Dennis Dills '63, Banker

Dennis Dills '63History Major
Currently working in: Lynchburg, Virginia

The Record, November 2005 -- EARLY INDICATIONS showed that Dennis Dills '63 would not make a good banker. He recalls the discouraging results of an early job interview: "I went to Richmond to interview with a bank and spent the entire day taking tests. They sent me a thank-you letter saying, 'Our tests indicate that you won't be a banker, or won't be a good banker if you are a banker.'" The early indications were wrong.

Dennis Dills spent 24 years at Wachovia in North Carolina; he specialized in what he calls "back-office banking," overseeing his region's personnel, building maintenance, accounting, technology, and trust operations. Dills ascended the ranks and developed new initiatives, including Wachovia's brokerage service, which is now Wachovia Securities.

Later, he took his problem-solving skills to First Bank Systems in Minneapolis, where he became president of technology and operations for the company's subsidiary, First Trust. He rounded out his career in Atlanta, as president and CEO of the SunTrust's subsidiary for trusts, investment operations, and technology. He retired in 2002.

One of his most notable achievements was hiring nearly 20 Hampden-Sydney graduates to Wachovia, many of whom have become leaders in the financial industry. "When I graduated," says Dills, "you were looking for a good management-training program. Somebody once said, 'A liberal arts education will not teach you how to make a living; it'll teach you how to live.' So most everybody in my class was trying to get on a business-training program. Back then a lot of companies had good, strong training programs and Wachovia had one of the best reputations."

He was offered a job and entered the 18-month training program, which put him through every facet of banking. "You didn't specialize in loan administration or operations or whatever. You went through everything. I was a teller for three months. You look back on that and may think it's a waste of time, but what's three months out of a lifetime? And if it makes you understand banking better, it's probably good for you."

The experience turned out to be very good for Dills when the bank, which used to be closed in the afternoon, announced they would begin reopening at 3 o'clock. "Well, that caused all kinds of problems with how the balancing went on between inter-days," he says, "But because of my experience as a teller, I was able to sit down and work it out. That's just a small example that even when you think you are doing something mindless, you are really learning something."

After completing Wachovia's training program, Dills became the Human Resources manager for the region around Raleigh, and Hampden-Sydney was one of the schools he turned to for new employees. By the late 1960s, Dills was hiring two or three Hampden-Sydney graduates each year. "Banking certainly has a high regard for integrity, honesty, hard work, and social skills. I think it made Hampden-Sydney a real ripe, fertile ground for finding good talent," he notes.

One of Dills' hires was Thomas M. Crowder '78, now the CFO of Transcommunity Bankshares. "Five members of my senior class were hired to Wachovia that year," says Crowder. "Dennis Dills was the head of personnel for the central region at the time. He came up early in the fall and did an interview seminar; he told us what to expect, what to do and what not to do. He gave us a great understanding of the process. The Wachovia training program provided a great way to start in the business. The Hampden-Sydney men he recruited have gone on to become a successful group of business owners and senior executives." One of those executives is James C. Cherry '73, Wachovia's CEO of Virginia Banking.

"I think we were taking some of the best out of Hampden-Sydney," adds Dills, "because our environments matched up. The banking environment, as a somewhat reserved culture, lends itself to the Hampden-Sydney environment."

Dills' own Hampden-Sydney experience was certainly uncommon. In the middle of his sophomore year, he married his wife Donna and they had to find a place to live. They bounced around from a trailer park in Worsham to the old Worsham Courthouse itself (it had been converted to a duplex) and then to a log cabin on the property at the old MacFarland place, which had only two fireplaces for heat. The owner agreed to buy a new heater, but it didn't arrive until late November. Dills recalls with a laugh, "We had to put stuff in the refrigerator to keep it warm!" The newlyweds eventually got an apartment in Venable Hall, thanks to Dills' wife. He says, "They turned [what is now Parents and Friends Lounge] into an alumni welcome center and Donna was the first hostess. Miss P.T. [Atkinson] gets credit for being the first hostess, but Donna was really the first hostess and we got our apartment rent free."

Though he played football, pledged Sigma Chi, and served in student government, it is with great pride that Dills recalls his role as the Sandwich Man: "I was probably best known for being the Sandwich man, more than anything else. Back then the College Shop closed down at 10 o'clock. So there wasn't anything open and--you know Hampden-Sydney--there wasn't anything else there. My freshman year, a guy bought prepackaged sandwiches and went around selling them in the dorms and fraternity houses.

So when he left I thought, 'I've got a wife; maybe she can make some sandwiches.' She and Joe Canada's wife started making sandwiches and he and I took them around at night and sold them and made good money. We sold them for 25 cents a piece. Every sandwich [he rattles off the list as if he still did it today] . . . I'd carry those damn things around and I was known as the Sandwich Man. But I knew everyone on campus. They used to call out, 'Love the sandwiches, Mrs. Dills.' They called me Dennis; they called her Mrs. Dills."

Being a married student at Hampden-Sydney not only gave Dills a rare perspective, but also provided the newlywed couple an instant support group. "Having known people like Dr. Gammon, Dean Crawley, Claude Pritchard, and Dr. Ropp," says Dills, "and taking part in the community- because we were married, went to church, and stayed there all summer-we really became members of the community. They were our first years of marriage; we grew up there."

Now retired from banking, Dills and his wife have returned to their hometown of Lynchburg. They spend much of their free time golfing with friends and rekindling old relationships.

Having the advantage of being able to look back at his own successful career and the ones he fostered, Dills offers this advice: "You need to figure out where you can go to utilize your skills, because we are all happy being successful; we aren't happy when we fail. It sounds so trite, but it's so true. A lot of people are in jobs where they should never be and they are miserable and they don't understand why they are miserable. Well, they are doing things that they're no good at or don't like to do."

Dills found what he was good at doing; he admits working in the back office was not the most glamorous part of banking, but it was his and he loved it.