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New business blood infuses Midlands finance landscape

Banking & Finance
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Money matters took up residence in C. Justin Hawkins’ consciousness early.

“I’m the youngest of 23 grandkids on mom’s side and of the youngest of 11 on my dad’s side,” said Hawkins, Wells Fargo’s newly installed region bank president for western South Carolina. “I was raised by a mom and dad who worked extraordinarily hard and who lived paycheck to paycheck. I learned at a really young age why it was important to understand finances and why it was important to budget and why it was important to save.”

C. Justin Hawkins is Wells Fargo's new region bank president for western South Carolina. (Photo/Melinda Waldrop)Hawkins ended up making a career of those lessons. In his 14th year with Wells Fargo, Hawkins began his new role in July. Since 2015, he’d been area president of the Upstate market.

“We took two of our senior-level positions and collapsed those into one,” said Hawkins, who has also been Wells Fargo’s S.C. regional sales and marketing manager. “What we tried to do was simplify and create a more streamlined approach and clearer communication to the field.”

Hawkins, a native of Kingsport, Tenn., who moved to Greenville as a child and graduated from the Riley Institute at Furman University, tries to bring a personal touch to the customers his bank serves.

“I have the ability to communicate how my past has shaped who I am, and I can have a direct conversation with any customer who may be struggling,” Hawkins said. “If we do our jobs right, we have the ability to change someone’s life.

“We had a situation a few days ago where we had a single mother that came in, and we had a conversation with her about debt consolidation. Through that dialogue, we realized we were able to save this customer almost $800 a month.”

It’s that individual focus that Hawkins says makes a bank as large as Wells Fargo competitive and relevant in an area with copious community banking options.

“We want to out-local the nationals and out-national the locals,” he said. “Holistically, we look very big. But the people that work in those branches are your Little League coach, your Sunday teacher, your next-door neighbor. We’re as local as you get. … We have the down-home feel because we get to know our customers and we get to help them with their finances, but we have the power of technology and distribution.”

The connection to community has also helped the S.C. branches of Wells Fargo weather fallout from a national scandal that uncovered up to 3.5 million potentially fake bank and credit card accounts opened without customers’ knowledge – and around 190,000 accounts charged unnecessary fees for those accounts. The bank blamed unrealistic sales goals, which it has discontinued. Wells Fargo also agreed to pay more than $6 million in refunds.

“We are very fortunate to have the history that we have in this market. We have roots back to South Carolina National and before that. A lot of customers have been with us that entire time,” Hawkins said. “Our customers have been inquisitive, and we have been very quick to respond. … That’s a huge investment that our company has made, to say we’re not going to have product goals anymore. We’re going to focus on a model that is focused on team members; it’s focused on our customer; it’s focused on risk mitigation; and it’s focused on growth the right way, which is growing alongside our customers as they have a need.”

WORKING FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

Janice Cook knows how to build a business, and she’s putting that knowledge to use.

Cook, who has owned a real estate company in Barnwell County and a retail franchise in Lexington, has launched a Columbia-based business brokerage office through national firm Murphy Business & Financial Corp. LLC. She hopes to use what she learned as a small business owner to help those looking to buy or sell small- to medium-sized businesses in the area.

“I spent a lot of time trying to find a business myself,” Cook said. “To me, they’re like little projects. I looked at it as a challenge: ‘One day I’m going to sell this business. I want it to grow, and I want the numbers to look good.’ I just worked really hard to make it more profitable, and was able to sell it at a profit.

“With the knowledge that I’ve gained, I felt like I could help people sell their business or people find a business that’s a good fit for them.”

Murphy Business has more than 180 offices in the U.S. and Canada. Cook’s office will serve central S.C. from Newberry to Camden.

“It’s a great time to be in the business brokerage business, because the baby boomers are starting to retire and want to sell their business,” she said. “There’s a lot of people that are unemployed, older people. They have a hard time finding a job, so they’re looking for businesses to purchase. This is really a good time to be in the market, no matter what area you’re geographically located in.”

While the market is growing, Cook said, businesses don’t always sell for what they’re worth.

“There’s about a million businesses that (make) $3 million and less, roughly, in revenue, and only about 20% of businesses sell in that range,” she said. “Either it’s not priced properly or it hasn’t been marketed properly. A broker really can help get that process going and help (sellers) price it properly and find the right buyer for them.”

The best time to sell a business is when it’s pulling in profit, because “people buy cash flow,” Cook said – one of many insights she thinks she can impart to others in what were once her shoes.

“I know the fears of buying and selling businesses. There’s fear involved on both sides,” she said. “Being in tune with that is important, and understanding the buyer and the sellers’ emotions.”

PUTTING DOWN ROOTS

The office is brand-new, but John Brazell has been here a long time.

Brazell, a Chapin High graduate and longtime Irmo resident, recently opened Columbia’s first Charles Schwab financial services and brokerage office on Lake Murray Boulevard. The independent branch is a separate but wholly affiliated Schwab enterprise.

“They want someone who’s deeply rooted in the community in an area where they’re not currently at,” said Brazell, who spent the past 13 years with Scottrade, recently purchased by TD Ameritrade. “It’s a great pairing. I want to succeed, and they want me to succeed, and if I can use such a great name brand like Charles Schwab, it really helps. You have to have a reputable firm, a reputable name, to be with. People want to trust you, but they also want to trust where their assets or going to be held.”

Brazell’s two-person office opened Sept. 29 with financial consultant Cameron Prewitt, who worked with Brazell at Scottrade.

“We’re solution finders. We have solutions for someone with $5,000, $25,000, all the way up to $500,000 or more,” Brazell said. “We don’t manage a client’s assets, but we can provide advice here, and that’s something I couldn’t do at Scottrade. I really try to look at our offerings and find the right solution depending on the client’s needs. It’s all needs-based. Because I’m with Charles Schwab, there are many offerings available, where previously, I only had a couple of offerings.”

Leaving Scottrade was a difficult decision, Brazell said, but he takes heart that some of his clients there have found him at Charles Schwab.

“The way I try to build the business is through relationships,” he said. “I think it’s important to understand the clients, their family, their situation, and build that trust with them. I take the time with people. Other firms, you can become a number. The brokers are incentivized in different ways. They’re trying to make as many contacts a day and trying to get you to bring in as many assets as possible, but not always are they keeping that relationship once the assets come in.

“I want to know you. I want you to be with me for the next 15 years. I want to know your family and work with future generations.”

Brazell is in the right place to make that happen.

“I have so many contacts, either from school or business,” he said. “Every time I go out, to a restaurant or anywhere, I’ll say hey to somebody or they’ll come up to me. It’s a nice feeling.” 

This article first appeared in the Nov. 20 print edition of the Columbia Regional Business Report.

Contact Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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