Out of his teens, out of college and out of work, Russ Ford found employment polishing other people’s shoes. He offered great service — buffing, shining and cleaning tuxedo rental footwear. It was 1992 — the bottom of the 1990-1992, “It’s the economy, stupid” recession — and Ford excelled in a reluctant career choice.
But he’s even better at his present one — executive vice president and market president of New Orleans-based Iberiabank’s Mobile to Montgomery market.
Today, in his mid-40s, the Birmingham-born executive is responsible for millions of dollars, thousands of accounts and scores of employees in banks throughout Alabama. But his career path started with a goal learned from the rental shoe business: Get out of the rental shoes business.
“I realized that was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, ” Ford recalls, from his current offices in downtown Mobile. “I’ve always believed in working hard in your job, whatever your job is. A strong work ethic and good service will eventually be recognized and rewarded.”
But it didn’t seem like it at the time.
In 1992, Ford graduated from the University of Alabama. He left Tuscaloosa with a degree in political science, history, three and half years of pre-med, a 3.0 GPA and a lousy economy. The only job he could find was formalwear dry-cleaning and polishing rental shoes. But his job performance shined like patent-leather high tops.
“Customers liked my work, ” he says. “I was given dry cleaning responsibilities of my store, Tants & Tants, in Birmingham. Then they made me assistant manager of one store, and later, two stores.”
He also met powerful people.
With a network of satisfied shoe customers and his political science degree, Ford was able to land a job with Bettye Fine Collins’ Jefferson County Commissioner campaign. He was now meeting political movers and shakers, like Congressman Spencer Bachus, who hired him as his congressional aid.
More doors were opened for the formalwear/political operative. While working for Bachus, the congressional aid met the head of government affairs for AmSouth Bank. “He offered me an interview for an AmSouth training program, ” says Ford. “I passed the interview and hired on at AmSouth with zero banking experience” — but not for long.
“At that time, my experience with banking was college courses, Accounting 101 and 102, ” he says. “But I studied, all night, all day, all the time, learning everything about all aspects of this business.”
Ford became an AmSouth Bank credit analyst, stationed in Pensacola. Beginning in the formalwear business, moving into politics, he now climbed the corporate ladder of banking and grew a compound interest for Laura Tyrrell. The two married in August 1997. In September 1998, AmSouth offered him a huge opportunity — Mobile, Alabama.
“AmSouth moved me to Mobile, with the task of generating new business. I came here with a portfolio of zero.” He pounded the pavement, made calls, and delivered the goods. In 2004, he was promoted to AmSouth’s Commercial Bank Leader and Senior Vice President position.
Eventually, AmSouth merged with Regions Bank and so did Ford. In 2009, a friend introduced him to Iberiabank officials. He was offered yet another opportunity — establish Iberiabank in the Mobile area. But the dream job had a nightmare setting. Hard times flashback for the graduate of ’92.
“This was 2009, ” says Ford. “We were in the biggest financial crisis since the Depression. Not the best time to open a bank.”
So he managed the start of Iberiabank’s Mobile operations from his house, on a laptop computer and air-card wireless. He was Iberiabank’s army of one.
Today Ford’s watch includes a downtown Mobile office, two banks in Mobile, two in Montgomery, one in Fairhope and approximately 39 employees. To a large degree, he trained on the job before ever having the job.
His drive and determination compensated for lack of experience. A strong work ethic of “do your best” is the creed he both preaches and practices. “We often hire people without a banking background, ” he says. “Of course, experience is considered, but I also want someone with a willingness to learn, dedication and hustle. You give me that, and I will train you for the rest.”
“Just like when I graduated from Alabama, today’s economy isn’t great either. I see a lot of college grads disappointed, because they aren’t immediately appointed into management positions.” He feels their pain but advises, “Get over it.”
“I never thought I’d graduate college with a 3.0 grade point average and work in dry cleaners, ” he says. “But I did. So forget the dream job for now. Get in the workforce however way you can. Make relationships while doing the best at whatever you do.”
And you can take that to the bank.
Emmett Burnett is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Satsuma.
text by Emmett Burnett • photo by Todd Douglas