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Blackwood: Remembering Halls gentleman banker, deal maker
0418ray mcrae
Ray McRae

Ray McRae was a courtly Southern gentleman. He gave his nod to business deals that ranged from a mom and pop grocery store to a company that made engines for missiles used to run Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait in the first Gulf War.

McRae, one of Hall County’s most powerful business figures of the past century, died late Thursday night following a brief illness. He was 85.

McRae, who came to Gainesville in 1953 from Athens, is remembered as the consummate deal maker. McRae was the key player in recruiting a number of industries, including Wrigley and Teledyne Technologies, which manufactured engines for the Tomahawk cruise missile.

He is also credited with bring Elan Pharmaceuticals and the Chateau Elan resort to the region due to his personal relationship that developed with owner Don Panoz.

When I came to Gainesville more than 20 years ago, First National Bank was the dominant player in the market with well over 50 percent of the deposits in Hall County. McRae’s stamp of approval on a project was a sign that it was likely to succeed. His deals were sometimes consummated on the golf course. A scratch golfer, McRae closed some of the largest transactions with a handshake on the fairways.

He helped a number of young doctors fresh out of medical school and with little money to fund the startup of their new practices and buy homes.

A stickler for customer service, McRae insisted that every employee wear a company name tag, something he did daily, and to know the names of their customers. There were no "dress down" days in McRae’s era. Men were expected to wear ties, and golf shirts were worn only on a golf course. The ladies’ attire included proper hosiery.

The duo of Ray McRae and his longtime associate, Richard Shockley, was a major force in Northeast Georgia for 41 years. McRae became president of First National in 1954. A month later, he hired Shockley, a man he described as being like a brother, as his assistant.

Shockley died in 2005.

"We came in at a growing time in this community," McRae told me in a 2005 interview.

He said he and Shockley vehemently fought a state law in 1981 that opened the doors for large bank holding companies.

"After we dusted ourselves off, we got busy and formed a holding company," McRae said.

First National Bancorp quickly grew, becoming a $4 billion, publicly traded company by the time it merged with Alabama’s Regions Bank in 1995.

McRae’s model allowed First National to acquire banks throughout Northeast Georgia while allowing them to keep their local name, leadership and identity.

For years, McRae, a soft-spoken gentleman, would send a framed $1 bill to new business customers with a letter declaring it "your first clear dollar of profit."

But it was his big deals, multimillion-dollar agreements, that brought him recognition by both the local and state chambers of commerce. The Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce honored him in 2007 with a community award."Nobody was better at making a deal and that was known statewide," said Kit Dunlap, president and CEO of the chamber.

He was twice named "Georgia Volunteer Industrial Developer of the Year" and was named by "Georgia Trend" magazine as one of the 100 most influential Georgians in 1991 and 1994.

Perhaps McRae’s greatest legacy is the hundreds of bankers he groomed over the years. There are McRae-trained bankers who are now top executives of banks throughout the region.

Rich White, who joined First National straight out of college in 1972, would rise to become president of the bank. He learned much from the man who would be his banking mentor.

"Ray was more than a great banker, he was a great leader," White said. "He took time to listen, understand and care."

McRae was as comfortable meeting with a Hall County farmer as he was with a big city executive.

"They were comfortable with him," said White, who began in the collections department and worked his way to the top.

Dan Carey, who is now a senior vice president and Gainesville city executive for Regions Bank, recalls his 1985 job interview with McRae.

"I was impressed not only by his knowledge of banking, but by his love for his community and his employees," Carey said Friday.

James Mathis Sr., who was president of Home Federal Savings and Loan Association, said McRae was "a tough competitor." But the two bankers remained friends.

"He was one fine man and a mighty fine banker," Mathis said.

In 2008, I had lead responsibility for compiling a list of what we called "The Titans," a group of business and civic leaders who shaped Hall County. We sought a number of outside opinions on the list and had varying responses with one exception: McRae was mentioned on every ballot.

He was a man of grace. I don’t think I ever mentioned him in a story or column without getting a handwritten thank you note. Most of them began with "You’re much too kind ..."

I will treasure each one.

In the past few years, we had promised each other to catch up in person over a barbecue sandwich. While we talked often, we didn’t get to have that sandwich and I regret that.

The last time I saw him in person was at a Christmas party and he was excited about a post-Christmas cruise he was taking. He told me a story that was so typically McRae.

A few years ago, his late wife, Jean, accidentally struck a mailbox with her car. McRae went to the home and found that the residents were out of town. He took the mailbox and post and went to the store and purchased an identical mailbox and post.

He took along some help, but a man of his means could have easily hired the job done. But he chose to do it himself.

"I’m rather proud of that mailbox, and I look at when I drive by," he told me.

His junior colleagues lovingly referred to him as "the bear."

This community is a much better place because the bear came our way.

Harris Blackwood is community editor of The Times.