By Cortney Roark, published in the Knoxville News Sentinel on February 5, 2018
As founder and CEO of the Trust Company, which manages $3 billion in assets, it’s expected that Sharon Pryse has a roomy office.
What’s not as expected is the seat she chooses when guests enter the room. When clients – or a reporter and photographer – walk through the door, Pryse takes her spot in the only chair without a view to the outside.
“If I sit where I can see people walking by outside, my eyes wander,” she said. “I want my focus to be on the person I’m talking to. Set yourself up for success, and that includes the seat you choose to sit in.”
The First Born
Growing up in Atlanta, Ga. with two younger brothers, Pryse was the first to hit various family milestones.
“I was the first one to mow the yard, the first one to kill a deer,” Pryse said. “There wasn’t anything about being male or female.”
By the time Pryse graduated college, her mother – who attended the all-female Agnes Scott College – advised her against taking the same path. At the time, Pryse wanted to teach children with intellectual disabilities.
The University of Tennessee had a good special education department and was “close enough but not too close” to home, Pryse said.
It didn’t take long for her to feel restricted by the education curriculum.
“I started my education class, and they wouldn’t let me take the math class that I wanted to take,” she said. “I had to take education math, and then when I had to take art education stuff learning how to cut out circles and squares I thought, ‘This is ridiculous.’ ”
She changed majors and graduated with a degree in finance. Post-graduate life wasn’t immediately a dream, though.
Finding a job straight out of college proved difficult – nearly impossible, even – for Pryse. She wasn’t from Knoxville. Her husband was still in school and wasn’t from Knoxville. The odds of her sticking around were slim.
So Pryse took a job selling life insurance. She could talk people into buying the product, but wasn’t happy with the quality of the product.
“When I saw that my general agent forged someone’s signature on an application I went, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore.’ ”
It was then that Pryse heard about a clerk position available in the trust department of Valley Fidelity Bank. She processed dividends, made copies in the basement for the officers and collated by hand.
“If I was going to be a clerk, I was going to be a good clerk,” she said. “I never really put myself down because I was ‘just a clerk.’ ”
Pryse can still recite the words of wisdom she kept under the glass on her desk during her time making copies.
If one advances confidently in the direction of their dreams and lives the life they’ve imagined, you’ll meet with a success in unexpectedly common hours.
So she dressed like she was a management trainee. She considered her position the starting point to her career path.
And that’s exactly what it was.
The Community Leader
Pryse also serves on the University of Tennessee Board of Directors, Investment Committee and the Board of Trustees, as well as the Nature Conservancy of Tennessee Board of Trustees, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Board of Directors, the YMCA of East Tennessee Board of Directors and the Friends of the Smokies Board of Directors.
Community involvement has always been something Pryse values. It started at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral where she helped with various church activities and events.
Rev. Dan Matthews was the rector when he invited Pryse to a meeting with himself, Jim Haslam, Bud Seymour and Tommy Tucker to talk about stewardship.
“They went around the room and talked about how much they gave in dollars, and they all gave more than I made,” she said. “I was maybe making $6,000 a year. That’s when I made a personal commitment to strive to tithe. … Dan Matthews, for whatever reason, picked me out and put me in that room. That has been very influential in my career.”
The reason Matthews selected Pryse for the meeting is simple.
“Not many people are so intellectually open and curious as Sharon is, and I saw that when she was pretty darn young,” Matthews, also the chairman of the board at Friends of the Smokies, said. “Sharon is a very open person with an interesting mind that is not just open but curious and free to explore relevant and new ideas.”
The Senior Vice President
When two Valley employees quit within six months of each other, Pryse jumped on her boss’s proposal to lead the retirement plan area.
“I had a real affirming boss in a great work environment,” she said. “Our retirement plan area grew dramatically. We were at the right place at the right time, so I was promoted to the youngest senior vice president at Valley.
“Not to mention I was female.”
But being female in a male dominated industry wasn’t an issue, Pryse said. She was usually the only woman in the room but never considered that a negative.
It wasn’t until she heard her brother’s salary that she felt the weight of being a woman among men.
“He made a lot more than I did straight out of law school,” she said. “I really wanted to be pissed off. I got angry with my parents for not pushing me harder. … I was angry at my brother, because he was making more money. Of course, Richard went to McCallie and UVA and Emory Law School. … There weren’t huge expectations of me. There were huge expectations of my brother. There was a difference, I think because he was the first boy.”
Looking back now, the anger brought out in that moment turned into a lesson that Pryse said played a role in her decisions the rest of her life.
“Then I put a mirror up to myself and went, ‘I didn’t really like school that much,’ ” she said. “I didn’t want to go to law school. If I’d wanted to go to law school my dad would’ve paid for it, I’m sure. … I realized I was happy with what I was doing, and financially, I was being paid by the bank in accordance to what banks pay. Bankers don’t make what lawyers make.
“This is my decision. Accept responsibility for your own decision and move on.”
When Valley was acquired by a bank out of Washington, her management position was going to relocate. By this time, she had divorced her first husband and married her late husband Dr. William O. Miller. She loved her job, and she loved Knoxville.
“My wonderful late husband said, ‘If you don’t like things the way they are, change it,” she said. “If you can’t change it, don’t fuss about it.”
At the end of July 1986 Pryse and Miller took a trip to the mountains to talk about her next move. She worked her last day at Valley less than three weeks later.
“I wanted to keep doing what I was doing,” she said. “I wanted to have control over my destiny.”
The Trust Company was chartered in January of the next year.
The company grew through word of mouth. Pryse believes business came because they were good problem solvers. Daniel Carter, president of the Trust Company, said Pryse’s “unmatched work ethic” stems from her desire to take care of customers.
“Her first answer is always yes, and then we’ll figure out how later,” he said. “That’s been a mantra that we’ve always had.”
Pryse credits the company success to the staff’s teamwork through the daily processes and the tough times.
“When my late husband got sick, he got sick in June, he died with malignant melanoma … in October,” she said. “We were in the process of hiring someone at the time. I went to work everyday. My head wasn’t really at work. Daniel took over the interview process.”
Using teamwork to find the “yes” answer worked, as the Trust Company now has a location in Chattanooga and the Tri-Cities working with retirement plan assets, wealth management and personal trust. Carter handles the company processes, giving Pryse more time for clients.
“I like taking care of my clients, so that’s another nice thing about when you own the business you can decide what you want,” she said. “You can give yourself permission to do what you like to do.”
When she’s not working or wearing one of her many board member hats, Pryse and her husband Joe Pryse won’t be caught bored.
They have 120 hybrid roses to tend to and like to cook. Sharon recently taught her granddaughter, Lydia, how to stir eggs at their weekly Sunday brunch, Joe Pryse said.
Pryse and her family travel to Grand Cayman for Christmas each year. She’s been a certified scuba diver for 25 years.
Joe Pryse loved the energy surrounding his wife from the time they met through work with the United Way.
“She’s kind of magnetic. She’s strong,” he said. She’s extremely confident in herself.”
Will she ever slow down?
“When they put her in that pine box,” he said. “She’ll die doing the things she wants to do. This is what drives her.”