GBA Member Profile

Sam Drennen
Executive Vice President, Chief Operating Officer
First American Bank & Trust Company, Athens, GA
North Group Rep., 2022-2023 Leadership GBA Board of Directors

Q: What led you to a career in banking?
A: Frankly, I blame my CEO, Rhodes McLanahan. He and I have a long history, and when we ran into each other in Washington, D.C., back in 2004 (he was at a Jack Henry Conference and I was interviewing with international development organizations), he asked if I could bring my career in financial services consulting down to Athens and work with him at First American Bank while I waited on hearing back from my interviews. We immediately jumped into several deep projects including an internal cultural analysis which eventually led to several significant recommendations. When I presented these recommendations to Rhodes, Bobby Heath (the CEO at the time) and the board, they asked if I would stick around and help the bank address those areas. Eighteen years later, here we are, from $150MM in assets in 2004 to over $950MM today - and I learn something new about banking every day.

Q: What is the most useful piece of advice you received in the early/formative years of your career?
A: “Stay humble, work hard and be yourself.” I learned this from the director of HR at Janus Funds in Austin, Texas, and it remains a mantra I lean on regularly. Staying humble was even more recently summed up by my 11-year-old son, James, when asked by an out-of-town guest if he had learned about a specific topic yet in school. James said he had not covered that yet but was both “clueless and curious.” I think acknowledging the limits of what we know and staying curious about what we can learn are primary keys to success in life and business.

Q: Tell us about one experience you’ve had that exemplifies being a banker, such as a service story that really helped a customer or a quirky story.
A: Being a community banker is an honor and a responsibility to one’s community. The effort all community bankers make to improve their communities transcends beyond the loan or deposit account or trust relationship. We participate on non-profit boards, build houses with Habitat for Humanity and have overcome challenging hurdles to ensure PPP funds get to the businesses that need them.
In my office hangs a framed photograph of a bicycle with a handwritten note given to me by Joan Prittie, the incredible executive director at Project Safe in Athens. I worked with Joan as secretary, treasurer, chair and past chair of the Project Safe board of directors for close to a decade. During that time, a young man came to live in the shelter we provided to victims of domestic violence. It was different to have a young man in the shelter and he was a bit lost. One of the turning points for that young man was when Project Safe worked with a local bike shop and was able to secure a bicycle for him. It wasn’t much, but it was his; it was a way out, an opportunity. And he took it. Having the bike allowed him to land a job and he and his mom were eventually able to move out of the shelter and start new lives.
Joan knew I was an avid cyclist and she shared this story to thank me for my service to the organization. And yet, I’m the one who is grateful - for allowing me the honor of supporting Project Safe, for supporting its mission and impacting the lives of those we worked to save and support.

Q: Top Three…

  • First tap/click of the day? Listen to the local NPR station (WUGA) on my early-morning dog walk, read the Wall Street Journal with my first coffee and of course Joe Brannen’s Monday morning musings.
  • Book that you love/has made an impact? Non-fiction: Currently reading “The Innovation Stack” by Jim McKelvey
    However, given the amount of non-fiction reading I do for work, I lean towards fiction and historical fiction to unwind. I have two series which I adore: Loise Penny’s “Chief Inspector Gamache” series and the Patrick O’Brian “Master and Commander” Series. The “Master and Commander” series includes 19 nautical historical novels written about Captain Jack Aubrey during the Napoleonic Wars (early 19th century). I (sheepishly) have read them through at least twice, including the “Sea of Words,” which is the lexicon of the navel terminology used through the series.
  • TV show or series you love? In the recent past it has to be “Ted Lasso” because I am a life long soccer player/coach, follow the English Premier League and lived in England for year between high school and college. His optimism, the familiarity of the culture and the hysterical cross-cultural miscommunications are perfect (“you’ll get the boot, if you stick your boots in the boot”). I also am a sucker for the PBS show “All Creatures Great and Small.”

Q: When you’re not on the job at the bank, what do you like to do?
A: Just about anything outdoors. I coach soccer, ride my bike about 100 miles/week, and recently guided my son onto his first rainbow trout with a flyfish rig (San Juan worm). My family recently had a fabulous family reunion up in my home state of West Virginia at Adventures on the Gorge in Fayetteville. We took a full day raft / kayak trip down the Upper New River into Class 2-3 rapids and I demonstrated to my son how to be “dump trucked” (literally spit out of one’s boat) on a rapid called Surprise. All survived and photographic evidence of the entire family swimming the rapid are hysterical.