The McConnell family has had a controlling interest in Pinnacle Financial Corp., based in Elberton, Georgia, since the 1940s. But over the past few years, Jackson McConnell Jr., the bank’s CEO and chairman, has worked to dilute his ownership from roughly 60% to around a third. “It’s still effective control, but it’s not an absolute control,” he says.
McConnell, a third-generation banker, has seen a lot of family-owned banks struggle with generational change in ownership as well as management and board succession issues, and he’s seen some of it firsthand when Pinnacle acquires another bank. It’s a frequent problem in community bank M&A. In Bank Director’s 2023 Bank M&A Survey, 38% of potential sellers think succession is a contributing factor, and 28% think shareholder liquidity is.
“One of the things that I’ve experienced in our effort to grow the bank [via M&A is] the banks that we’re buying … maybe the ownership is at a place where they would like to liquidate and get out, or the board [has] run its course, or the management team is aging out,” he says. “And they end up saying the best course of action would be to team up with Pinnacle Bank.”
There’s not another generation of McConnells coming through the ranks at $2 billion Pinnacle, and he doesn’t want the same result for his bank. “I want to make sure that I’m doing everything that I can to put us in a position to continue to perpetuate the company and let it go on beyond my leadership,” he says. Putting the long-term interests of the bank and its stakeholders first, Pinnacle is reinventing itself. It’s transitioned over the past few years from a Subchapter S, largely family-owned enterprise with fewer than 100 owners to a private bank with an expanded ownership base of around 500 shareholders that’s grown through M&A and community capital raises. As this has transpired, Pinnacle’s also shaking up the composition of the board to better reflect its size and geographic reach, and to serve the interests of its growing shareholder base.
Pinnacle is a “very traditional community bank,” says McConnell. It’s located in Northeast Georgia, with 27 offices in a mix of rural and what he calls “micro metro” markets, primarily college towns. It has expanded through a mix of de novo branch construction and acquisitions; in 2021, it built three new branches and acquired Liberty First Bank in Monroe, Georgia — its third acquisition since 2016.
The bank’s acquisitions, combined with three separate capital raises to customers, personal connections and community members in its growing geographic footprint, have greatly expanded the bank’s ownership.
But McConnell says he’s sensitive to the liquidity challenges that affect the holders of a private stock, who can’t access the public markets to buy and sell their shares. “We’ve done several things to try to provide liquidity to our shareholders, to cultivate buyers that are willing to step up,” McConnell says. “You can’t call your broker and sell [the shares] in 10 minutes, but I can usually get you some cash in 10 days. If you’re willing to accept that approach, then I can generally overcome the liquidity issue.” Sometimes the bank’s holding company or employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) can be a buyer; McConnell has also cultivated shareholders with a standing interest in buying the stock. The bank uses a listing service to facilitate these connections.
“We have a good story to tell,” McConnell says. “We’ve been very profitable and grown and have, I think, built a good reputation.”
The board contributes to that good reputation, he says. During one of the bank’s capital raises, McConnell met with a potential buyer. He had shared the bank’s private placement memorandum with the investor ahead of time and started his pitch. But the buyer stopped him. “He said, ‘Jackson, it’s OK. I’ve seen who’s on your board. I’m in,’” McConnell recalls. “That really struck me, to have people [who] are visible, [who] are known to be honorable and the type of people you want to do business with … it does make an impact.”
The current makeup of Pinnacle’s board is the result of a multi-year journey inspired by the bank’s growth. Several years ago, the board recognized that it needed to represent the bank’s new markets, not just its legacy ones. And as the bank continued to push toward $1 billion in assets — a threshold it passed in 2020 — the board became concerned that the expertise represented in its membership wasn’t appropriate for that size.
“If we wanted to be a billion dollar bank, we needed a billion dollar board,” says McConnell. The board started this process by discussing what expertise it might need, geographic areas that would need representation, and other skills and backgrounds that could help the bank as it grew.
The board also chose to change its standing mandatory retirement policy to retain a valuable member. While the policy still has an age component, exceptions are in place to allow the bank to retain members still active in their business or the community, and who actively contribute to board and committee meetings.
But there was a catch, says McConnell. “We said, ‘OK, we’re going to do this new policy to accommodate this particular board member — but for us to do this here and make this exception, let’s all commit that we’re going to do a renewal process that involves bringing in some new board members, and some of you voluntarily retiring.’” The board was all-in, he says. “I had a couple of board members approach me to say, ‘I don’t want to retire, but I’m willing to, because I think this is the right way to go about it,’” he recalls.
Conversations with directors who still view themselves as contributing members can be a challenge for any bank, but McConnell believes the board’s transparency on this has helped over the years, along with the example set by those retiring legacy board members. Over roughly six years, Pinnacle has brought on nine new board members. That’s a sizable portion of the bank’s outside directors, which currently total 10.
McConnell leveraged his own connections to fill that first cohort of new directors in 2016. The second and third cohorts leveraged the networks of Pinnacle’s board members and bankers. McConnell has had getting-to-know-you conversations with candidates he’s never previously met, explaining the bank’s vision and objectives. But he’s also transparent that it may not be a fit in the end for the individual or the board. “We talked openly about what we were trying to do, and also openly about how I might end up recruiting you, only to say, ‘No,’ later,” he says.
Director refreshment is an ongoing process; Bill McDermott, one of the independent directors that McConnell first recruited in 2016, confirms that the board spends time during meetings nominating prospective candidates for board seats.
Both McConnell and McDermott say the diversity of expertise and backgrounds gained during the refreshment process has been good for the bank. Expansion into new markets led to bringing on an accountant and an attorney, as well as two women: a business owner and the chief financial officer of a construction company, who now make up two of the three women on the board.
New, diverse membership “adds a lot of energy to the room. It’s been very successful,” says McConnell.
To onboard new directors, there’s a transition period in which the new directors and outgoing board members remain on the board for the same period of time — anywhere from six to 12 months — so sometimes the size of the board will fluctuate to accommodate this.
It can take new directors with no background in banking time to get used to the ins and outs of a highly regulated industry. That’s led to some interesting discussions, McConnell says. “There is some uneasiness and awkwardness to some of the questions that get asked, but it’s all in the right spirit.”
External education, in person and online, helps fill those gaps as well. McDermott says the board seeks to attract “lifelong learners” to its membership.
One of the factors that attracted McDermott to Pinnacle was the bank’s culture, which in the boardroom comes through as one built on transparency and mutual respect. “I was just attracted by an environment where everybody checked their egos at the door. The relationships were genuine,” he says. “[T]hat kind of environment, it’s so unique.” And he says that McConnell sets that tone as CEO.
“There is lively discussion,” says McDermott. “Jackson encourages people to ask thoughtful questions, and sometimes those thoughtful questions do lead to debate. But in the end, we’ve been able to synthesize the best part of the discussions around the table and come up with something that we think is in the best interest of the bank.”
Bank Director’s Online Training Series library includes several videos about board refreshment, including “Creating a Strategically Aligned Board” and “Filling Gaps on Your Board.” For more context on term limits, read “The Promise and the Peril of Director Term Limits.” To learn more about onboarding new directors, watch “A New Director’s First Year” and “An Onboarding Blueprint for New Directors.” For more information about the board’s interaction with shareholders, read “When Directors Should Talk to Investors.”
Bank Director’s 2023 Bank M&A Survey, sponsored by Crowe LLP, surveyed 250 independent directors, CEOs, chief financial officers and other senior executives of U.S. banks below $100 billion in assets to examine current growth strategies, particularly mergers and acquisitions. Bank Services members have exclusive access to the complete results of the survey, which was conducted in September 2022.