There are certain people for whom not taking risks is the biggest risk they can take. Such is the case for Aaron Graft, BA ’00, JD ’03, who is Triumph Bancorp Inc. founder, vice chairman and chief executive officer.
“A lot of people fear or don’t like change; I crave change and the excitement that it brings,” Graft says. “I have a high degree of confidence—meaning ‘with faith,’ con fide—that whatever comes, there is value in it, that God can be glorified in it. I love going to things that don’t feel familiar and figuring it out.”
That sentiment was reflected in his college choice. The middle of five children from the small Western Oklahoma town of Clinton, Graft eyed Harvard University and Baylor University as his college choices. His mother was leery of him going as far away as the East Coast, and a trip to Waco with his father made Graft’s choice simple.
“It was important to my parents that I be around like-minded people, and they felt I would be on an island (at Harvard),” Graft says. “That’s a generalization, but it’s probably true to a degree, as well. Once I visited Baylor, I knew that’s where I wanted to be. It exceeded my expectations.”
Graft, who grew up in the Baptist church, saw most of his high school classmates choose the familiar by attending local community colleges, the University of Oklahoma or Oklahoma State University. He was ready for the unknown.
“I showed up at Baylor knowing zero people, and I loved that,” Graft says. “You get to redefine who you are and what you stand for. I never looked back. God was working providentially, but I didn’t realize it at the time.”
He was a University Scholars major but admits to being “more about university” than about “scholars” in those days. Yet, it was at Baylor that Graft’s entrepreneurial spirit blossomed.
“I was always into turning one dollar into two, ever since grade school,” he says. “Freshman year, I was buying things from this unknown website called Overstock.com, storing them in my dorm room and selling them on eBay. In hindsight, I wish I’d spent more time hanging out in college rather than trying to make a buck.”
Baylor is also where Graft met his wife Kimberly Echols Graft, BBA ’00, a Tyler, Texas, native who was Chi Omega president as a senior. Aaron was Kappa Sigma float chair and oversaw the construction of a homecoming float on which Kimberly was working. He used the opportunity to get to know her, and they soon started dating.
However, Aaron’s entrepreneurial focus a year earlier nearly made the relationship impossible.
“Some other girls from Tyler and I were planning to move into a house owned by the late Kyle Lake,” Kimberly says. “Aaron was trying to buy a house in Waco to rent out to his buddies, and he was having a hard time finding something to buy. His famous comment to one of my roommates about our house was, ‘Well, anything is for sale for a certain price.’ That was my first impression of Aaron.”
“I showed up at Baylor knowing zero people, and I loved that. You get to redefine who you are and what you stand for. I never looked back. God was working providentially, but I didn't realize it at the time.”
But Kimberly, who comes from a strong Baylor heritage, says she and Aaron fell in love quickly. They married six weeks after graduation.
“We’ve never been adults apart, which is in ways a huge blessing,” Aaron says. “When I go back to Baylor, 95 percent of the memories are great. The other 5 percent, I wish I’d known then what I know now about how to love people better and be humbler and enjoy the time instead of trying to work or be selfish.”
The Grafts have volunteered in Haiti through Living Water Ministries. Aaron is active with ALARM (African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries), and the Grafts are passionate volunteers with International Justice Mission, through which they have served sexually abused children in Guatemala.
“If you have to get on a plane to follow Jesus, I’m not sure that’s a good thing,” Aaron says. “But to have the opportunity to serve people who aren’t used to being served is awesome. The joy you see there in those people is genuine. It’s a great reminder that the wellspring of joy is found apart from material prosperity.”
Aaron pondered going into fulltime ministry upon graduation but instead attended law school. By this time, he and a friend were building an apartment complex near campus. The decision to stay at Baylor for law school was an easy one.
“It wasn’t that I’d always had this burning passion to be a lawyer. Law school was just what happened,” he says. “Law school and being a lawyer teaches you how to think, not necessarily what to think. That was a valuable lesson for me—critical thinking.”
As for the actual practice of law, Aaron realized quickly that it was not for him. In 2006, while practicing law at Fulbright & Jaworski LLP in Dallas, Aaron founded Triumph Land & Capital Management LLC.
One of the company’s first investors was former Interstate Battery System of America Inc. CEO Carlos M. Sepulveda Jr., father of former Baylor punter and two-time Ray Guy Award winner and All-American Daniel Sepulveda, BBA ’06.
“Carlos Sepulveda, next to my father, has had more influence on me than any other person,” Aaron says, admitting that he was the least likely person to become a banker.Today, Triumph Bancorp Inc. is a publicly traded (NASDAQ) financial holding company headquartered in Dallas with a diversified line of community banking and commercial finance activities. This includes TBK Bank SSB, a Texas-state savings bank offering commercial banking products in Texas, Colorado, Kansas, Iowa and Illinois.
Although Triumph is a public company, Aaron does not shy from his faith in the business community.
“We are a secular organization, but we are unashamed to say that a portion of our senior leadership team have a Christian world view,” Aaron says. “The heart of what we do is servant leadership; we happen to believe that servant leadership was best embodied in Christ.”
The Grafts have three children—son A.J. and daughters Clara and Millie. They are proud to financially support various activities at Baylor.
“I spent seven years at Baylor without paying tuition thanks to academic scholarships,” he says. “That was a tremendous blessing to Kimberly and me, and we hope to contribute to that opportunity for future students.”