Learning from the past, leading into the future

When UBank chairman and CEO Allen McClary agreed a few years ago to serve on the TBA board, he wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. As it turns out, the experience changed his outlook on the Association from being a supportive member who took advantage of the benefits to one more fully engaged in helping TBA remain one of the top banking associations in the nation.

“It really got me involved in the process–just attending the board meetings, hearing what was discussed, and understanding how important the board is for the TBA,” McClary said. “And watching Colin and his leadership really inspired me because he and the TBA staff do such a great job.”

For McClary, who was inducted as chairman at the TBA Annual Meeting in Charleston, being named chairman is a job he welcomes, and one he doesn’t take lightly.

“From a personal perspective, being elected by your peers to be the chairman is obviously a humbling experience. And it also carries a great responsibility to do it right. My biggest goal is to just build on the momentum that the TBA staff and leadership created by the way they stepped up during the pandemic, and the integrity they showed in how to get through something like this. It was an amazing job. When you look at all the accomplishments in the last year, I almost feel like if I can just keep from messing that up, I will have done a good job.

“The TBA has a great reputation, and I’m just tickled to have a chance to play a role in keeping that going.”

McClary has high praise for his predecessors—FirstBank CEO Chris Holmes and Commercial Bank and Trust CEO Mott Ford—with the way they led through the challenges of 2020 and into 2021. “Chris and Mott were both thrown into stressful situations because of the pandemic.”

“I learned a lot from Chris in the way he handled his term as chairman, as well as from Mott. Chris provided good, stable leadership, and he has such an even, calm demeanor about him. It just gives everyone confidence when you listen to him.”

Like most of his colleagues suffering from Zoom fatigue, McClary is excited about being able to get together again in person at the various TBA forums and conferences, but he does expect there to be a slow return to normal across the board.

“The struggle that TBA faces is that you are going to have some people who have gotten used to these online meetings. For many people like me who live a few hours away from Nashville, online meetings are convenient. But many of them are just not the same experience. Some of them just about have to be in person to get the full benefit.”

McClary says that the TBA has done a great job expanding its educational offerings through online webinars, and they will continue to be valuable resources for banks across the state. But for other offerings such as the CEO and CFO forums, he says, actually being together is irreplaceable.

“At the CEO forums, some of the best things you learn are during lunch and from the side conversations you get to have,” he said.

McClary knows that while the worst of the pandemic is in the rearview mirror and its impacts are receding, it is still going to be a challenging year for Tennessee banks.

“There’s still a lot of uncertainty about what to expect with the economy, about what is going to happen with the real estate market that’s gone crazy,” McClary said. “I think the TBA will continue to play a really important role for all of us in the banking industry as we work to get a little more stable footing on what is going on.”


McClary looks to expand UBank’s footprint

Allen McClary is ready to step out of his comfort zone in the upcoming year, but it goes well beyond his responsibilities as the new TBA chairman.

Rather, it comes from his task of helping guide new growth at UBank, which is among Tennessee’s smallest banks and has served Jellico, Tenn., for more than 100 years. More specifically, it will come as the bank looks to expand its presence into new markets outside of its home base in Jellico, located on the Kentucky border in East Tennessee.

It’s first target will be in the Knoxville area, where McClary says UBank hopes to have a presence by sometime this fall.

Helping facilitate that will be Joe Hamdi, a veteran Knoxville-area banker who joined UBank’s management team in September as president and a member of the board. At that time, McClary relinquished his president title and added board chairman to go along with his CEO role. McClary’s father, Pat A. McClary, who previously was chairman, remains on the board at age 91.

Like many other rural areas, the small town of some 2,000 residents has suffered from dramatic population losses and economic stagnation for years, mainly since the steep decline of the once-booming coal industry that dominated the region in the 1950s and 60s.

UBank, which was known as Union Bank for much of its existence, has an enviable 83% of the Jellico-area market share in deposits. But, as McClary said, “it is hard to build on that when it’s not a growing community.”

It’s a situation that had been on McClary’s mind for years. How to preserve the future of the bank, McClary said in an interview with Tennessee Banker in 2019, “is something I think about every day when I wake up.”

“So we are always thinking: Do we need to branch? Do we need to look for a partner? We are always looking at the question, ‘How long can you ride this?’ You have to have growth to keep up with inflation, and in a small community that becomes harder,” he said at the time.

Expanding into a higher-growth area is the path that was chosen, and McClary said the Knoxville area seemed the logical place to start because of its relative proximity.

While UBank has a new president, McClary was quick to point out that it was not part of any kind of fast-track succession plan. “I’m 60, not 70, so I’m not looking to be retiring in the near-term future at all. I have a few more years left,” he said with a chuckle.

McClary’s focus will remain on the Jellico area and to support the growth UBank is hoping to experience from expanding into a new market. “My role will be more of taking a 30,000-foot view, more strategic planning—generally watching over things and making sure everything works right.

“We’ve been in Jellico for 103 years, and it will always be our home base. But we have to step outside of our comfort zone to secure it into the future. It’s what you do.”

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