The Gracious Leadership of Sharon Pryse
SHARON PRYSE (HCB, ’72) personifies gracious leadership. Her ability to draw people together defines her success. Involved in many community organizations over the years, Pryse has become a professional and philanthropic pillar of East Tennessee while her successful investment firm, The Trust Company of Tennessee, employs a number of alumni from the Haslam College of Business.
To both business operations and nonprofit community work, she brings a desire to unite with others to solve problems. “One way she does that is by asking questions, even if she already knows the answers, just to get the conversation flowing,” says Daniel Carter, president of The Trust Company and Pryse’s longtime colleague. “It opens the door for others to speak and creates an atmosphere of collaboration.”
Pryse came to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, as an education major, but soon shifted to business. Pursuing a lifelong interest in investments, she graduated with a degree in finance and took a job selling life insurance. “I had a good income, but when I observed some unethical practices, I decided to quit,” Pryse says. She then found a position in the trust department at Valley Fidelity Bank in Knoxville. “I made copies and filed letters at first,” she recalls, “but I earned more responsibility and stayed. The rest is history.”
With a positive atmosphere and motivated coworkers, Pryse thrived at Valley Fidelity Bank and worked hard to climb the ranks. She began doing allocations for retirement plans, balancing statements, and processing tax returns. Content with her progress, she was shocked when she found out that her brother, a recent law school graduate, was making more than twice as much as she was.
“I was mad, at him and at my parents for not pushing me harder,” she says. She wanted to be angry with her boss, too, but realized her pay was adequate for the work she was doing, and that she was on the career path she wanted. The somewhat painful moment was a growing experience.
“I learned to take responsibility for my own decisions,” Pryse says. “I had chosen to pursue finance, and I was happy with my job. I didn’t need to compare myself with someone else, and I realized that salary is not the only measurement of success.”
Eventually, Pryse became a senior vice president at Valley Fidelity Bank. Assuming that a management role in the bank’s holding company would likely involve a move to Washington, DC, Pryse contemplated a daring decision. She went to the mountains one weekend with her husband and talked about what it would be like if she left Valley and started her own company. Within a three-week period, she decided to take the plunge.
BUILDING A BUSINESS
Pryse says her decision to start The Trust Company in 1987 wasn’t about being an entrepreneur or breaking free from the restrictions of working for someone else. “My boss at Valley had empowered me to make decisions and to lead,” she says. “I certainly didn’t feel restricted there.”
The decision centered on geography. Pryse wanted to live and work in Knoxville, and this was a way to make it happen. Initially, she didn’t give herself much time to think about success or failure. “I just kept my head down and made calls,” she says. “Often, the business we’d counted on didn’t come through. Things always worked out, but not in the ways we expected.”
Pryse’s initial time in operations at Valley Fidelity Bank served her well in the early years of The Trust Company. Her training proved invaluable as she started her business. “I understood what we were trying to accomplish because I’d done it before,” she says.
For the first several years, Pryse focused The Trust Company on retirement account management, but has expanded to include a number of additional services. Today, the company handles wealth management for individuals and families, endowments, 401Ks, and profit sharing plans, growing into the more traditional trust business.
Despite the growth of the company, which now manages $3.8 billion in assets and employs 82 staff members between its three regional offices, Pryse’s approach to the business is centered on relationships. “Our business grew out of the way we take care of people,” she says, “and that’s still our goal.”
A GENEROUS LEGACY
Pryse began volunteering in the community in the mid-1970s, and has never stopped. “Banks expect you to volunteer for things,” she says, “but I did it not just because it was expected, but because I enjoyed it.”
As a young professional, Pryse joined St. John’s Episcopal Church in Knoxville. The rector invited her to a meeting in his office with several local philanthropic leaders, including Jim Haslam, to talk about stewardship. “They spoke in dollar amounts, and every one of them gave away more than I made each year,” she says. “That made a deep impression on me.” While Pryse was at least 20 years younger than any of them, they treated her as a peer and became some of her most respected advisors and mentors.
“Sharon is amazing,” says Haslam, CEO and founder of Pilot Flying J and Pryse’s longtime friend. “She manages her time as well as anybody I’ve ever known. She’s built a remarkable business and has set a fine example of leadership in our community.”
Over the years, Pryse worked extensively with the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce, serving as chamber chair from 1999–2001. She also has served on a number of nonprofit boards, including Friends of the Smokies, United Way, the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees, and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. “Knoxville has been so good to me, and it’s my pleasure and honor to give back in any way I can,” she says. “That includes the university.”
Despite her full career, Pryse places a high priority on family time. She started a tradition of taking each grandchild on an international trip when they reach the age of 12. “They have to make an irrevocable decision by their eleventh birthday, and their parents must approve,” Pryse says. “My eldest grandson was interested in history, so he decided to go to England and see Stonehenge.”
Since then, Pryse’s travels with grandchildren—and a few young nieces and nephews—have taken her to Scotland, Costa Rica, Switzerland, Brazil, and Italy. “We’ve done everything from visiting the Globe Theatre to bass fishing on the Amazon River,” she says. “It’s a joy sharing those memories with them.”
Looking back, Pryse says she’s learned not to get caught up in the details and disappointments of life. “You have to keep moving forward,” she says, “Life is too full of good things to dwell on the opportunities that don’t work out. You have to stay positive and enjoy the people you meet along the way.”