During a banking group dinner in early 2017, Mike Clarke was struck by the “genuine passion and deep understanding” his tablemate had of the industry.

“We found ourselves comparing notes on how to be successful in the face of the many challenges confronting our industry. John described his plans to transform the ‘new Union’ into a regional bank. His plan included a more proactive approach to serving the complex needs of middle-market businesses and delivering private banking services to the owners and executives.”

Clarke was captivated: it was as if “this guy had read our strategic plan,” he recalls. “And the scary part is that he runs a bank in an adjacent market with more capital that can make it happen faster.”

A shared vision

Keeping in touch with John Asbury, Clarke discovered they were like-minded about how banks of the future would be successful.

Clarke started Access National Bank 20 years ago, following a career at Patriot National Bank, where he was an executive vice president, and, earlier, at United Virginia Bank/Crestar.  The entrepreneur-to-be discerned a market need and an opportunity.

(Photo credit: Christina Franusich)
(Photo credit: Christina Franusich)

“Ever since the disappearance of Virginia’s regional banks — Crestar, Signet, Central Fidelity — I knew local businesses needed better support than they were getting from ‘1-800 Megabank.’ Business leaders need and benefit from an enduring relationship with an actively engaged financial ally.”

His bank’s rapid growth and financial success, he says, is clear validation.

Being an entrepreneur appealed to his penchant for “setting a plan and bringing it to life.” He relished its demands for creativity and audacity, discipline and diligence.

He especially enjoyed being a banker and developing relationships — “helping people realize their dreams by creating wealth through their businesses and mentoring our employees to help them develop the skills and habits that make a difference for our clients.”

To Clarke, every client is a business case: “How do we combine our knowledge of finance with the bank’s money to help clients achieve success? If we’ve done our job right, they achieve success a touch faster, better, and with less risk because of our involvement.”

Highlights and hard days

Taking stock of the past two decades, he says there have been many highlights reflecting the hard work he and his employees do every day.

The low point was definitely the financial crisis of 2008, when he was beset by deep apprehensions as “custodian of hundreds of millions of dollars of real people’s money: investors, employees, family, friends, and local employers.”

Not only did his bank weather the global calamity, “our performance during the crisis stood out and reflected positively on the strength of our plan, relationships, and talent.”

The merger with Union, he says, is another landmark in its development.

About two years ago, Access had acquired Middleburg Bank, a purchase that had many Middleburg customers dismayed by some of the changes that ensued.  In a news interview, Clarke had noted: “Change is difficult.  … The economy evolves.  The way people do business evolves, and we needed to adapt.”

The future of banking

Asked about the significance of those considerations now that Access itself is being acquired, Clarke says they not only remain relevant but will continue to shape the industry.

“If our industry does not adapt and change, we will lose prominence in the financial lives of our clients. Businesses and consumers engage with the financial system more frequently and in more ways than ever.  Have your retail shopping and banking habits changed in recent years?  If they haven’t, they will.”

Tomorrow’s successful banks will be those that “embrace safety, security, and trust while delivering a client experience that is timely, easy, and exceeds expectations,” he says. “We must earn our relevance every day by caring for our client’s financial well-being in a way that also rewards shareholders.”

An active alumnus and generous donor, Clarke serves on the Pamplin Advisory Council as a cabinet member. (Photo credit: Christina Franusich)
An active alumnus and generous donor, Clarke serves on the Pamplin Advisory Council as a cabinet member. (Photo credit: Christina Franusich)

And, he adds: “we’ve found the right partner with Union to care for the well-being of our clients, employees, and investors.” Clients will get even better service and support, with expanded capability and technology investment, while employees and investors will enjoy the economic rewards of being affiliated with a high-performance company.

The next chapter

The merger is also a milestone for the bank’s founder. Clarke has relinquished his Access CEO position and joined Union’s board of directors. He will help integrate the two institutions.

“I am excited about being invested in and helping to steward the bank during the next chapter of growth and success,” he says. “I like the idea of applying my ‘know-how’ and capital to selectively help other businesses succeed.”

He looks forward to visiting campus more often. Long an active alumnus and a generous donor, Clarke serves on the Pamplin Advisory Council as a member of the cabinet and on the finance department advisory board, which he currently chairs. He is a founding member of the advisory board of the student investing group BASIS and a member of President Sands’ National Capital Region Leadership Council.

Clarke began getting more involved at Virginia Tech 14 years ago while looking for talent for his growing business. He has been helping Morgan and the department revive interest in banking study and careers by speaking to students and guiding course development to make it more relevant to industry needs and boost new graduates’ career opportunities.

“I have a great deal of gratitude to Virginia Tech for the foundational skills of my career. It enabled my economic mobility,” says Clarke, who was a first-generation college student. “I find it energizing to lend my skills and experience to help shape the programs that prepare our students to chart their own path for success. We have to invest in our collective future.”

Read more about Clarke and Asbury on the following pages.

– Sookhan Ho