positioned for it.”

To mark its sesquicentennial, the bank plans celebrations in each of the state’s regions.

Memphis already had its grand party, but Hallenbeck said we in the Northeast may have to wait until May for our local event, which may be held at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Starting March 25, the company also commenced a 150 Days of Giving campaign, through which its foundation will gift $5,000 a day to a different nonprofit organization chosen by online voting.

To vote in that contest, visit www.150DaysOfGiving.com.

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