Tennessee Bankers

Todd Austin takes multi-tasking seriously

Story by Roger Shirley
Photos by Keith Miles and courtesy of Todd Austin

Todd Austin grew up as the youngest of four siblings—“the baby of the family by a long shot”—and with a mother who made sure he became a well-rounded individual. That meant being involved in a variety of pursuits, from sports to 4-H programs to gospel singing schools and playing the piano.

As it turns out, his early life experiences growing up in the small Middle Tennessee town of Lafayette in Macon County were perfect preparation for his life experiences at the moment.

Today, at age 39, Austin is one of the youngest bank presidents and CEOs in Tennessee, having taken over that position at Citizens Bank in Hartsville two years ago when he succeeded longtime banker and current TBA board member Betty Sue Hibdon.

He is also a college basketball referee, officiating two to three games per week in the Southeastern Conference and other Division I conferences—an avocation he has pursued since graduating with an MBA from Cumberland University in 2003.

And three years ago, he became an ordained minister and began pastoring the New Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Lafayette, answering a call that he says he initially ran from because he had his own plans.

Well-rounded seems to be an understatement when it comes to describing Todd Austin and many people may simply wonder how he does it all; but in talking with him, it is clear that he does it based on passion, commitment, and a focus on doing the best he can at the job in front of him.

He also puts a priority on communicating with those affected by his pursuits—whether it’s his wife and family, his board and associates at Citizens Bank, his church members, or those scheduling the SEC officiating calendars.

“My wife has been on board with my basketball officiating from the very beginning, and she is very supportive,” Austin said. “We sit down and evaluate it every year. Is this still working for us and our family? I have the same conversation with our bank chairman (Philip Holder), and he understands that Citizens Bank has my priority attention when I am carrying out my responsibilities as CEO. And he knows I expect him to tell me if there is a problem, if it ever gets to that point.”

Likewise, he says, his church is very supportive and understands that he has other jobs. “I’m in the pulpit every Sunday, and I visit people as much as I can. When they first called me and asked me to become ordained and be their minister, I was reluctant because I worried I couldn’t do my duties. But it hasn’t been a problem.”

‘Life Happens’

Austin got his first taste of banking by working part-time at the Liberty State Bank in Lebanon, which at the time was owned by Citizens Bank in Austin’s hometown of Lafayette, (and not related to Citizens Bank of Hartsville, 15 miles to the south).

While finishing up his MBA degree at Cumberland University, where he enrolled after graduating from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor’s in business administration, Austin was approached by Charlie Darnell, a family friend who is a former TBA chairman and was then CEO of Citizens, about working for him.

“Charlie was really a big influence on me, and he is the one that got me started in banking,” Austin said.
“At the time, I really wasn’t sure about banking as a career, but I decided to give it a shot.” That shot stuck, and after graduating in 2003, Austin moved back to his hometown to join Darnell’s bank in Lafayette as a loan officer.

It was about that time that Austin—who played basketball for one season as a walk-on for U.T. and received a full-ride scholarship to play at Cumberland before an ankle injury sidelined his career—got his first taste of officiating basketball games as a referee at junior high and high school games.

After he and his wife, Kendra, were married, the couple moved to Gallatin so she could work on finishing her master’s degree in nearby Nashville, and Austin went to work at First State Bank (now Simmons Bank) in the mortgage lending department.

“It was a great situation,” Austin said, recalling the period from 2004 to 2008 before the economic collapse. “Things were going great, and I had a really good mentor there, Myra Simons. She brought me under her wings and taught me the ropes on the mortgage side. In fact, when I came on board at Citizens Bank here in Hartsville, I hired her to come in and run our mortgage department. I still call her Mamma Myra,” Austin said with a smile. (Simons, a 40-year banking veteran, is still going strong, but is in the process of transitioning to a part-time position as a trainer.)

Austin’s career was going well in Gallatin, but, as he says, “life happens.”

“We were starting a family and decided we wanted to come back to Lafayette,” said Austin, now the father of three (Allie Kate, 9, Avery, 6, and Tate, 4). “I had the opportunity to come back in 2008 and go to work at Citizens Bank in Hartsville as an assistant vice president and loan officer.”


Austin and board chairman Holder had mutual acquaintances going back several years, and Holder, a retired CPA and lifelong farmer who joined a group of Hartsville business people to buy Citizens in the early 1980s to preserve it as a local community bank, enticed Austin to come on board.

At the time, there were no discussions about the move fitting into any kind of succession plan, but as Austin began to show his talent and with Hibdon beginning to think about her retirement, the bank’s leadership believed he had the potential to be a big asset in helping it adapt to the changing financial marketplace.

“Succession planning is vital for any business, and that’s especially true for a community bank in a small town,” said Hibdon, who joined the bank in 1968 as secretary to the president and worked in almost every position on her way to becoming CEO. “When Todd came on board as an assistant vice president and loan officer, we did not have specific plans for him, but as time went on we realized he could do more and we were certainly grooming him for better things.”

Those better things included the CFO position, and in 2011, Austin was promoted to that role and worked closely with Hibdon on all of the bank’s day-to-day operations.

“Betty Sue was wonderful to include me on her jobs and projects, and from the very beginning I was allowed to be on the management team and involved in a lot of the operations. Being a small bank, there are a lot of people who wear a lot of hats, and that is such good preparation for the future.”

Tradition and Change

As president and CEO, Austin’s focus on the future of Citizens Bank is a balancing act between tradition and change.

The board is firmly committed to remaining an independent community bank, a role it has served since its founding in 1905, and it has looked at opportunities to grow in order to spread out the costs of compliance. After opening its first branch outside of Hartsville in Gallatin 15 years ago, Citizens Bank last year opened a new branch in Hendersonville.


But while Citizens is maintaining its small-town traditions, Austin has emphasized making sure it stays apace of the changing market. “The greatest driver for us is technology,” Austin said.

“It’s hard for a bank our size to keep up with the larger banks on technology, but one of the best decisions we have made staff-wise is bringing in younger folks who understand the technology. At the same time, we have to continually balance the technology with staying the kind of local bank most of our customers want to do business with,” he said. “And that means face-to-face relationships.”

“There’s no doubt we will entertain opportunities for expansion to keep up with the market, but we don’t have aggressive plans to do that. We’ve been successful and the board is comfortable with our profitability. We firmly believe there will continue to be a niche for small community banks, especially in this area.”

Austin also emphasizes maintaining a good work environment for the bank’s associates, which now number 57 across the three branches. “They are no doubt my biggest asset, and my job is to get them the right tools and the training they need to do their jobs and manage their departments.

“My job is also to make them feel appreciated, to take care of them, to build a family-style environment here. If you do that, they will take care of your customers.”
 

Still on the Court

From uniform to striped shirt, Austin loves the game

Todd Austin’s passion for playing basketball and his competitive nature led him to win a walk-on spot for the University of Tennessee team during his freshman year, and he clearly remembers every point he scored during the season—five free-throws and a field goal.

The highlights: scoring the 99th and 100th points from the free-throw line against Alabama, and hitting an underhand layup against LSU. A recording of legendary play-by-play announcer John Ward calling that shot, preserved on Austin’s smartphone, is one of his most-treasured memories as a lifelong Volunteer fan.

Although U.T. was up 91-53, Ward’s patented scream of “GOOD!” would not have been more enthusiastic if the shot had been to win the national championship.

“That was my moment in the sun,” Austin said with a laugh.

By his sophomore year, however, the team had signed several additional scholarship players that would squeeze out even his practice time with the squad; so Austin’s focus turned toward finishing his undergraduate degree in three years. He then got a scholarship offer to play for Cumberland University in Lebanon, where he enrolled to work towards his MBA. He injured his ankle during preseason and then, after playing in four games, broke his ankle.

“They told me if you injure that ankle again, they would have to fuse it. And I said no thanks, so that ended my playing career and I became a graduate assistant coach.”

That’s when he first became interested in officiating. “One of my jobs was to deliver the paychecks to the game officials. I just got to know them and they asked about my plans. I didn’t really want to coach, so that’s when the idea of officiating first began to interest me.”

What’s your most memorable game as a college referee?

Last season, I refereed my first NCAA tournament game. It was a First Four game in Dayton, Ohio, between North Carolina Central and UC-Davis, Only 100 officials in the country are chosen to referee the NCAA tournament each season, so I was very honored and humbled to be given that opportunity.

How often do you referee games?

During the season, I usually do a Saturday game and one or two weekday games. I do not do Sunday games because of my pastoral duties, and I don’t do Tuesday games because we have our weekly loan committee meeting at the bank late in the afternoon. If a game is more than five hours away, I will fly, but I usually drive. I do a lot of bank work remotely while I am traveling and stay in close touch with my teams.

As a bank CEO and an ordained minister, you have a lot on your plate. What keeps you wanting to officiate?

It really gets in your blood. It is not who I am, it does not define me, but I really love it and it’s something I am dedicated to. Everyone has to have an outlet, and this is mine. This is my hobby. I always tell people I found a hobby that pays me instead of costs me. It really is a release. When I am officiating, I get into a zone and totally concentrate on doing the best job I can.

How did you develop your ability to juggle all your responsibilities so successfully?

I owe everything I am to my mother, Linda Austin. She is an extremely successful businesswoman who owns and administers a nursing home and assisted living facility in Macon County, and is immediate past president of the Tennessee Health Care Association board of directors. She and my father were divorced when I was a year old, so she was a single mom. The best thing she ever did for me was make me try to be well-rounded. I was heavily involved in the 4-H program, I showed pigs and sheep and was involved in public speaking and personal development leadership programs. She made me go to a gospel singing school in the summer, and I fell in love with it. I grew up playing baseball and basketball and played the piano. So she is an inspiration and my hero.