Title: Culture Trumps Strategy
Subtitle: Southern faces unprecedented opportunity
By Dwain Hebda – Southern Bancorp CEO Darrin Williams’ career sits at the crossroads of law, business and the political arena. A three-term member of the Arkansas House of Representatives, including serving as Speaker Pro Tempore of the 89th Arkansas General Assembly, he’s also served as managing partner of Carney, Williams, Bates, Pulliam & Bowman, PLLC.
He came to Southern Bancorp in 2013 and under his guidance, Southern’s three Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) — Southern Bancorp Inc., Southern Bancorp Bank and Southern Bancorp Community Partners — grew exponentially. In that time, Southern attracted more than $50 million in equity capital and assets increased by $900 million.
Williams completed his undergraduate degree at Hendrix College and earned his juris doctorate from Vanderbilt University School of Law in Nashville. He also holds a Master of Law degree in Securities and Financial Regulation from Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.
BLACK VITALITY (BV): Describe the home you grew up in; what was valued most?
DARRIN WILLIAMS (DW): Faith was first, family was second. My dad, Warren Williams, was a Church of Christ minister. I always said we opened and closed the church doors, but it really was much more than just going to church, it was living Christian values and principles.
My parents were servant leaders and I got to witness what that meant every day. Rarely did we eat as a family alone; there was always someone who ate with us, some neighbor or someone in need. My dad was the minister but also a lender; he loaned money to people, did free work for people, as well as my mom, Catherine. I saw them care for and about people and willingly sacrifice themselves for people.
BV: What stands out about your upbringing?
DW: I have to say it was being adopted at two weeks old. I was fortunate and blessed to have never been in the system. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, but when my mind does go back, I think man, where would I have been if not for these two wonderful God-fearing people who adopted me? That is the pinnacle of my story. Everything I have achieved positively, I can probably trace back to my parents.
BV: How did that servant-driven philosophy apply in your professional career?
DW: I say all the time, “No margin, no mission.” The most successful companies know why they do what they do and that’s the heart of who we are. As a CDFI, people often say we’re a nonprofit bank. First of all, we’re not nonprofit, we are for profit. We get no break from a regulatory standpoint. We have to abide by the same regulatory scrutiny as any $2.5 billion bank that’s a state member of the federal reserve. But we do it with this desire to have a deep impact on people who are underserved in banking.
The reason we exist is not to make a profit; we exist to help people build wealth for their families. When I say wealth, I’m not necessarily talking about the richest person you know, I’m talking about being able to satisfy basic needs and provide a better life for your family. That’s why we focus on things that have been proven to build net worth. We focus on home ownership. We focus on supporting entrepreneurs; most jobs are created by small businesses, so we want to provide flexible but responsive capital to allow entrepreneurs to succeed. We want to empower people so when the rainy day comes they don’t drown.
BV: What is the hardest piece of advice you’ve ever had to hear?
DW: I’m advised all the time by wonderful people and I have been told I’ve got to raise my thinking to 30,000 feet. I’m a get-my-hands-dirty kind of person; when I got here, we were at $1 billion in assets and today we’re at $2.5 billion. Well, that changes the playing field for me and where I spend my time and my efforts. I’m having to, and I’m not good at it yet, but I’m having to adjust. We’re growing, so I’ve got to continue to evolve and change with the growing times and a growing organization, which means I may not be able to see every transaction or touch every small detail.
BV: How did the COVID-19 crisis of 2020 affect Southern?
DW: With the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on underserved communities, particularly Black and brown communities, the CDFI community stepped up in a way that got national attention. People saw banks like ours as kind of a financial first responder.
As the world was trying to recover and rebuild from COVID-19, the Paycheck Protection Program rolled out, and it was an abysmal failure because the government used distribution channels of a banking system that is inherently discriminatory and inherently against people who are low-wealth minorities. Many of the small businesses we serve were being left out or would have been left out but for CDFIs like us.
Not only did we step up and make sure our folks had access to the Paycheck Protection Program, but we lobbied President Trump and Congress to say you can’t just use these distribution channels and send this money out using the big banks, because you’ll leave a large portion of Americans out. You’ve got to carve out a portion of these funds for CDFIs and Minority Deposit Institutions, so people who live in communities where banks are abandoned or where there are no banks in town can access it.
BV: As you look to the future of Southern, what do you see?
DW: I think in many ways the CDFI space became a best-kept, 35-year-old secret. Philanthropy has always been supported by the CDFI space and [the] government has always been a sponsor, but now we’re seeing the private sector come up, giving us opportunities that we didn’t have before. Other banks and private companies are saying, “We want to be a shareholder, not just give a charitable gift. We want to be a partner, we want to buy ownership because we believe in what you’re doing, and you serve a segment that we’re not equipped to serve.”
To give you an example of how things have changed, when I came aboard in 2013 with the idea of really growing Southern, it took us a little over four years to raise $50 million in capital. In July, the government rolled out the Emergency Capital Investment Program in response to the coronavirus and we got a $250 million equity investment. The federal government just bought $250 million worth of stock in this bank, which is going to allow us to greatly expand our impact.
BV: What advice do you have for the next generation?
DW: One is, never stop learning. There are so many ways, places and people you can learn from. You’ve got to be open to the education and the learning opportunities available, even in times of struggle. That’s on a personal level.
On a leadership level, one thing I often say is “Culture trumps strategy.” I have a name tag that says, “Darrin Williams, Chief Culture Officer,” because that’s how I think of my role here. If you have the right culture, your team will develop a winning strategy.
Developing and building the right culture starts with understanding why we get up every day and do the work we do. If we can do that, we’re going to be as successful as anybody, and probably more successful than most, because we have that North Star to follow.