James Anthony, the new chief operating officer at Severn Savings Bank, went from engineering to finance to banking. (David Hartcorn)

James Anthony

Position: Chief operating officer, Severn Savings Bank, a community bank based in Annapolis.

James Anthony worked as an engineer out of college. After going back to school for a dual master’s degree, he realized he loved business more than engineering. He quit his job to pursue an MBA from the University of Chicago, and then he went into consulting. Anthony was approached by Chesapeake Bancorp, which was looking for someone to succeed its president and chief executive, and he made the leap to community banking in 2004. He took over as Severn Savings Bank’s chief operating officer earlier this month.

What was the biggest challenge in going from financial services to community banking?

It was human. It was interpersonal. The quantitative part of it, the logic part of it, those were pretty straight forward. You learn the methodology. You learn what the terms are. You learn what the things to do and not to do are. But the interpersonal aspect of it, of most things, I find to be challenging, and that’s kind of my attraction to business as opposed to engineering.

Would you rather deal with numbers than people?

No. People would always say, “You don’t seem like a typical engineer.” I always took that as a compliment, quite honestly.

What challenges does working at a community bank present?

You’re in a very small community where everyone knows each other. There’s no anonymity, and you’re dealing with very sensitive information, and there are a lot of mines in that field that you can trip over. That was probably the more challenging aspect of it, not because I don’t have an inclination toward that, but more that it’s just a very charged environment. Then overlay the demise of the economic system, the financial system, and then you’re really dealing with very emotionally charged situations in a place where everyone knows everything about everyone.

How did those experiences impact you? How will they help you?

I think the biggest way is when you’re exposed to something that’s a little bit unnerving in life, the next time you’re a little bit more difficult to shake. In other words, you have a more steady hand if you’ve been through a storm already. That’s the main way that it’s changed who I am, how I see the world and how I will be in the future. It’s temperance that you learn from a difficult environment, difficult situation.

Beyond that is you learn so much more when things are difficult than when things are easy, and learn so much more when you make mistakes rather than success, or at least I have. Having the financial storm of the last six years, there have been conversations that no one alive has had in the banking industry. Like being in a community bank and wondering whether or not the U.S. government is going to be solvent at the end of the day and you hold these assets that are federal government bonds and you start to wonder whether they’re going to hold their value and how far is this thing going to run until it runs its course. Very unnerving.

You would never go through the planning aspects and the risk mitigation for something like that in a normal environment. You just would never even think of it. If you said in 2004 you questioned the solvency of the U.S. government they would think you’re insane. But in 2009, it was a topic of conversation.

What advice have you been given during the course of your career that’s resonated with you?

Always remember you are the steward for the shareholders’ investment. That’s how you measure what the right thing to do is, ... are you creating shareholder value in what you’re doing? Or are you just wasting the shareholders’ money?

Another would be to be certain to apply the appropriate level of abstraction to the decision that you’re making so you don’t get pulled down into the weeds and get lost in the minutia of making a decision. You have to be able to zoom in and zoom out to the appropriate level to make the decision that needs to be made. Be conscious whether it’s appropriate to be down in the weeds or to be at a high level.

— Interview with Kathy Orton