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Bryson celebrates 58 years at Blue Ridge Bank

Aug. 2, 2016

Story by Stephanie Jadrnicek, The Journal
stephanie@upstatetoday.com | (864) 973-6686
Published July 29, 2016 at upstatetoday.com
 

The year was 1957 and a new bank opened in the small, rural town of Walhalla.

A few blocks down the street, a young woman by the name of JoAnn Robins, now known as JoAnn Bryson, worked as the bookkeeper and secretary for a local department store.

But in June 1958, the owner of the store decided to consolidate the bookkeeping departments of his three family owned businesses, leaving Bryson without a job and with few opportunities.

Little did she know, this was a blessing in disguise. One of the new bank’s directors also operated Western Auto Store, a business located next door to the department store where she’d worked.

When he heard what had happened, he advised her to apply for a teller position that had just become available at the bank.  She followed his advice, applied for the job, and began work in July 1958 at Blue Ridge Bank.

“I cannot believe 58 years have gone by so quickly,” Bryson said. “I can remember thinking when my first husband died — I was 43, he was 48 — that I was old then.”

Never did she once think that 58 years later she’d still be working at the bank. Bryson said she and the bank grew up together.

When she first went to work, the bank had four full-time employees with assets of $1.2 million. Today, the bank has 21 full-time employees, five-part time employees, three offices and assets in excess of $110 million.

During an era when not many women were climbing the corporate ladder, Bryson ascended the rungs quickly. She started as a teller/bookkeeper/secretary at the age of 22.

By 1960 she had been promoted to the loan department, and the following year she became assistant vice president of the bank.

In the early 1980s she was appointed to executive vice president and a few years later was named compliance officer, becoming more involved in all areas of executive management.

When president Tim Hall Jr. retired in 2007, Bryson served as interim president and joined the board. The next year she was named president — a title she held until December 2015. But what she’s enjoyed the most over all those years is working with people.

“Just seeing how you could help people — especially when I was in the loan department,” Bryson said. “They’d come in and tell you their whole story. And sometimes they would cry, and I would cry with them.”

Often, she’d have the next customer waiting in the lobby and she’d have to quickly dry her eyes and recompose herself. Although she felt sympathetic to everyone’s story, she didn’t give everyone a loan.

“I’ve had people tell me that they’d come in and ask for a loan and I would turn them down, but I’d do it in a way that they would go away feeling good,” she said. Those were the days when a banker could make a loan based on a gut feeling.

Bryson said it used to be so simple. From 2 p.m. on Friday until noon on Saturday, Bryson once made 27 loans.

But these days the regulations and restrictions slow down the process. She said it would be hard for her to work in the loan department today.

“A lot of the loans were what we called term loans — 90 days, six months, unsecured,” she said. “You could talk to people and you could tell a lot about them just by talking to them. We’d make loans and we didn’t have all this financial information that we have to have today. We just knew it was a good loan. You just get a feeling, I guess. But those days are gone.”

The most challenging years over the last 58 were during the Great Recession. However, Bryson said, because Blue Ridge Bank always operated conservatively, the economic downturn didn’t take much of a toll on the local lending institution.

“We didn’t go out on a limb in making risky loans, and it’s like my boss-man said one time, ‘We’ve never made a bad loan, but we’ve had some go bad after we’ve made them,’” she said. “Being conservative helped us during the hard times. We didn’t suffer like a lot of the bigger banks did.”

When Bryson relinquished her title as president, she became the bank’s executive staff adviser. And since then she’s continued to enjoy working on a part-time basis while still serving on the board of directors.

Now, at the age of 80, she hopes to slip out the back door soon. Her career looks less like a ladder and more like a bell curve as she’s slowly passed the torch to a younger generation, tapering off until it’s time to finally retire.

“Someone told me once I was going to die in the vault up here,” she said with a laugh. “I said I’d rather die in the vault than in a nursing home. So I’ll hang around as long as they let me.”

View full story here.