Adaptable and Resilient
Charles Darwin said that it is not the strongest who survive but the one who is most adaptable to change. This quality of resilience, found both in companies and people, is embodied in the person of James Ronca, Senior Vice President & Payments Strategy Executive at SunTrust Bank. “I learned at an early age that no matter how big the challenge, you can always rise above it.”
Born in Alexandria, Louisiana, Ronca’s Air Force pilot father was killed in action flying over Vietnam when he was just two months old. His mother moved the devastated family of six children to Fort Walton Beach, Florida to be near relatives. This is where he grew up. “I have no memory of my father,” said Ronca, “but we have various mementos of him that we cherish, including the Air Force Cross awarded for his bravery in combat.”
At the age of 12 another tragedy occurred when his mother passed away. He was sent across town to live with his aunt and uncle. Ronca credits his electrician uncle with instilling in him a solid work ethic. “I worked with him summers and holidays. He taught me the trade and I learned that even the most complex problems can be broken down and dealt with piece by piece.” Rarely standing still, Ronca also worked for a nursery during this time and still enjoys horticulture and landscaping today.
Ronca remained in his home town and worked in construction for two years where he met Lori, is wife to be and life partner, before starting at DeVry in Atlanta where he studied for a degree in Electronics. “I didn’t have financial support from home and had to work throughout my time in college”, he says. “Thankfully with Lori’s support and life lessons from my childhood, I stayed focused and graduated with high honors.”
As anyone who has worked their way through school knows, there isn’t much time for anything else, but Ronca nevertheless made time to found a chapter of Alpha Phi Omega, the national co-ed service fraternity. “I was so glad we did it,” he says. “We did a lot of good work for the community and it allowed me to get to know my fellow students outside of the classroom.”
Upon graduation Ronca worked as a test engineer in San Jose, CA and then he and Lori moved back to Georgia for a position with the University of Georgia as a research engineer supporting the Biological & Agricultural Engineering Department at the Griffin Experiment Station. “I had grown up working with plants and around my grandfather’s farm, so this was an interesting fit,” he says. “My job was to design and build systems in support of the researchers at the Station. One, funded by NASA, focused on using robotics to propagate plants in space. Another was applying the principles of the glaucoma test to evaluate the ripeness of fruit. This led to a personal discovery. “I had never been a ‘peach’ person, and discovered that I had simply never eaten a ‘ripe’ peach. What a revelation.”
Ronca started teaching at DeVry part-time while still at UGA and soon was offered a full time position to both teach and bring the school into the digital age. “We created the schools web identity and deployed email for all students and faculty. It was great change management experience. The goal was to open the campus up giving students easier access to professors and administrators. The challenge was changing the minds of professors who thought office hours should be limited to 2 hours per week when no student was available to interrupt their research.”
Married now for several years, Ronca and his wife wanted to start a family and made the decision for his wife to be a stay at home mom. She would give up her teaching job and they would live on one income. “I loved academic life, but wished the pay was better,” he said. Interviewing with only one company, he was offered a job with Bank of America, and started working with the check imaging team leading the development of the document retrieval and management system. “We were imaging documents before Check 21, so when the law passed, we were ready,” he says. Next, he served on the Architecture Review Board of Viewpointe, a joint venture between Bank of America, Chase and IBM charged with storing captured check images for processing and archiving. “This separate entity streamlined check settlement and made check images available for retrieval anytime and anywhere,” he said. During this time, he also worked on other web based bank applications to deliver more digital products to bank customers.
In 2006, Ronca made the conscious decision to move to operations and lead a process design team focused on improving digital services and payment processing. “New products are great unless they result in losses due to unplanned operational expense.” During this time, Ronca’s team reduced operational expenses and risk through effective document capture and storage. In addition, his team was instrumental in getting operations involved early in new product design and development.
Working across both technology and business positioned Ronca for his next assignment; he was picked to support clearXchange, a joint venture formed by Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Chase. “Companies like Square and PayPal were pushing banks into a utility position depressing opportunity and separating banks from their client’s financial lives.
clearXchange, the foundation Zelle, pushed back by providing a solution for person to person payments that didn’t require a 3rd party to have access to sensitive financial information, like account numbers or login credentials. Bank clients can now safely send real-time money transfers between bank accounts at different banks using just an email address or cell phone number.” Ronca worked with bank attorneys and executives from all 3 institutions on the business and service agreements and defined the payment processing models for the new company. “Clearly,’ he says, “this is when I completed the transition from technology to the business side of banking.”
While at Bank of America he joined discussions with The Clearing House, an electronic check clearing and settlement system operated by an association of the nation’s largest banks - Chase, Citi and Bank of America are all members – about a new real time payments network. He also worked with Apple, Google and Samsung on their pay wallets. “We became a major partner with these companies and Bank of America still has a great relationship with them today,” he says.
In January of 2017, Ronca left Bank of America to become Vice President of Digital Payments at The Clearing House. He worked on tokenized and real time payments. “Moving from a bank to work as a service provider was a new experience for me. As a consultant working for large banks on tokenization and payment opportunities,” he says. “I learned a whole new set of influencing skills.”
Ronca came to SunTrust one year ago, in June of 2018, to lead the bank’s corporate strategy on payments. “I had been working toward the role of payments strategy executive for years and was gratified when this position materialized for me,” he says. “It offered me the opportunity to have an impact on technology, the institution and the industry for the betterment of our clients and customers.”
Ronca believes the challenge for banks is to shed some of the old structures that make them slow and expensive to change. “Banks used to be organized into silos, with services running through stacks separated by client type or line of business. Now banks are building platforms that run across the enterprise and leverage the economies of scale that volume provides.” Banks are changing but there is more to be done. “Look,” he said, “banks do three things – they store money, they lend money and they move money. It only makes sense to align the organization around these activities. Simplifying the organization will give banks the agility to move products quickly from the drawing table into their customer’s hands. Payments are an area where organizational changes are being made and the results are evident in the speed banks are deploying new services.”
“Bank leaders today want to be innovators and disruptors,” he says. The challenge is how to bring about change at the pace expected in the market while under tight regulatory and risk controls. When successful, our customers are the beneficiaries with easy to use financial products that protect sensitive information.”
While further implementation of his payments plan are on hold until the merger with BB&T is complete, he notes that the merged entity – to be called Truist - will have an additional $100 million to invest in technology. “It really is all about scale,” he says.
Ronca serves on the Secure Digital Payments of board at The Clearing House, is a member of the Faster Payments Council and regularly speaks at conferences on digital banking and payment topics. He believes it vitally important for banks of all sizes have a voice in the industry to ensure their client needs aren’t lost.
“You could say that my start in life was clouded by the death of my father and mother, but many lessons come from change and adversity. I learned to be grateful for opportunities that came my way and to try and make the most out of them. I am blessed with a wonderful family and my work at SunTrust is challenging” he says. “Working as part of an industry with the potential to help people obtain their dreams is rewarding. I’m very happy to be where I am.”
Ronca has been married for 28 years and has three children; twin boys 24 and a girl, 21. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Appalachia Services Project.