This article by Roger Shirley first appeared in The Tennessee Banker November/December 2018 issue.
Sharon Miller Pryse didn’t start out to be the owner and chief executive of a highly successful trust company. Personal drive, ambition, an entrepreneurial spirit, and at the right place at the right time early in her career, however, came together to set that course.
Pryse planned early on to become a special education teacher, which is how the Atlanta native ended up in Knoxville to attend the University of Tennessee, but the limitations of the curriculum led her to switch majors to finance.
Along the way, she might have become an insurance sales executive, but a bad experience for a disreputable company took that career path off the table.
And as a young executive for Valley Fidelity Bank & Trust, she might have assumed more responsibility for the trust operations of Valley’s holding company, Washington, D.C.-based First American Bankshares. That never materialized, which turned out to be to her good fortune.
Instead, after a trip to the nearby East Tennessee mountains in the summer of 1986 with her husband to think through her career future, she returned to Knoxville with the resolve to start her own trust company.
Today, The Trust Company of Tennessee—a straightforward name that reflects Pryse’s personality—has grown to $3.5 billion in assets under management with satellite offices in Johnson City and Chattanooga and a roster of 75 relationship managers, CPAs, attorneys, wealth and investment managers, certified financial planners and support staff. It provides trust, retirement plan, and wealth management services, with all of its income generated by fees for services, and it just hit a significant milestone by landing its first $100 million account.
The company’s client base is broad, ranging from high net worth individuals and families to couples needing basic financial management counseling and from small businesses and large corporations to a handful of banks for which the company serves as their de facto trust departments, providing the fiduciary but not trust powers. In almost all cases it works directly with the bank’s customers rather than providing back-office support.
“Most of our business comes from our ability to talk to people in plain English about what they want and then work together to find a path that makes sense,” Pryse said.
Pryse grew up in the Buckhead area of Atlanta as the oldest of three children, but she’s quick to point out that the family lived in a “normal house,” which has since been torn down and replaced by a mansion in the now ritzy enclave of the city.
Her father was a lawyer; her mother, a stay-at-home mom until the couple divorced when Pryse was in high school, went back to college and became a second-grade teacher.
“Dad had bought us some shares of Genuine Parts stock and Delta Airlines stock – less than $1,000 – and when the reports would come out we would actually read them,” Pryse said. “Investments have always interested me, and budgeting was something that was pretty easy for me. My dad would give our mother money for our clothes, and she would put cash in envelopes for each of us every six months. We could take it and spend it however and when- ever we chose to. We could spend it all on the first day, but when it was all gone it was gone.
“I learned that if there was going to be a prom dress in your future or whatever else you might want, you didn’t take all the cash in the envelope and spend it the first week.” Pryse says the system was not exactly intended as a lesson in finances, but it did end up teaching her about money.
“I think it was more to teach us to be responsible people.”
While Pryse had an interest in finance and investments as a teen, she decided that her passion was to become a special education teacher, inspired by babysitting for a couple who had a mentally disabled daughter. So she chose to enroll at the University of Tennessee because students could get in the special education track as undergraduates, unlike at the University of Georgia, where you had to be in graduate school to get in special education classes.
“UT was close enough that I could come home on week- ends, but not so close that I would be expected to come home every weekend,” Pryse said. But she soon found the curriculum was not for her. “They wouldn’t let me take the math courses that I wanted to take, and my sophomore year I had to take an art class where I’m learning how to cut circles and squares out of pieces of paper. And I’m like, ‘I’m spending my parents’ money to do this?’
“So I changed my major to finance.”
Pryse’s first job out of college in 1972 was working for a life insurance company selling policies on straight commission. “It was not a wonderful company, and it was not a wonderful product. And then I saw my general agent forge someone’s name on an application, and I just thought, ‘Life is too short for this,’ even though I was making what for me at the time was a lot of money.” So she quit.
While looking through job postings at the state employment office, she found an opening for a clerical position at Valley Fidelity in the trust department processing dividends and statements.
“I was in the right place at the right time, and I worked hard,” she said. “I had a great boss who started giving me more responsibility, and I decided if I was going to be a clerk, I was going to be the best clerk I could be.”
Soon she was also the file clerk, collating Xerox copies manually. After the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 was enacted, her workload increased and Pryse was doing trust tax returns and allocations on retirement plans – not on the computer or an Excel spread sheet, but with a calculator multiplying out the numbers. When two people quit within six months of each other, she was offered a position heading up the retirement plans department.
“I guess I was really promoted because I knew how to do the allocations and the technical side, but I also knew investments. I wasn’t fearful of talking the investment side. But here it is in 1975 and the market is down 35 percent to 50 percent in the last two years. Probably nobody else would have taken the job, and I’m a young female going out to talk to people about their investments that have just gone way down. I didn’t know enough to be afraid.”
Pryse parlayed her experience of substantially growing the employee benefits area into a promotion to senior vice president, becoming the youngest SVP the bank had ever had, not to mention the first woman, and she was thoroughly enjoying her job.
In 1983, the Morris Plan Bank interest in Valley Fidelity transferred to Washington, D.C.-based First American Bankshares, a large bank holding company that owned several banks, mainly in Virginia and Maryland. First American Bankshares was in turn owned by a group of Middle Eastern investors.
“I was going up (to Washington) four or five times a year for meetings on ways to merge the trust departments of their various banks together, and it seemed from the tone of the meetings that the management jobs were going to be in Washington.
“I had a very fulfilling role at Valley Fidelity, but nobody was sure about what the future of the bank was going to be,” Pryse said. “If the president and chairman of the board had been able to raise the capital, I’m sure they would have started their own bank.”
A Culture of Yes
Against that backdrop, Pryse began contemplating ways to control her own destiny. She and her husband, Dr. William O. Miller (who passed away in 1998) made a visit to the mountains and talked about what her future would look like if she went out on her own.
“I just thought, ‘Hey, I really started an employee benefit area from scratch at Valley Fidelity. I know how to do that.’ “I didn’t spend a lot of time doing a market study and analysis.” Within a couple of weeks, she worked her last day at Valley Fidelity and began working to launch The Trust Company, which was chartered in January 1987.
The process of starting a trust company was much more difficult then than it would be today, Pryse said. She had to hire a lawyer, of course, but she couldn’t really pay a big legal bill. So she typed up the needed pro forma and other application materials required by the state herself. And she didn’t take her lawyer with her when she drove to Nashville to meet with then Commissioner Talmadge Gilley because she couldn’t afford to pay for the six hours of travel time.
At their meeting, Gilley told Pryse that she would be good to go as soon as she raised a million dollars “I gulped and said, ‘Nobody told me I had to raise a million dollars.’ Fortunately, Katie Edge (now an attorney for Butler Snow LLP in Nashville) was in that meeting. And she said, ‘Commissioner, you never told her she needed to raise a million dollars.’ So he agreed to let me accumulate a million dollars. To this day, Katie Edge walks on water.”
There were still hurdles. There were no similar start-up trust companies in Tennessee, and the entrance was an issue. Pryse had to get her insurance through Lloyds of London, which was expensive. “At the time we had to have regular bank insurance. We had to have our tellers’ cash insured, even though we had no tellers. To say that Lloyds of London premiums blew my budget was the understatement of the year.”
Since its start, The Trust Company has grown largely through word-of-mouth referrals from happy clients, and that starts with the team structures that Pryse has developed. While there are a number of specialists—lawyers, accountants, certified financial planners—they do not operate in silos. Rather, client teams come together based on the particular needs of a client, which may change as their situations do.
The company’s relationship managers serve as the team members who not only are the main point-of-contact for clients but also who deeply understand their clients. “They understand when a client may have a bit of an attention-deficit problem and they don’t want the long version, or when the person wants to know how to build the clock and you had better tell them exactly how you build the clock.”
The Trust Company’s approach and corporate culture, Pryse says, attracts people who are relationship-oriented. It’s also kept the turnover rate low—generally in the 2 percent to 5 percent range. “Our rate was a little higher this year because we had two retirements,” she said, “but we have a very stable staff.
“We attract people who are relationship-driven, not transaction-oriented And I’m not saying that being transaction-oriented is a negative thing. My grandson works for a private equity firm, which is very transaction-oriented. We have an annual meeting and I’ve had him come up here to sit in to show him you can run a company as a long-term business. There are other ways to do things other than through transactions, but there’s a hell of a lot of money to be made in the transaction business.”
Pryse says that people who have worked for other banks find it refreshing that there is a succession-ownership plan, and that “all decisions are made pretty promptly—like real promptly.”
That succession plan doesn’t include Pryse not being around anytime soon. “I own a controlling interest in the company, and I’m planning on dying with a controlling interest,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of banks that have offered to buy us, but obviously we’ve never sold.”
The closely held private company includes shares held by some of her senior staff, with her two brothers the only outside investors.
The Trust Company’s culture is modeled after Pryse’s approach to business management. “I’m a shoot-first-and- ask-questions-later person,” she said. “We want to get to the ‘yes’ answer. We’re not trying to stretch the rules or get into shades of gray. We just want to know how we can get things done, not what we can’t do. Our organization is built to solve problems.”
Daniel Carter, The Trust Company’s president, echoed that sentiment.
“Her first answer is always yes, and then we will figure out how later,” Carter told the Knoxville News Sentinel during an interview. “That’s been a mantra that we’ve always had.”
Carter handles the day-to-day processes and works closely with the various team leaders, giving Pryse more time to do what she wants to do.
“Daniel is great for where we are now,” she said. “He runs a terrific leaders’ team and they process things. It would drive me crazy. They do these meetings; they do these off- sites; they do all this data gathering and process and get everyone to buy in. He keeps me informed, but he is really developing the leaders’ team.”
Pryse remains the point person for some of her longtime clients—serving occasionally in a role she describes as the “fairy godmother”—but she is working to get others involved in those relationships.
“I was great for the company 30 years ago, 20 years ago, hopefully 10 years ago,” Pryse said. “I say now that I want to be wanted, but not needed.”
More from Sharon Miller Pryse
Sharon Pryse is a University of Tennessee graduate, but she’s a Volunteer for Life in more ways than cheering on the teams in orange.
Among the boards and committees she is currently or previously served on are the UT board of trustees and investment committee, the UT Foundation, the Nature Conservancy of Tennessee, Friends of the Smokies, Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, YMCA of East Tennessee, Knoxville Zoo, Knoxville Museum of Arts, and advisory councils for the UT Finance Department and College of Business.
The list goes on, including serving as a commissioner on the Knoxville Utilities Board, and being on the Tennessee Bankers Association Trust Division board of directors, for which she is a past president.
She also has been active in the St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Knoxville, where she has helped with many activities and events over the years and currently serves as board treasurer. It was at a meeting of a small group of members called by the rector to discuss stewardship that she met James Haslam II, who is a member of The Trust Company’s board of directors.
And she met her husband, Joe Pryse, doing work for the United Way.
Is volunteering and community involvement something that was instilled in you growing up?
Not so much growing up. It really started when I began working at Valley Fidelity Bank. Working at a bank, you are always being asked to volunteer for something. I think the first thing I did was selling memberships for the Chamber of Commerce.
But my father was the national president of the Izaak Walton League, a conservation group. I remember that he and a group of friends stocked trout in the Chattahoochee River right after the Lake Lanier Dam was built.
The fish and game people told him the water would not be cold enough, but it comes out of the bottom of the dam. So he and a group of guys stocked it themselves. When I was putting his obituary together, I realized he was a conservationist before it was cool.
Some business executives and young professionals feel like they have to volunteer and be on boards as a way to network. What general advice do you give on that topic?
When I speak to groups of students or young professionals, I tell them to never volunteer for something that you are not passionate about. Volunteer because you like the humane society or birds, or whatever. For sure don’t sign up for something and then not follow through with it, because that’s going to follow you the rest of your career.
Is that where you got your passion for the outdoors that led to your involvement in organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Friends of the Smokies?
Well, we camped a lot growing up. My parents’ tent had a floor, but the one my brothers and I slept in did not. If it rained, we got wet. We also had riverbank cleanups at the Chattahoochee. It wasn’t an organized thing, just us going out as a family to do it.
So yes, I grew up environmentally oriented. But I’m not what some people call a “tree hugger.” I understand you have to have jobs. That’s one thing about the Nature Conservatory, they understand that you have to have jobs. You can’t protect everything regardless of the cost.