by Carolyn Shapiro
photograph by Keith lanpher
Bob Aston built his career in banking the old-fashioned way. He rose from the ranks of gofer – “going and getting the coffee and getting the mail and running errands, whatever they told me to do” – to president of the now-defunct Citizens Trust.
In 1999, he founded TowneBank, the region’s largest locally owned bank, in his garage in the Hatton Point neighborhood of Portsmouth – the home he still lives in. There he and about 10 banking colleagues drew up the workings of their home-grown financial enterprise, which now has 26 branches and, as of the third quarter, assets of $4.3 billion.
Born and raised in Suffolk, George Robert Aston Jr. (who has never gone by “George”) likes to say his first business “partner” – technically his first employer – was Landmark Communications, now Landmark Media Enterprises, which publishes Distinction and The Virginian-Pilot. He delivered the newspaper in Suffolk and considers that work an important step toward shaping his outlook on customer service.
“Truthfully, you do learn a lot doing that,” says Aston, now 67. “That paper went out every day of the week.” Rain or shine, if he didn’t land each copy at the customer’s front door every morning, he still had to pay for it. That gave him incentive to get the job done and collect his money.
And he discovered that the probability of people’s settling their bills on time had nothing to do with the value of their home or the make of the car in their driveway, teaching him “not to judge people by what they have but how they behave.”
That was Aston’s first job, but it wasn’t his worst. That came later, after his family moved to Portsmouth. During the summer of his junior year at Cradock High School, he worked for a construction company. He had no career plan.
“I was,” he says, “just looking for a paycheck.”
He spent most days riding in a pickup and laying foundations. The work left him with sore muscles and sunburns.
“I realized that construction was not the most exciting job as I had imagined,” he says, chuckling. “They were using real sophisticated tools like picks and shovels.” He wasn’t cut out for hard labor. As a high school senior, he entered a vocational office training program and landed the job at Citizens Trust. He took the helm of the bank at age 36.
Aston never went to college, let alone got a master’s degree. Instead, he applied the customer-service inclinations he’d gleaned from his early paper route to build a thriving community institution. “It provides a platform for helping people that, frankly, a lot of folks never have an opportunity to do,” he says. “We’re in the money business, and people need money.”