Richmond has a long history as a financial powerhouse in the Southeast. In recent decades, though, mergers and consolidations saw many regional institutions disappear from town.
Among those that remain? Victor Branch.
In 2020, Branch marks his fifth year as Richmond market president of Bank of America, but his roots in local banking run deep: His career began right out of college in 1984 at Sovran Bank, a predecessor to what is now, as BofA, one of the country's largest banks.
“This is all I know. I live it. I breathe it,” Branch said of the industry. “I have been able to grow and excel at what I do, and I get to do it in my home region. That is uncommon in our industry.”
The Dinwiddie County native has blazed trails along the way. Charlotte, N.C.-based BofA operates in 90 U.S. markets, and Branch is the first African American to lead the local region. His reach – overseeing about 2,000 employees, 25 branch offices and a technology and operations center in Henrico County – extends into the community.
Among other roles, he is immediate past chairman of Virginia’s Gateway Region, which promotes the Tri-Cities and surrounding counties; a board member of the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges, Chamber RVA, Venture Richmond and his alma mater, the College of William & Mary; and a charter member of the Urban Financial Services Coalition.
“I am fortunate to be the conscience of the company at the local level,” he said, noting the need for “courageous conversations” with clients, associates and the business community about topics such as race relations. Branch served on the advisory committee for the Virginia Museum of History & Culture’s recent exhibition "Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality," and BofA is investing $1 billion over four years to support racial equality and economic opportunity in its communities.
“Victor’s leadership to dive in and fearlessly tackle topics and conversations with audiences, both inside and outside the bank, is a strength whose value is needed more so in today’s climate than ever before,” said Brian Rountree, a Bank of America Merrill Lynch senior vice president in Virginia.
“I love that it does not fit the narrative that some in the public may have around what corporations – especially big ones, and a bank at that – should or could be doing to promote the health of communities,” Rountree said.
For the community and for customers, banking needs change agents, Branch said. Leaders have to think ahead and help others embrace progress.
He remembers being a management trainee in the 1980s and hearing a college professor predict that cash would be replaced with a card. “That seemed so far-fetched,” Branch recalled. Now he is working with Virginia Commonwealth University to create a program for engineering students to apply artificial intelligence skills to banking.
“We are growing the jobs of the future in Richmond,” Branch said.
He embraces that connection to the next generation. He said his ongoing mentorship reflects a commitment to paying back what was given to him during his days at Richard Bland College and William & Mary, and in his years of development at BofA.
“I have had sponsors, advisers and mentors of all stripes who took me under their wings,” Branch said.
Colleagues say his commitment is evident in the workplace environment he creates.
"Part of his legacy is he is very personable and accessible,” said Calandra Jarrell, a senior vice president and human resources executive for BofA's Richmond market. “Victor is willing and ready to roll up his sleeves and help in any way he can.”
He traces that approach to his youth, which in turn underscores his passion for helping people reach their financial goals.
“We were poor but didn’t know it. My parents poured love in me,” Branch said. “I am so fortunate and blessed that I get up every day and get to do something that, at the end of the day, can make a difference in someone’s life."
IN HIS WORDS: VICTOR BRANCH
Richmond market president, Bank of America
Hometown: Dinwiddie County
Family: wife Michele, two daughters
Who is your role model?
Mary DePillars is a retired senior vice president at Bank of America who mentored me throughout my career at the bank. She entered the banking business in the early 1970s in the management program as one of its first female African Americans – in an industry that wasn’t very welcoming to people who looked like her.
Mary paved the way for people like me to come along later. She always made it her mission to recruit others to the bank who, like me, could have a successful and rewarding career.
Tell us about an object you own that has great sentimental value.
It's my personalized license plates, which read BAYMAE. They honor my deceased mother and father by using their nicknames. People always ask me what it stands for.
My parents grew up in rural southern Virginia at a time, during the 1930s and '40s, when there were limited opportunities for poor African Americans, other than farming. They didn’t finish high school, and they got married at a very young age. But they always wanted better – and strived for better – for their five children. I’m the youngest of three girls and two boys.
We were very poor, but we didn’t know it as children because my parents provided an abundance of love and care for the five of us. I’m a first-generation college graduate, which made my parents extremely proud.
If you could spend a day with a historical or fictional character, who would it be?
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I would pick his brain to glean as much knowledge as I could soak in in one day. There are so many extraordinary things about MLK’s life that inspire me to be all that I can be.
I have a large portrait of him hanging in my office at work. Whenever I get down or start feeling sorry for myself because of a disappointment or a setback, I look to his portrait for inspiration and motivation. Then I ask myself: “What would MLK do?”
Describe a small moment in your life that has had a lasting impact on you.
In college, I took an abbreviated public speaking seminar in which I learned how to build on the thesis of a speech while capturing, and holding, the listener’s attention. I remember the seminar clearly because it gave me the tools that I’ve used effectively throughout my career.
I remember practicing MLK’s "I Have a Dream" speech in the class, and I became overcome with emotion while delivering it. I realized that I could show authenticity and passion for my topic, which would help me connect with an audience not only on an intellectual level but an emotional one. That has helped me be more compelling as a speaker.
What is something about you that might surprise others?
I love hot yoga – Bikram style! I started practicing five years ago when a gym buddy invited me to join him one day. I really missed it when we went into the pandemic shutdown.
Hot yoga has helped me be physically stronger and more resilient. It also has helped me mentally: I've become more centered and focused, which is truly beneficial for a person who has attention-deficit tendencies.
An additional benefit is I now have a better tolerance for RVA’s hot and humid summers!
If you had to pick a different profession, what would you choose?
I’ve always said if I won the lottery and then pursued a passion, I would become an inner-city schoolteacher. They are saints!
Tell us about a setback or disappointment and what you learned from it.
I didn’t get a job I applied for within the bank, and I thought I deserved it. But shortly after being turned down, I learned that a more fulfilling and rewarding job that better suited my skill set was made available to me.
I learned from this that I needed to be more patient, and I needed to be open to learning new things that would develop and stretch me more. That, in turn, positioned me to be ready for the new opportunity that better matched my skills.
This experience reminded me of the old adage that you may not always get what you want, but you get what you deserve. Patience is a virtue that I’ve come to cherish.
Share a personal reflection on how the pandemic has affected you.
I’m a strong extrovert, and I draw so much of my energy from being around people. I’ve had to adapt to social distancing guidelines and other pandemic restrictions, so I've had to discover new ways to feed my need to be close to my work family. I send “virtual” hugs to my teammates as often as possible!