A MASSIVE AERIAL PHOTO OF BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA, CIRCA 1950 IS THE first thing you see when you enter the corporate office of New South Federal Savings Bank in Birmingham. Taking up much of the wall as you go through the double glass doors, your eye goes right to it. The huge old steel plant on the outskirts of the city is in plain view, as are blocks of old brick buildings lining quiet downtown streets. It is a sleepy Southern city. * Absent are the skyscrapers and modern hospital complexes with helipads that define downtown Birmingham today. * The photo is clearly more Old South than New. * The irony of this image, given the name of his company, is not lost on New South's president and chief executive officer, Robert M. Couch. He tells a visitor he's often thought about moving the 1950s-era photo to a side wall and hanging a photo of modern Birmingham in its place. He never has, though, clearly fascinated by the snapshot of time standing still. And then he goes on to point out some prominent spots in the photo of older Birmingham before its radical transformation. But he is eager for you to understand this is no longer that same sleepy Southern city.
Today, the corporate headquarters for Saks Fifth Avenue is in the city. And a sprawling community of highly skilled doctors, transplant surgeons and medical technology professionals fuel the local economy. The University of Alabama, Birmingham, is working on a $275-million expansion to its hospital, set to open in June 2004. This community today is clearly New South.
History is remembered in other spots in the corporate headquarters of New South Federal. Two framed newspapers hang in important spots in the boardroom. They watch over the proceedings along with a painting of W.T. Ratliff Sr., the first of three generations that have owned and run what has become a family of diverse companies that include the thrift. An old giant wooden table anchors the board-room discussions for this conglomerate of companies that traces back to the original Collateral Investment Company, founded in 1933.
The conglomerate includes companies as diverse as a mortgage insurance company (Triad Guaranty Inc.), a third-party administrator of employee benefits (South-land National Insurance Corporation), a company involved in the sale and leaseback of hospital properties (Hospital Real Estate Capital Inc.) and a company making dollar-denominated mortgages to Americans buying resort properties in Mexico (Collateral International).
Couch presides over the thrift, whose primary business is residential lending and servicing but which also buys commercial/multifamily loans originated by Collateral Mortgage Capital.
In the New South boardroom, two front pages hang on the wall. One is The Wall Street Journal's front page from Sept. 12, 2001. The other is the Birmingham Post-Herald from Sept. 11, 2001. Sobering and serious memories for a boardroom.
Couch is a man who has spent time near where history is being made. Right out of law school with a newly minted juris doctorate (summa cum laude) from Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia, he spent two years clerking. He clerked for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Judge John M.Wisdom. He spent the following year clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.
Couch recalls, "The Supreme Court is just a different climate. It is so intense." He adds about Powell, "That was a great experience to see a guy like that who was so thoughtful in his determinations."
Couch remembers Powell as "a judge who, for years, was the swing vote in so many decisions." Just this year, two cases that drew on groundbreaking earlier decisions in which Powell was the swing vote were once again before the court. The recent rulings re-examined the precedents on affirmative action and the right to privacy that Powell helped …