Tuesday, August 16, 2005

In Memoriam, J. Alton Wingate

I'm back from hiatus just for today, because I wanted to post something about my friend and mentor Alton Wingate, who died at his home in Georgia early today.

You've probably never heard of him, even if you're in the banking business -- but Alton was the man who put the first bank branch in a supermarket, and licensed the concept in 1984. Over the past 20 years, Alton's company, Financial Supermarkets Inc., has helped banks put branches in supermarkets from California to Lorraine. Almost before anyone else, Alton saw the evolution of modern consumer banking into a transaction-based business, and understood the need to abandon traditional restrictions on service hours and service methods. He didn't want to hear why something couldn't be done; he wanted to know how you planned to do it.

I met Alton in 1987, as a shaky new lobbyist for the Conference of State Bank Supervisors. As busy and important as he was, he always seemed to have time to explain his business and his goals to a 22-year-old who lacked even a basic banking vocabulary. Four years later, when I started writing CSBS's weekly newsletter, he was my most vocal supporter. The newsletter hit members' desks on Monday afternoon, and as often as not I'd get a phone call from Alton on Tuesday, praising a story or laughing at one of my lame punning headlines.

The biggest favor he ever did me, professionally or personally, was after another promotion, in 1993. In addition to the newsletter and the media relations, I suddenly had responsibility for bank industry liaison, as well. At 27, I was way, way over my head, trying to staff a group of bank CEOs who had forgotten more than I'd ever know about the dynamics of state and federal banking laws. "You gotta go and meet these people," Alton told me. "You gotta see them where they are, that's how you find out what they need."

That was the genesis of my first big road trip, a month-long drive from Washington, DC through the Southeast, as far west as Austin, as far north as Indianapolis and back again. My brother Ed, who'd just graduated from college, came along for the adventure, and to share the driving. We stayed in no-tell motels and ate at diners, and I visited a dozen state banking departments and at least a dozen banks. I made friends on that trip I'll have for the rest of my life, and I'd never have had the confidence to do it without Alton's encouragement.

I thanked him more than once for all his help through the years, but I doubt he ever fully understood how much his support meant to me -- how he made it possible for me to pretend that I knew what I was doing, until the day came when I finally did know.

He was constantly trying to quit smoking, or pretending that he had quit, and the demon weed got him in the end. But he enjoyed his life, his business, his family and his success as much as anyone I've ever known, and not a moment of his life was wasted.

I feel lucky to have known him. The only lines I can think to end with are Philip Larkin's.

The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this thoughtful tribute to a wonderful man. I think Alton would be delighted to know just how quickly -- and with such intelligence and sensitive style -- his passing was noted on the Internet.

Anonymous said...

Maybe we've met. When I was 27 yrs. in 1997 Mr. Wingate loaned me $120k so I could by a paging business in Birmingham, AL. I only delt with him and Annette. Each month for 13 months I would FedEx him a monthly income statement to show how we were growing the business. At the end of the 13th month we sold the business for $3 million dollars. I was 28 and Mr. WIngate was very proud. Whenever I met an associate or friend of his he would ask me to tell the story about buying and selling our business. I too got to have many one on one meetings and phone calls and trust me, I did realize how fortunate I was during. He was a great man and I'm glad to know that he did for you as he did for me. I was at his service Thursday and all I could think of was how many people like you and I he helped - it's immeasurable I'm sure.

AnswerGirl said...

Thank you. That's a wonderful story, and you're right -- I bet lots of us could tell stories very similar. It's remarkable how much difference a single joyful person can make.

I wish I could have been at the service last week.

Anonymous said...

Thought you might like to know that Alton's book, Opportunity Is Everywhere: The Story of America's Supermarket Banker, is now available on Amazon.com.