by Paula Burkes
Published: Sun, July 22, 2018
“It’s about the people, stupid.”
Mike Carroll, CEO of Heritage Trust Co., said the variation of a phrase coined by political consultant James Carville perfectly sums up his business philosophy.
“People want a relationship with someone in their corner,” Carroll said. “They want to know who the decision maker is and want to look them in the eyes and touch them.”
With the backing of Nancy Payne Ellis, Carroll, a former senior vice president with Liberty National Bank, and his trusts team there started Heritage in September 1997, after Liberty was acquired by Bank One.
“My employees were concerned that the banking industry was becoming all about the numbers and selling products,” he said, “and that we were leaving behind the people with whom we’d worked for so many years and to whom we felt a duty.”
Today, Heritage manages $1.2 billion in assets, Carroll said. But what’s most important, he said, is the people: its 35 employees and 700 relationships. Bond Payne, Ellis’ son, chairs the company.
From his offices in the Journal Record building downtown, Carroll, 66, sat down with The Oklahoman on Monday to talk about his life and career. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Tell us about your roots.
A: My great-grandfather and Kansas native Lewis Carroll participated in the Oklahoma Land Run. His wagon, diary and revolver are on display at the Oklahoma Historical Society. I don’t know if I should be proud to say that he was a Sooner. He’d already staked a homestead in Kay County when he came to Guthrie to file the claim. My mom was from Pauls Valley where I was born. When I was 2 months old, my parents moved to Williston, South Carolina, where they both worked in the Savannah River Plant nuclear facility. My younger brother and sister still live in South Carolina. I also had an older brother who’s deceased.
Q: What was your thing growing up?
A: Williston is a small town; the population then was around 6,000. The closest big city is Augusta, Georgia, about 40 miles away. We were an hour and half from the coast, where I often went offshore fishing with my father. Growing up, I was involved in sports (basketball and baseball), church and scouting. I especially loved the Boy Scouts, including the camping and leadership skills I learned. With the help of several friends’ parents, I stayed with it and became an Eagle Scout. When I raised my own boys, I was a scout leader, including leading a 70-mile adventure in northern New Mexico in 2000. All three sons are Eagle Scouts too. Today, my oldest works in technology in Boulder; my middle son is a doctor at St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa; and youngest, an executive with Sonic Corp.
Q: What brought you to Oklahoma?
A: I won a scholarship to Oklahoma Christian University, where I chose to major in accounting. In high school, I’d already taken calculus, trig and geometry, so I was pushed two years ahead. My last two years at Oklahoma Christian, I worked nights for First National Bank, balancing the bank and processing checks. On good days, I’d go in at 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. and be out at 10:30 p.m. But at the end of the month, we could be there ‘til 3 a.m. When I graduated college in 1975, First National invited me to take a job opening on the day shift. When I started, I only knew about balancing banks and nothing about trusts. But I learned on the job, and advanced to vice president/head of operations.
Q: What did you learn in a theater class at Oklahoma Christian that helps you in business?
A: That it’s about your motivation; anybody can memorize lines. In other words, it’s not what you’re saying, but why you’re saying it that’s important. Funny. I just took theater because my college girlfriend did. But I learned that if I really listened to somebody, including clients, and understood a problem, I might be able to put a deal together.
Q: You said you’ve been lucky. How so?
A: When I left First National in February 1982, I asked if I could keep my stock. But since I was going to Liberty National Bank, a competitor, they told me “No way; you have to cash out.” Then Penn Square Bank collapsed that July, so the cash-out price I’d been given was the maximum stock price anybody got. Meanwhile, I had to work one year before I could buy stock at Liberty, so I came out ahead on that side, too. I tell people I’ve lived a charmed life.
Q: Who’s been your biggest mentor?
A: The late Don Balaban, who hired me at Liberty, was my boss for several years and, at age 65, came with me, Dick Kerrick, Ron Bowles and Cathy McKinzie (who’s still with us) to Heritage. He was honest and really cared about people. But we didn’t think alike at all. I was more liberal and he was more conservative. His pat answer was “No,” and mine was, “We can figure it out.” But I loved the man so much. He gave me what I needed, because he could find what was wrong with a deal. Together we were very formidable. Since his death, I frequently ask myself, “If Don were here, what would he be saying?”
Q: To what do you attribute Heritage’s success?
A: It’s always about the people and holding true to principles. We don’t sell any products, and we don’t take any commissions, sales incentives or administrative fees. We have no vested interest in anything, but the best interests for our clients. Most competitors can’t say that.