WORDS: Bre Jones Mulock
PICTURES: Whitney Patton
With stifling summer heat so thick you could almost see it hovering tauntingly above a field dotted with bright, white cotton, 10-year-old Ross Hodges – with his grandmother’s pantyhose pulled over his face to protect him from inhaling fibers – feverishly worked his pitchfork atop a cotton tractor that soared into a vast turquoise sky on his grandparents’ west Texas farm.
Trees are loaded with golden apricots, and steer speckled the land where Hodges, along with his cousins, spent countless childhood summers stripping cotton and working cattle. At the same time, the nostalgic aromas of baking pies and yeast rolls meandered lovingly from his grandmother’s kitchen.
Sweat rolling down his cheeks and dirt covering his jeans, Hodges preserved into the hard work and art of farming while weaving a tapestry of cozy, formative memories and strong bonds with his grandparents.
And then a fateful Friday afternoon unfolded before him like a twinkling premonition revealing Hodges’ future. The Tulia National Bank doors swung open, and refreshing, icy cold air greeted him like an inviting, new friend eager to strike up a conversation.
“I felt that wonderful air condition, and then I looked over across the room and saw this man in a three-piece suit with a gold chain to his pocket,” said Hodges with a chuckle in his warm Texas drawl. “I leaned into my grandfather and said, ‘What does he do? That’s what I want to be.’”
While the cool air escape from farm work and fancy banker clothes may have initially lured Hodges, now senior vice president and relationship manager of SouthState Bank in Bradenton – to the banking industry, relationships, community love, and a deep-rooted desire to “take care of neighbors” firmly planted him into the business.
Hodges has carved out a successful commercial banking career in Manatee County for nearly four decades, rising as a trusted source for local businesses and community leaders in advising and navigating financial solutions. Pouring heart into the community, Hodges has donated countless hours coaching on ball fields and serving on boards such as the Manatee Education Foundation and The Boys & Girls Club of Manatee County while building his career and raising three children.
“I am a local banker who loves this community,” said Hodges, a graduate of Abilene Christian University who lives by the mantra to always help your family, neighbors, and community. “This is where I have raised my three children and where I will retire. Giving back to my community is an investment in the future for my kids and grandkids.”
With a tall stature hinting to his college football days and eyes that seem to smile through his glasses, Hodges exudes kindness and the ability to strike up a conversation with strangers like they are old pals sipping lemonade on a front porch and reminiscing about the good old days, a quality that has attracted many local colleagues, leaders and business owners.
“I worked with Ross at Regions, and Ross was a tremendous asset to the bank,” said Brian Volner, managing director at Sarasota Private Trust Company. “I enjoyed our very successful business partnership. Ross never had to seek out new client relationships. They always sought him out. He is the quintessential definition of ‘Trusted Advisor’”.
Steve Wilson with Hide-Away Storage Solutions concurs with Volner. Wilson has turned to Hodges for financial business needs spanning the last 20 years.
“Ross has an amazing ability to relate with business owners and really understand their needs,” Wilson said. “He then carries those needs back to the bank to get financial support. He is just a great guy – on the right seat on the right bus.”
While Wilson emphasizes Hodges’ solid character, the business owner stresses success blooms from more than kindness.
“Ross is an extremely nice guy, but it’s so much more than that,” said Wilson. “He is very good at judging projects he can get financial support for. There are a lot of nice guys out there, but this – the ability to combine the need for business and banking, that combination – makes him very attractive.”
In the early morning glow one recent weekday, Hodges pulled a sign across the pavement of the bank entrance, alerting customers the lobby would be closed that day – a lingering effect of COVID-19 and short staff. Empty hallways echo the one or two pairs of high heels clicking through the offices that used to bustle with employees. While navigating the pandemic has stretched Hodges to creatively problem solve, he said the nature and momentum of SouthState Bank was already moving into a remote-work direction pre-COVID-19.
“If you can believe it, our headquarters are still in Winter Haven, and we were already open to home offices in some cases before Covid,” said Hodges, who has seen the community bank through multiple acquisitions. “You can find talent anywhere, and as long as you have good bandwidth, it may not matter where they work.”
Hodges sites positions such as underwriters do not converse daily with clients and often pour overwork in a back room. In addition, growing technology is shuffling financial institutions to think outside of the brick-and-mortar office building.
“Some offices will not fill back up,” said Hodges, who expressed gratitude for a busy year drawing in clients across Manatee, Sarasota, Hillsborough, and Pinellas counties. “But there has to be balance. One drawback is it is hard to mentor the next generation remotely.”
Tucked back in a small, unassuming space, Hodges’ office proudly displays coffee mugs from each bank name he has worked under and photos that warm his heart. Son, Spencer, donning a Manatee High School football jersey, smiles from a framed picture. Hodges proudly gushed his son now works for NDC Construction before pointing out a picture of his daughter, Whittni, who practices law in town.
On the end of the shelf, daughter Chelsea, now a speech therapist for Manatee County, poses with her leg extended back in a graceful dance shot. But he smiled ear-to-ear, mentioning his wife of 41 years, Sheila – who he remembers talking about for an hour and 45 minutes parked in his 1977 Camaro with his grandmother.
“We burned through a tank of gas, and my grandmother told me (Sheila) was a good one and not to let her get away,” said Hodges, beaming at the memory.
Next to his computer, a sepia-toned portrait of Hodges’ grandfather, dressed in a neatly pressed suit, inspires him every day.
“Through Covid, I look back on this picture from 1941 and see my grandfather, who by this time had been through the Spanish Flu, the Depression, and World War I,” said Hodges, his jovial tone slipping into stoic admiration. “It really hit me that this man had grit. He worked 24/7 on the farm. His community took care of family first, and then they took care of their neighbors.”
Even though Hodges veered away from farm life, his deep love for his grandparents and summer experiences shape the person he is today. When grandkids turned nine years old on the farm, they had the chance to pick out their first steer, raising it to sell at auction.
“It was interesting to see which cousins sold their steer and bought toys with the money and who reinvested,” said Hodges, whose parents worked as teachers.
It’s no surprise Hodges reinvested, eventually acquiring 18 head of cattle to send him through college. These life lessons on the farm paved a journey to a career Hodges loves.
“I love helping business owners see their dreams,” said Hodges. “I get to help churches, marinas – businesses that form where we live. As a community bank, we are able to be competitive, but also have relationships with our clients.”
The power to cultivate relationships spills deep into his love for volunteerism. Trustee and current chairman of the City of Bradenton Police Pension Fund, Hodges, also serves on both the Manatee Education Foundation and Boys & Girls Club of Manatee County boards. He views giving back to his community as an investment in the future. Mentoring youth glows as a duty for him.
“You have to get in their sandbox to get them to open up,” said Hodges, who loves playing air hockey with kids at the Boys & Girls Club to inspire conversation. “As mentors, you just get a small amount of time with these kids, but you can impact them so much and change their trajectory.”
Hodges expressed that clubs are in his fabric, and he cannot remember a time when they were not part of his life. His father, living in the backroom of his stepdad’s liquor store, discovered guidance at the Maverick Boys Club in Amarillo, Texas, during a time when his buddies were either joining the military or heading to jail. The Club etched out a way to climb above hardship for his father, who eventually joined the military, drove an ambulance, and attended college on the G.I. Bill.
“I like connecting with these kids and hearing their story,” said Hodges, who notes the Boys & Girls Club of Manatee County reaches 1,500 kids a year. “I can share my story and my dad’s story.”
President and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Manatee County, Dawn Stanhope, expressed gratitude for Hodge’s humble leadership and drive to create an even better community with his instrumental support for the youth that attends the clubs.
“His involvement has taken many forms over the years, from coaching kids to serving on several committees and the board, while inviting others in the community to learn more about our mission,” Stanhope said. “He’s quick to share his story of how the clubs impacted him when he was a child and provides our young people with a positive role model that they can identify with because of his close connection to our mission as a Club kid for life.”
Stanhope shared Hodges is quick to support without hesitation.
“Some of my favorite moments are when I see Ross smiling and talking with our Club members,” Stanhope said. “He genuinely cares about them as much as he does for his own family. We are blessed to have him in our community.”
Past chairman and current member of the Manatee Education Foundation, Hodges’ eyes light up when he shares how much “cross-pollination” occurs between community non-profits.
“I often see non-profits helping and benefiting from each other,” said Hodges. “Our community works together because ultimately this helps create a better place for our kids and grandkids.”
Hodges’ value of mentors’ journeys back to that sweltering summer of 1969 within the impressive walls of Tulia National Bank. The suited banker, Willard Paine, sponsored a myriad of sports teams and rose as a community hero, helping his neighbors all along the way.
“I bet Willard Paine had no idea how much he impacted me or others,” said Hodges. “Mentors have this ability. We just need to help our family, help our neighbors and our community, and we would all be just fine.”