W. Wright Harrison, the man who sits at the apex of Virginia's largest bank, has come an extraordinarily long way since the days he studied engineering at the University of Virginia.
"I was a lousy student who did everything but study," admits the board chairman and chief executive officer of Virginia National Bank, "and I flunked out in my second year."
Young Harrison wound up in trade school in Newark, N.J., where he obtained a license as an airplane engine mechanic, and then an assembly-line job on the night shift at an airplane engine manufacturing plant in Patterson, N.J. The year was 1935 and his starting pay was $16 a week.
A few years later, at the start of World War II, he moved back to the Charlottesville area, where he had spent the latter part of his childhood, and landed a $100-a-month job as a teller trainee in a tiny branch of Peoples National Bank. Five months later, the branch manager was drafted, and Harrison got the job.
He quickly moved up through the ranks, becoming executive vice president and a member of the board less than nine years later. Seven years after that, with the president's health failing, Harrison was elected president. He was thus in a position to capitalize on a major change in Virginia banking law a few years later that would propel him much faster still.
Although his unspectacular start is noteworthy, Harrison's rapid, no-nonsense rise to the top isn't necessarily unusual among today's crop of high-level, corporate executives. But Harrison, the man, is different.
His spacious, marble-top desk lies in front of a wall-length window on the eighth floor of the Virginia National Bank building, offering a panoramic view of Omni International Hotel in downtown Norfolk, the Elizabeth River and the Portsmouth skyline.
To avoid distractions, Harrison has his desk situated so that his back is to the window. But a pair of binoculars, which he uses to examine some of the yachts that happen to catch his eye passing along the river, lies conspicously on the window ledge. The contrast offers some insight into the kind of man he is.
As head of Virginia National Bankshares, Inc., Virginia's second-largest bank holding company with more than $2.2 billion in assets and parent company of Virginia National Bank, the state's largest, Harrison, 62, is widely regarded as a human dynamo.
"Wright Harrison heads the biggest bank in the state, and he didn't get there by sitting on his hands," says a rival Tidewater banker. "He is a guy who strives for perfection. He likes to be the top in everything he does."
Harrison, however, also has a sense of balance in his life. His associates say he is a warm, friendly human being, thereby making him a member of that rare breed that manages to combine ambition with an appreciation for the simpler things and a genuine concern for others. Work is important to him, but it is not everything.
Harrison says his personality today is essentially the same as it was when he inauspiciously started his banking career in Charlottesville. And he can casually point to examples of foibles in his life, such as flunking out of the state university, or, while deskbound and bored during a stint in his career, occasionally slipping out to a movie when the boss was away.
Harrison modestly credits much of his success to an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time. He also cites the value of his experience as a Dictaphone salesman, a job he held between working on the assembly line and joining the Charlottesville bank, which taught how to assess a situation to see what was needed to consummate a sale.
Whether selling a bank on a merger or handing a tough assignment to an executive, Harrison says the key to success to motivating others to do what you want them to do. Motivation and selling, he says, "are almost synonymous."
The centerpiece of Harrison's career spans a 10-year period starting on April 26, 1963, 10 months after Virginia banking law was changed to permit statewide banking through merger. On that date, he engineered the consolidation of Peoples National Bank with Norfolk's National Bank of Commerce, and became president of newly formed Virginia National Bank.
Partly as a result of pressure by provincial banking interests in the state legislature, Virginia had lagged behind the rest of the Souteast in the development of statewide banking. But a new governor came on the scene with ambitious plans for statewide industrial expansion, creating a need for bigger banks that could provide the kind of money needed for such growth. With his help, the new law passed.
Harrison at the time was 47 and president of the state's seventh largest bank. Admitting to being a man "of considerable ambition," he, like other bankers throughout the state, saw in the law a tremendous challenge to build a banking empire.
He was in a better position than most other bankers to do so, however. He was one of the youngest banking executives in Virginia, and he had a strong corps of young men under him who could capably run things while he was on the road selling mergers.
After the law was changed, Harrison met with the chief executives of major banks in Roanoke, Richmond and Norfolk, hoping to orchestrate a consolidation that would immediately make the new bank biggest in the state.
He couldn't quite get everything ironed out, but he did manage to salvage a consolidation with National Bank of Commerce, at the time Virginia's fifth largest bank, making the new bank third largest with almost $320 million in assets and 32 offices.
With his lieutenants in place at the bank's Norfolk headquarters, Harrison then turned to his salesmanship skills and traveled the state to sell smaller banks on the advantages of merger with Virginia National.
His message: A merger would mean a better market for shareholders' stock and perhaps a better price, superior pay and advancement opportunities for bank employes, and a better opportunity for the community to attract new industry.
By the end of the same year, Harrison merged four more banks, increasing Virginia National's assets by another $100 million. In the next 10 years, he consummated 22 additional merger, and along the way surpassed First & Merchants National Bank in Richmond in 1966 as Virginia's biggest bank.
In 1971, Virginia National reorganized as a bank holding company and went on to acquire three banks, form another, and acquire or form a number of bank-related subsidiaries. Today, the company has 188 offices, 150 of which are bank branches.
Such a furious building pace required Harrison to be on the road three nights a week and to work 12-hour days for the first five years, plus spend many weekends at home wooing bankers to the advantages of merger. He says the results, however, were well the effort.
"I negotiated all those mergers by myself, and I'm proud of it," Harrison says matter-of-factly. "The merger and acquisition of banks has been the name of the game as far as my life is concerned."
Although he never liked the idea, Harrison decided to convert Virginia National into a bank holding company so he could acquire banks in major markets and establish new branches as the area grew. The holding company route allowed the flagship bank's affiliates to continue adding branches in their respective localities, which had not been permitted under the merger route.
Consequently, Virginia National Bank-Lynchburg was acquired in 1972, Virginia National Bank-Richmond in 1973 and Virginai National Bank-Fairfax in 1974.
Now that the Virginia legislature has passed a law saying that a bank that was once a home office can establish new branches within its area as if it were an independent bank, Virginia National plans to merge these banks into the Norfolk bank by the end of the summer. Virginia National will become a one-bank holding company, with one banking headquarters instead of four.
The bank also plans to look for expansion for the first time in the market areas for banks it has merged. Harrison's old Charlottesville bank, for example, still consists of the home office and six branches it had back in 1962, and Virginia National sees the need for at least two more branches there.
Building a banking empire involves more than concentrating on bank business, especially if that empire is based in Norfolk, where the Navy dwarfs everything else.
In his capacity as a leader in banking circles, Harrison also has been called upon to be a community leader. His resume lists 28 current and former civic affiliations, and he says such activities in the past have consumed up to 40 percent of his total workday.
"Compared to cities such as Richmond, where community leadership positions fall in industry, Norfolk has no real industry," says Harrison, whose activities have included the presidency of the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce and the United Fund. "That means that banks in Tidewater have had to assume the leadership role in the community. They really don't have much choice."
Despite his workload, Harrison has never been given to taking short cuts. Typically, he always prepares his own speeches, even though it usually takes him six to seven hours to write them out in longhand. He says he wouldn't feel comfortable expressing his thoughts in other than his own terms.
"When people ask you to give a speech, they want to hear your thoughts, not those of a paid speechwriter," he says.