Banking industry veteran and native Baltimorean Scott Wilfong got involved with the Living Classrooms Foundation to help improve lives in some of East Baltimore's neediest neighborhoods, including Perkins Homes, the Fayette Street corridor and McElderry Park.
Wilfong, chairman, president and CEO of SunTrust Bank Greater Washington/Maryland, began eight years ago working with the foundation's Children's Target Investment Zone initiative, in which the foundation, area public schools and other groups offer East Baltimore residents job training as well as training in work readiness, financial literacy, computer literacy and other life skills.
The bank he helps lead has taken on a role in the city neighborhoods as well. Last year, SunTrust opened a financial literacy center at the Living Classrooms-run Power House Community Center in Perkins Homes public housing complex. All the classes at the SunTrust Financial Education Center are taught by volunteers from the bank on topics such as saving, budgeting and prioritizing to meet needs on a limited income. The Power House serves more than 60 adults and 40 children a day.
In January, Wilfong became chairman of Living Classrooms, which runs dozens of programs offering students hands-on education and job training in urban, natural and maritime settings. The banking executive, who started in the industry in 1972 at Equitable Trust Co., will continue that role with the organization through 2017.
SunTrust was named a best brand winner for small-business banking and middle-market banking by Greenwich Associates, which evaluated hundreds of banks for the award. How important is the strength of a bank's brand in the post-credit crisis days?
Very important. As a bank we have to build our brand one satisfied client at a time. That's how we achieved such a high ranking. When we meet with a business executive or owner, we don't start talking about our products; we start by asking what is important to them. Where do they see their company in five years? What are they trying to accomplish? Do they want to sell in the future? Or pass the company down to a son or daughter? And we listen to their answers — we really listen. Once we get answers to those questions, that's when we can start putting our expertise to work for them.
One differentiator that has allowed us to build the SunTrust brand in Baltimore is that we offer all the capabilities of the bank through one relationship manager — from treasury and payments needs to capital markets and investment banking services. The relationship manager acts as the "quarterback," pulling in other resources and partners within the bank as needs arise. We're the only bank I know of that can do this for clients.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing small-business clients in the Baltimore area? How available is financing for small businesses?
Access to capital is not perceived as a problem by small businesses, and I would agree. In fact, SunTrust recently released results from a survey that questioned small business leaders about their perceptions of the economy and the circumstances impacting their companies in which 68 percent felt they would be able to secure the capital they need to reach their 2014 goals. Interestingly, this survey also revealed that the concerns of small businesses across the country mirrored those we are hearing in Baltimore.
The essence is, "How do I grow my business?" With the issues around health care, regulatory changes and possible new wage laws in Maryland, business owners are looking for ways to generate additional revenue in order to cover the inherent cost. Whether in health care, cybertechnology — whatever industry — their challenge is that they are so involved in the day-to-day operations of their business, that they don't have much time or resources to back out and think strategically.
How did you become involved with Living Classrooms and what are some of your goals for the organization over the next few years?
I am a native of Baltimore and have spent most of my life here. I still live in Baltimore City. I got involved because I care about our city and want it to succeed. But our community only thrives to the degree its most vulnerable and neediest residents succeed. Living Classrooms is aimed at helping low-income families do just that. The fact is, for Maryland's economy to be healthy, we need to have this next generation participate in it — and we need to make a special effort to reach those that are already vulnerable and at-risk in low-income urban centers.
Living Classrooms was started by James Piper Bond, who I can only describe as a visionary. He realized that not every child is going to learn in a traditional classroom setting. So Living Classrooms helps meet children and families where they are and bring services to them.
One of our goals for the next few years is to expand and replicate our work in some of Washington, D.C.'s most at-risk neighborhoods, like Anacostia and Navy Yard, as well as other areas.
What are some steps Living Classrooms has taken at Commodore John Rodgers Elementary and Middle School to increase test scores and boost enrollment since taking over the "turnaround" school in 2010? Are there plans to work with any other city schools?
In 2010, Living Classrooms was selected as a Baltimore City Public Schools "turnaround operator" and began working with Commodore John Rodgers Elementary. CJR was a Title I school that was one of the worst-performing schools in the city. The changes, the steps we took, can be described as dramatic, sweeping and comprehensive. We replaced almost all of the teaching staff, hired a new principal and recruited heavily through Teach for America for educators that shared our vision for transforming the school. The new staff and leaders instilled new expectations, a new culture of discipline and respect, where achievement and learning were the goal.
Not everyone liked or understood what we were doing. When we started in 2010, the enrollment was in the 500 to 600 range. It dropped to approximately 230 the next year, but those were 230 of the type of students we wanted, those that wanted to succeed. Now enrollment is back near 600, and the school has seen a 24-point increase in the percentage of students scoring "proficient" or "advanced" in reading and math on the Maryland School Assessment. CJR Elementary is really an example of what can be accomplished when there is leadership, commitment and parental involvement. There are other schools facing the same challenges that we hope to be working with soon.
When you are not working or involved in community activities, what do you do to relax?
My family is hugely important to me, and I enjoy spending time with them. I spend a lot of time attending my grandchildren's sporting events which is always relaxing and fulfilling. I also enjoy golfing.
Name: Scott Wilfong
Title: chairman, president and CEO of SunTrust's Greater Washington and Maryland Region
Previous job: President and CEO of SunTrust Bank, Atlanta; President and CEO of SunTrust Bank, Maryland.
Education: Bachelor's degree in economics, Mount St. Mary's University; MBA, Loyola University.
Family: Wife; three children and three grandchildren