Chattanoogan: Sue Culpepper – Getting Down To Business

Tuesday, March 11, 2014 - by Jen Jeffrey

Chattanoogan Sue Culpepper knows how to get a foot in the door and it is her passion to assist young people in doing the same. Currently the director for the College of Business Student Success Center at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Sue understands the importance of networking and building business relationships.

Sue enjoyed the simpler time of her youth as parents James and Mary Davis brought her up. She always liked helping others and had once thought of becoming a nurse, but her father’s knowledgeable business sense was instilled in her early on as she moved towards a career in finance. Her father was in sales, but Sue only had 15 years with him when he passed away. Sue and her older brother watched their mother, who had been a homemaker; join the work force as she took a job with Miller Brothers downtown. It was observing her mother’s fortitude that also laid a path of business principles Sue would use later in life.

“My mother’s work ethic helped mold my thoughts in the work force and how she handled life after my father passed away. She had never worked outside the home and then she was left with all the responsibilities, but handled it extremely well,” Sue says, “until she died when I was 26 years old.”

Thrust into the adult world of accountability was a challenge that Sue met head on and it made her who she is today as she instructs the younger generation who are coming into their own. 

Sue was working in the credit department at Chattanooga Gas when she met the man she would marry, Lee Culpepper. Lee was an engineer and had a military obligation which took him to Washington, D.C., where Sue joined him until his transfer took them to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. It was a relief for the couple that Lee didn’t have to go to Vietnam and, soon after, they headed back to Chattanooga. Lee began his MBA with an extension program from North Carolina and, when he graduated, Sue told him ‘it was her turn’.

“I would go to school at night. I worked during the day at First Tennessee Bank and finished my accounting degree. With two kids and a full time job, it was a big challenge but I enjoyed the evening classes because they were mostly taught by adjunct professors who worked in the day and you got a real world experience in the classroom rather than just basic academics. A lot of their examples brought the true concepts to what you were discussing and you saw the application of it. It was very beneficial to me, but I was glad to get out,” Sue chuckles.

“It took me almost 20 years to get out of college just because ‘life’ happened, but I still had my focus on getting my degree. I was still at First Tennessee at the time and I had "my advocate" pushing me to get my degree. Bette Mclaughlan put me in jobs that I didn’t feel ready for,” Sue says. “I was a construction officer and that was one of the riskiest jobs a bank can have. To put someone inexperienced in a role like that was crazy, but she must have believed in me.”

Sue was asked to be branch manager and stayed with FTB for eight years. She joined American National Bank (now SunTrust) in 1990 as a manager of private banking and then progressed through the ranks running the retail line of business, private wealth and ultimately the role of city president and managing director.

Having Bette to throw her into the challenging jobs in the beginning of her career was a confidence-booster in which Sue acknowledges is very important to have in someone.

“I was young and gullible. I liked jumping into things, but at that young age, I didn’t know what failure was and I just believed I could do it. Bette believed that I could too. She just pushed me into the roles and boy, did I learn a lot,” Sue says.

Sue stayed with SunTrust for 23 years and is currently with UTC. She worked in a program called, “Finance for the Future” in the College of Business helping students understand what the business world was all about.

Sue coached students on getting their foot in the door and took them on business field trips. With her business connections in the community, it was not hard for Sue to make things happen and she enjoyed being with the students.

“Just working with the students on their resumes, to be an ear to listen to what they had to say, what they wanted to do (and to give those reality checks every now and then too) because you can’t expect to walk out of the doors with an undergraduate degree and expect to be a trader on Wall Street,” Sue says.

She assisted the students with internships and other general tools available to introduce them in the business world.

“Another thing I did that was a real passion (and I hope to ignite that again) is something called, Global Women which is something strictly for the female finance majors. I was engaging the female business leaders of finance in Chattanooga and bringing them on campus and inviting the students for a networking session,” Sue says.

“What amazed me was how the professionals would always come back. It isn’t easy to come to lunch at UTC - parking is always an issue and just getting around up here is a bit of a challenge. They were actually forming a network of professionals and students, so as I move into this other role at the Student Success Center, I am trying to figure out a way to create that on a broader scale with the College of Business,” Sue says.

As she recalls those who helped her in her own career, Sue believes it is the responsibility of professionals to ‘give back’ to the up and coming generation.

“When I came here and heard their stories – they won me over.  I absolutely adore the students. They are wonderful. When you treat them like adults they behave like adults.  I have been so fortunate to have this opportunity,” Sue says.

Sue has made her career more than about crunching numbers or climbing ladders. She has made it a ‘people business’ and feels that is a big part of what moves someone to success.

“It is a totally different world now than when I first started and it is much harder for students to get a job.  They are competing with people who are unemployed and who have experience. Any given company gets thousands of resumes every week. When someone is flipping through resumes they only take 15 seconds to really eyeball it before they throw it in the ‘no pile’, but everybody has unique strengths that they can focus on to set them apart,” Sue says.

“It’s a double-edged sword. You see what is available out there, but 'everybody' is applying and, what the students are finding is that they have to network. It is about what you know but it is also who you know,” Sue insists.

As many job opportunities consist of online applications and attaching resumes, it is a challenge just getting noticed. Sue instructs students how to have a resume to stand out, but also to approach the necessary people who may open doors.

“I had an international student who was from the Czech Republic and his lifelong dream was to work at KPMG, one of the largest professional services companies in the world.  He had an amazing resume,” Sue says.

Holding a finance symposium which brought 12 speakers from all over the world, Sue was fortunate enough to convince KPMG to sponsor the reception the evening before. She gave that student the role as an ambassador to make sure everyone was where they needed to be and had everything they needed and the student began working for them three months later.

“Just exposing students to see what I get to see is so much fun. I get a big kick out of it – this is my fun career,” Sue laughs.

As she sometimes steps in for students who wish to be introduced to a company, Sue encourages them to be prepared by being familiar with the company.

“There is a real process to interviewing now and you really have to plan through your interview and answers. You have to anticipate the questions and think about how you relate any of your life experiences with some of the questions they may be asking,” she says.

Away from her career, Sue enjoys hiking, her Labrador Jake and yoga. Her daughter Angie had introduced her to ‘hot yoga’ which Sue likes to take two classes a week as well as other forms of yoga.

“Lee and I have always worked out together and went to the Y for many years. We always believed in taking care of your body – you only have one and, you might as well take care of it,” Sue says.

Their son Chris is a trauma surgeon in Lexington, Ky. He and his wife Jean are awaiting the arrival of their first born, while their daughter Angie is a manager of River Gallery in the Bluff View Art District, and married to Ricky Supan who is in wealth management.  He and Sue had worked together at SunTrust.

Always involved in the community, Sue has been a member of the Rotary Club of Chattanooga for the last 14 years and served on their board.

“It is a great way to network and get to know a lot of the personalities in Chattanooga, and it is a great experience getting to know some of the people who are molding our city,” she asserts.

Sue was selected to be on the University of Tennessee’s Alumni Association Women’s Council - a group of 15 women across the state of Tennessee who meet once a quarter and discuss professional development in students.

“I was doing that before I got the role of Student’s Success. It all plays together. This is the most wonderful group of professional women that I have been able to be a part of,” Sue says.

Sue has also been working in the College of Business with the Dean’s Advisory Board and also involved in the Chattanooga Women’s Leadership Institute which she was elected to the board and is on the committee for mentoring women.

As she thinks about her role in priming students for the business world Sue says, “It’s all about people and figuring out what life is really about. There is a lot to be said for being successful in a career, but it is the relationships that count most of all.” 

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