John Russell Thomas

Years before the birth of John Russell Thomas, his family had already left an indelible mark on the community of Alexander City, Alabama. The Russell’s were among the first settlers in Tallapoosa County. In 1902, John Russell’s great-uncle founded Russell Manufacturing Company, a small textile manufacturing operation that grew to become the international athletic apparel and equipment manufacturer known as Russell Corporation.

When John Russell Thomas was born to Russell and Crawford Thomas on August 1, 1937, it seemed apparent he would continue the family legacy. He started preparing for a future career in the textile industry as soon as he could. Beginning on his 16th birthday, Thomas worked during summers at Russell Corp. After graduating from Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1956, he attended Georgia Tech. Four years later, Thomas graduated with a bachelor’s degree in textile engineering. He then spent 1961 and 1962 in graduate school at The University of Alabama’s School of Business Administration. During his time in Tuscaloosa, he met Tate Jordan, whom he married in 1962.

After serving two years of active duty as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Thomas returned home to take the position of vice president in charge of systems and engineering at Russell Corp., the job he had planned for and anticipated most of his life.

His wife, Tate, gave birth to twin boys, John J. Thomas, and Russell L. Thomas in 1965. In 1966, not long after becoming a father himself, Thomas lost his own father. Russell Thomas had been in chief executive officer for First National Bank of Alexander City, founded in 1900 by the same uncle who created Russell Corp., and the Thomas family held a controlling interest in the financial institution. After his father’s death and issues with management succession, Thomas was forced to choose between selling the bank or running it himself. He chose the latter.

Although Thomas had been a director of the bank for eight years, he knew little about the operation and inner workings of a bank, and he had certainly never planned on a career in banking. His college education readied him for a future in the textile industry, specifically working in the family business at Russell Corp. Thomas now found himself preparing to work in the family business, but in an entirely different industry.

Faced with this midlife career switch, Thomas left little to luck. He signed up for every available Alabama Bankers Association seminar and as many American Bankers Association seminars as he could. He enrolled at the School of Banking of the South at Louisiana State University, and he went to consumer lending school. Thomas learned everything he could from every knowledgeable source available. He realized that other banks possessed a great wealth of knowledge, and as a licensed pilot, he was able to fly around the southeast collecting advice and tips from more experienced bankers.

All the hours Thomas logged trying to learn the ropes paid off; when he first took the helm at First National Bank in 1973, the bank was a small but solid operation squeezed into a building it had outgrown. It had $33 million in assets and two electric calculators. In 2008, the multibank-holding company, now called Aliant Financial Corp., reported more than $972 million in assets.

In his 35 years, Thomas has seen and helped facilitate a great deal of growth for the bank. One of the issues he immediately recognized was the need for space; Aliant has since expanded to three separate regional divisions including more than 20 branches in the Birmingham, Montgomery, and Tallapoosa areas. From the start, Thomas also realized that technology would play an important role in the future of banking. Within his first three months, the bank had purchased its first computer, and today, Aliant offers a full range of online banking services.

Thomas credits the success of the bank to its attention to basics and people. Thomas believes in finding good employees and giving them the proper training, motivation, and equipment. Often, to find the right people, Thomas goes straight to the source, visiting local schools and recruiting talented young students to join the Aliant team. He also believes in treating his employees fairly, something the Birmingham Business Journal recognized when they named Aliant among the best places to work in 2008.

During his time with Aliant, Thomas has worked diligently to help foster and instill the corporation’s core values of serving, positive attitude, outperforming, accountability, and trust, and to help build the bank that is “small enough to listen, large enough to be effective.”

According to Thomas, golfing has also been a major player in his banking career. A member of five country clubs around the Southeast, he sees golf as not only good recreation but also as great networking; on the course, he has met and befriended other banks from around Alabama and across the country.

While Thomas enjoys spending some of his free time hunting and traveling, he also gives a great deal of his time back to the community. Over the years, he has worked actively to promote better banking and business throughout Alabama, serving on boards of directors for multiple corporations and groups across the state.

In 1986, just 13 years after the start of his banking career, Thomas was chosen as president of the Alabama Bankers Association.

In Montgomery, Thomas served on the board for the Alabama Housing Finance Authority, a public corporation that offers affordable financing for housing to low-income Alabama families. He served on the board of directors for Huntingdon College and spent 19 years on the board for Alfa Insurance Corp., which services more than one million policies across 12 states.

In Alexander City, Thomas served on the board of Russell Medical Center and Russell Lands, and he served 40 years on the board of Russell Corp. He was also chairman of the Alexander City Board of Education and president of the Alexander City Chamber of Commerce.

Throughout the years, Thomas has given generously to philanthropic and political causes. He chaired the fundraising campaign for Big Brothers and Big Sisters Sports Ball of Greater Birmingham in 2005. In recognition of his contributions to the United Way, he was honored by the Alexis de Tocqueville Society.

Currently, he is on the board of directors for the Business Council of Alabama, as well as several groups promoting education.

Although he graduated from The University of Alabama in 1962, he has never ceased to be involved with the system campuses. He served on the President’s Council of The University of Alabama at Birmingham, and he was a member of the Board of Trustees of The University of Alabama for 13 years.

Today, Thomas is a member of the board of directors for the UAB Health System. He serves on The University of Alabama President’s Cabinet and the Board of the Visitors for the Culverhouse College of Business, as well as the Athletic Foundation, and he is chairman of the 1831 Foundation.

Thomas married Claudia Paden Thompson in 1995, after the death of his wife, Tate, in 1992. Together they have four children, Russell L. Thomas, John J. Thomas, Laurie McGill, and Reynolds Thompson, and 10 grandchildren.

In the face of today’s economic turmoil, Thomas remains optimistic. He is ever confident in his employees, saying that Aliant’s “great team has the grit to take the rough but necessary measures” to weather the storm. While the next few years may not be the easiest, Thomas notes that Aliant has already survived a depression and two world wars, and he envisions a solid future for Aliant. “Throughout its 109-year history, Aliant has seen good times and bad. By keeping a clear head and steadily moving forward with one foot in front of the other, we expect to meet our difficult challenges.”