Get to Know 2020-2021 VBA Chairman John Asbury
Atlantic Union Bank

Article Virginia Bankers Association

Volume 3 Cover

You were installed as chairman during our Virtual Annual Meeting in June 2020. How did it feel to take on this role during such an uncertain time, and why is the role meaningful to you?

Virginia is blessed with a strong banking system and, as a native Virginian and career banker, the opportunity to serve as chairman is deeply meaningful and quite humbling. I am grateful to have been able to observe and learn from my highly capable predecessors. 

I believe we are living in historic times, and as my term begins the industry faces the greatest challenges I have seen in my 33 year career: the COVID-19 pandemic; the sharpest and deepest recession in our nation’s history (and I hope the shortest); a lower for longer rate environment that will pressure bank earnings and likely frustrate the terms of the next two chairs who succeed me; and more recently, this great awakening finally acknowledging the social injustice and systemic racism that has plagued the country since its beginning.  I believe VBA is in a position to help its member banks weather the storm and what a storm it is. 

Since you joined Atlantic Union Bank in 2016, the bank has experienced continuous transformation through several acquisitions to grow to an $18 billion regional bank. Describe your priorities to maintain a positive culture during times of constant change, growth, challenge and opportunity.

Atlantic Union Bank has been through a dramatic transformation, and despite all of the changes and accompanying challenges, our vision, strategic intent, core values and messaging have remained quite consistent during my time as CEO.  My great aspiration in taking the job and returning to Virginia, having been away for nearly 18 years was to bring back what was lost in the 90s – a great Virginia-based, statewide regional bank.  I am a banker today because of my summer job during college at United Virginia Bank which became Crestar Bank during my second summer. The good people I worked with there in my hometown of Radford inspired me to choose this career path. 

Clarity of purpose is important, and as Yogi Berra once said, “if you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”  I am a North Carolina banker too in that I took the advice I was offered during my summer job to apply to the Wachovia Bank & Trust commercial training program and had the good fortune to be hired by them out of Virginia Tech in 1987.  I have never forgotten the mantra that I learned during my early days as a commercial credit officer in Winston-Salem from the iconic Wachovia CEO John Medlin – soundness, profitability and growth, in that order of priority, is the right way to run a bank.  The more I have seen and learned, the more I realize Mr. Medlin was correct.  That mantra has never been truer than now. 

Tactically speaking, as COVID-19 hit, our main priority and responsibility has been focused on protecting our teammates and our customers. We understand they will remember how we treated them during this time and we want them to know we are with them every step of the way.  We have also “battened down the hatches” to ride out the credit storm that is likely to soon follow.  At the same time, we have made tough decisions to align the bank’s expense run rate to the new revenue reality acknowledging that while the pandemic is transitory, we’ll be left with a much lower rate environment than ever expected for probably the next three years.  In chaos lies opportunity, and despite everything that we face, I am quite confident and optimistic about the long-term future of the company.  What we are experiencing has not changed the bank’s strategic plan but has accelerated some aspects of it and delayed others.

What specific traits or skills you have obtained from your expansive career that you deem as necessary and important in your current role at Atlantic Union Bank and also as VBA Chairman?

I’ve learned a great deal over 33 years and continue to do so today – specifically, what works and what doesn’t!  But top of mind is communication, adaptability, collaboration and a recognition that the higher you climb in the organization, the less likely you are to have all the answers to all the questions.  As CEO, I am accountable more so than anyone else for setting the strategic direction, setting the culture, ensuring that we have the right leaders in seat and obviously the results be they good or bad. 

I told our Board of Directors when they were in the late stages of hiring me to not do so if they thought I would come in with all the answers, because I would not, and that’s a refrain our team has heard from me many times.  I did say I would ensure we had the right leaders at the table, and try very hard to manage on a collaborative basis but in the absence of consensus I will make a decision when it needs to be made.  I just won’t do it in a vacuum or on my opinion alone, and I have a lot of scars to support that position.

I value constructive dialogue and people speaking their mind as I think that’s essential to achieving the best outcome.  I recognize I am Chairman of VBA and not CEO of VBA so my role here is different.  However, my approach will be similar.  You can expect me to be communicative, support VBA’s leaders, listen to our membership, encourage a constructive dialogue and ensure the organization does what it is here to do.

What does innovation look like to you and how can the VBA assist banks with their innovation efforts?

I have learned, to my great surprise, that most innovation is actually quite incremental.  It’s not some dramatic undertaking that changes everything like a bolt from the blue.  I think that when people define innovation as such they can miss the opportunity to simply keep getting better.  I believe the VBA is in a position to help its member banks, of all sizes, simply keep getting better by harnessing the VBA’s resources, be they internal or through its numerous contacts, and by facilitating the collective wisdom of its membership.  In my time at Atlantic Union Bank, we have benefitted from all of the above through our VBA membership.

You graduated from Virginia Tech in 1987 and hold an MBA from The College of William & Mary. Atlantic Union Bank has developed a relationship with Virginia Tech’s Credit Corp program, providing students with real-world banking experience. What has that relationship meant to you and how will programs like this help banks in their efforts to attract and retain talent and the next generation of banking leaders?

This is still in its early stages and a wonderful opportunity that developed through the relationship that I had with my former banking professor at Virginia Tech, Dr. George Morgan, and our board member and former Access National Bank CEO Mike Clarke.  Mike was also a student of Dr. Morgan and I often credit Dr. Morgan with making my first introduction to Mike. Our shared vision of recreating a great Virginia regional bank combined with our personal relationship certainly aided in our ultimate acquisition of his company.  This was really a vision of both Dr. Morgan and Mike that I quickly subscribed to and I am very proud that we have been able to be of assistance.  So the real credit goes to those two, not me.

When Mike and I were finance majors at Virginia Tech in the 1980s, the bank training programs were among the most competitive and highly sought after, and Mike and I were fortunate to have been hired into them.  All these years later, it’s surprising to me that one of the greater challenges the industry faces is attracting and retaining talent.  That’s the real objective with Credit Corps – to graduate students with RMA credit certifications and “real world” credit experience in hopes we can interest them in our industry and make them more employable.  We also see this as an opportunity to improve the diversity of young talent which to this day also remains a persistent challenge.  I love that I am in a position where when we decided we wanted to do this for our company and for Virginia Tech, we simply did it.  I certainly didn’t have to call someone somewhere else to seek permission.  I simply had to build support internally and that was an easy thing to do.

Diversity is listed as one of Atlantic Union Bank’s values on your website. The bank also has a robust Supplier Diversity Program, a Summer Diversity Internship Program and an internal DEI council.  Why and how you have made these initiatives a priority within your organization?

I have learned much about DEI over the course of my career, and my attitude toward it is evolving with experience, but never more rapidly than now.  For more than 30 years I have been party to discussions on diversity initiatives, but only recently have I been party to discussions on social injustice and systemic racism.  DEI is a huge, sweeping topic and will be an important focus during my time as Chair of VBA, and I hope from now on.

For the purpose of this brief interview, let me momentarily step away from the ethical and moral issues and simply make the business case.  As I said earlier, attracting talent to this industry is one of our greatest challenges.  We also need to recognize the complexion of our communities and customer base is not well reflected by most banking institutions and that can be an impediment to serving minority customers and communities.  So the business case can be as simple as this – if we need to deepen and widen our talent pool, including executive leadership positions, and we most certainly do – then it makes no sense to allow that pool to be narrowly defined by default as white males which are overrepresented by any measure in the industry.  I am one of those, of course.  However, we must broaden and deepen the talent pool, which will allow us to attract and retain more talent and more customers, as well as strengthen the communities we serve and better our results.

I am proud of the advances we have made at Atlantic Union Bank with women on our executive leadership team, most notably President Maria Tedesco who is among the best leaders with whom I have worked.  While we have different perspectives that complement one another, we also have much work to do developing and attracting more people of color in our leadership.  And as I said, I believe that the more diverse our base of bankers, the more diverse our base of customers will be.  So there is a case for enlightened self-interest. 

Returning to the broader societal issue, unconscious bias, structural racism and policies that deny equality of opportunity need to be addressed proactively.  I now understand the problem remains deeply rooted and our society has not made nearly as much progress on this as I had thought.  We’ll be better people and a better country by driving for change, and not waiting for change.

In what ways do you view the VBA as an indispensable resource for both yourself and Atlantic Union Bank?

As I said before VBA has a phenomenal staff, resources through its industry connections, governmental connections and the ability to harness the collective wisdom and sometimes buying power of its membership.Harnessing all of this and focusing it to the betterment of the Commonwealth and its member banks is of great value.I should also say I have reluctantly come to understand the importance of influencing the legislative agenda and no organization in Virginia is in a better position to speak to the banking industry’s issues than the VBA.I don’t enjoy lobbying but have come to appreciate that we had better make our voices and positions heard among our legislators or someone else will speak for us, and VBA serves an essential role in doing so.I ask everyone reading this that no matter what you contribute to the VBA BankPAC – consider contributing more.I certainly upped my contribution this year.

Anything else you would like our readers to know about you?

I am proud to be a native Virginian and a career banker.  I was born and educated in the Commonwealth, as was my wife of 33 years, Wendy.  We are both from Southwest Virginia – she from the Roanoke Valley, and me from the New River Valley.  Because Atlantic Union Bank is based in Richmond people often assume I am from Richmond, which I love, but I am proud to come from a small community in Southwest Virginia.

I also sometimes receive comments from those that don’t know me well that I am from a “large bank” background which I suppose is true, but when I started at Wachovia Bank & Trust in 1987 it wasn’t much bigger than Atlantic Union Bank is today.  And despite my 17 years at what became Bank of America and my six years at Regions Financial, I chose to leave the large bank environment seeking to make contributions and impact that I didn’t think I’d have the opportunity to do in such large organizations.  I am especially proud that my role just prior to joining Atlantic Union was President & CEO of The First National Bank of Santa Fe, a $1.7 billion asset community bank that operated in New Mexico and Colorado.  The employee headcount was about 350, it was chartered in 1870 and the first delivery of cash was made by the U.S. Calvary!  I certainly understand the joys and challenges of leading a traditional community bank too.

After living in every time zone in the continental US, I have learned to adapt and appreciate regional differences and never imagined I’d have the opportunity return to my home state after all these years!  I don’t think I’d be here today had I not been open to new experiences and challenges, and they have served me well.  

My Media Mix:

  • Music – I have eclectic taste in music but have always loved jazz. 
  • TV – I don’t watch much TV other than sports (not many options at the moment) and streaming.  My wife and I have discovered Britbox and Acorn TV so we do watch British shows, especially mysteries. 
  • Books – Despite having never worked harder or longer hours in my career, I don’t recall having read so many books as I have other the past few months thanks to the magic of audio books which I normally listen to when I’m road biking or otherwise exercising.  I am currently well into “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram Kendi – a timely read. 


About the Virginia Bankers Association

The Virginia Bankers Association represents banks of all sizes and charters and has served as the unified voice for Virginia’s $615 billion banking industry and its 42 thousand employees since 1893. To learn more about the VBA, click here.