During his years at the University of Georgia, he spent summers and many weekends as a teller to earn Saturday night date money for his now wife, Carol. What Stelling did not envision is that at the age of 54, he would be named chairman and CEO of one of the Southeast’s largest financial institutions.
By the time Atlanta was hosting the Olympics in the mid ’90s, Stelling’s banking career had led him through several management and executive positions in Cobb and Atlanta as banks bought and sold one another. When the bank for which he was working was sold to Bank South, Stelling made a decision.
“I wanted to build a community bank that had sustainability,” he recalled.
In 1996, Stelling gathered respected Cobb business leaders including Johnny Isakson, Earl Smith, Rod Knowles, Tad Leithead and Johnny Gresham and persuaded them to invest and become the bank’s board of directors. With 300 total shareholders, Stelling purchased the majority interest of failing Cobb American Bank, and the new Riverside Bank opened on Johnson Ferry Road in east Cobb.
“It was the scariest thing I ever did,” Stelling said. “I had people telling me I was crazy.”
In the ensuing decade, Riverside built a loyal customer base, and grew from $80 million to $600 million in assets. It opened branches at the Galleria Centre and in downtown Marietta and Buckhead.
From the inception, Columbus-based Synovus was the bank’s partner for credit cards, lines of credit and other services. Stelling said Jimmy Blanchard, former CEO of Synovus, began telling him, “If you ever decide to sell your bank, let me know.”
Fortuitously, in 2006, just before the economy crashed, Stelling made the decision to sell to Synovus.
“I had no idea my timing was so good,” he said. “I think we would have survived, but we probably would have had to put in more capital.”
Synovus merged Riverside with Alpharetta-headquartered Bank of North Georgia and named Stelling president and CEO of the combined banks.
“I thought we had as good a transition as you can ever have in a bank merger,” Stelling said. “Our cultures were the same.”
In June 2008, he was promoted to regional CEO for the Atlanta market, and with his new responsibilities came turbulent times.
At first, he said, he was asked to merge some of the company’s struggling banks in metro Atlanta.
Then, “it hit like a tidal wave,” he said.
“Builders and developers that we thought were invincible started struggling. Loans that I thought would not default, did,” he said. “People made mistakes on both sides.”
In February 2010, Stelling was called to Columbus and promoted to president and chief operating officer. In October of the same year, when the CEO left as a result of sudden health problems, Stelling was named president and CEO and then appointed as chairman of the board of directors.
The financial challenges were crushing.
“We were losing a lot of money,” he said. “We were doing our best to hang on to employees and restore confidence.”
In January 2011, he announced $100 million in cost reductions, including 1,000 job cuts and the closing of 30 branches.
“It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” Stelling said. “I knew I had to do it to make the company strong again. I was losing 1,000 jobs but was I saving 5,000.”
The measures worked, and in the third quarter of 2011, Synovus announced profitability for the first time in three years. The bank has been profitable each quarter since.
Bank of North Georgia has $3.3 billion in assets. Of its 38 branches, four are in Cobb County. It is fifth in metro Atlanta in deposit market share, as reported in July by the FDIC.
One of Riverside’s first investors, Earl Smith, founder of E. Smith Heating & Air, said he has known Stelling since he first started his career.
“Riverside was a good investment,” Smith recalled. “Kessel is a true leader. He knows how to work with people and customers and how to make everyone comfortable with whatever he is doing.”