Published on: 06 May 2020
JON SPARKS | MEMPHIS MAGAZINE
Kent Wunderlich stares at the sleek, silent television on the wall in his office. Someone had asked what he watched on it. “You know,” he says, “I’m not sure I’ve ever had that TV on. I don’t know how to work it.”
He would later admit that he might have seen the Masters Tournament on it, but the point was made: Wunderlich puts his heart and soul into being CEO and chairman of the board of Financial Federal Bank, and when he’s not doing that, he’s devoted to the community (nonprofit housing projects, education, civics). After that he loves being outdoors, particularly if it involves fishing or duck hunting. TV programming doesn’t really make the cut.
He’s got something of a gift for running a bank, and he likes how his bank is different from most others. For one thing, there are no branches. “We don’t like leasing buildings,” he says. “We have no branches and we don’t handle cash and won’t accept cash.”
What Financial Federal will do is offer a high degree of customer service and point with some pride to its high standards. For example, it never took TARP money from the federal government during the subprime mortgage crisis. That pool of money was used by the Treasury Department to buy “troubled assets” from banks around the county to stabilize the economy. “No, thanks,” said Financial Federal.
Wunderlich is typically measured when discussing his company. Looking back, he says that the bank could have grown a little bit if it had gone to some other cities. “We could have done it then, but we did not. But you know, we still had grown significantly and are really kind of satisfied with what we’ve done.” The numbers tell the tale. Federal Financial is now around $650 million in assets, and when Wunderlich started with it in 1987, it was at $30 million.
Duncan F. Williams is the President of Duncan-Williams, Inc., a member of the Society of Entrepreneurs, and an admirer of Wunderlich.
“He has a great business sense, that can’t be argued,” Williams says. “Not taking the rescue TARP money was a big deal. That tells you how solid Financial Federal is. He manages risk better than most. All that needs to be said about his management style is he’s smart, he’s efficient, he takes risks — but he takes good risks.”
Williams says another significant thing about Wunderlich is how dedicated he is to the city. “What he’s done out at Shelby Farms and those types of things are hugely important. But he’s humble. He doesn’t look for admiration or praise about what he’s done business-wise and city-wise.”
Wunderlich has been active on the board of Shelby Farms as it has gone through its transformation into a top urban park. He’s also committed to other avenues for improving the city and makes sure the bank is involved. “I like getting involved in housing projects, most of them with nonprofits. I’ve been on some boards where we built houses for low and moderate income folks and we need that in Memphis.”
He’s also active with the Greater Memphis Chamber, has been involved with Memphis University School, and is well-versed in municipal issues. So much so that he says one thing that really upsets him is when he asks a Memphian who their city council representative is and they don’t know.
Wunderlich is a lifelong Memphian whose father, Alvin William Wunderlich Jr., was a community stalwart and an entrepreneur involved with the Memphis Funeral Home and several insurance companies. Kent went to law school and worked at the insurance companies, but they were sold soon after graduation. Lewis Donelson convinced him to come to the Baker Donelson law firm and young Wunderlich worked there for a while.
But the law was not his calling. In the mid-1980s, he became an owner of the bank, not necessarily intending to become a banker, but his expertise in real estate made the transition fairly easy. (He still tells people that today he’s a reformed lawyer.)
Considering what it takes to be an entrepreneur, Wunderlich says, “I just think being fair and hiring good people is the same thing. If you’ve got good people, you’re going to be successful. And that’s what we’ve done here.” To that end, he encourages the bank’s corporate culture that is far from buttoned-up. “We’re pretty informal,” he says. “You have different personalities in any business and we care for our people. I can’t tell you how many people that have taken leaves of absences or been sick and we pay them right through. We try to help people along if they need help. Everybody pitches in.”
“He’s the kind of leader we all wish we could be,” Williams says. “For him, it’s truly about the love of the city, the support of his family, of his friends, of his stockholders, of his clients. But Kent will always make it about everybody else, never about him. And I think as a leader, you’ve got to admire somebody like that.”