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Executive News: Why I do this

Roger Beverage, OBA president and CEO

    As I write this month's column, we're just wrapping up our Annual Washington Visit with 70-plus Oklahoma bankers from banks of all sizes.  Surprisingly, at least to me, we had some great meetings with federal banking regulators, especially at the OCC. For once, I heard a federal regulator visit with our group who sounded more like an industry supporter than an iron-fisted regulator. How incredibly refreshing.

     We also had good meetings with some members of the Oklahoma delegation. Despite the reported paralysis of the political process, the five members who showed up (Sens. Inhofe and Lankford, and Reps. Mullin, Lucas and Cole) are committed to get something done for community banks, including tax reform issues. 

     As Rep. Tom Cole reminded us, we've been coming here for many years, talking about the same issues, with the same results. It's time we changed the outcome. 

     We've been very reasonable in describing today's reality for our state's banks, asking for help and fixes that truly are designed to help consumers, not hurt them. We've been patient, we've been honest, we've been professional and supportive of our delegation. Despite all that, nothing has yet been finalized to help OBA-member banks better serve Oklahoma consumers.

     So ... now what? 

    The basic definition of “insanity” is repeatedly doing the same thing, over and over and over, and expecting different results. I have been asking myself lately, “Are we nuts? Am I nuts?” 

     I look at myself in the mirror every day, including these mornings while we have been in D.C., and I've asked myself on many occasions, “What the hell are you missing? What are you NOT doing enough of to get these issues over the top, to persuade enough people that yours is a righteous cause intended to bring benefits to millions of individuals, families, small business owners, farmers, ranchers – all of us who go to work every day trying to provide for our families and take care of our communities?”

     I wonder – Is it time sit down and shut up? Is it time to let someone else try to get this train up the mountain? Should you retire or otherwise just quit, admit defeat and go quietly into the night? 

     I thought about that as I went down in the elevator to meet some bankers gathered for dinner. These particular bankers, their spouses and even some of their children, have become an extension of my own family. I don't just see them as the people I work for: I see them as friends, advisors, professionals and as powerful voices for this beloved industry. 

     While having dinner, the conversation ultimately turns to the unasked question about our efforts. “How did we do? Did we make a difference? Did we advance the cause? Why are we doing this, year over year, meeting after meeting? Should we just give up and quit? 

     And then one of the bankers starts talking about his grandfather who founded the bank so many years ago. A young man came in to visit with the grandfather one day.  He had just returned from active duty in the U.S. Navy following the war. He wanted to borrow $500 to open his own service station. 

     He had nothing except his good name and his work ethic. The grandfather (the bank president at the time) knew this young man, knew his family, knew his character. So he made the loan. 

     It wasn't too long before the borrower came in to repay the loan in full, plus interest. He went to the loan officer, who greeted him right away and the officer tried to help him. The problem was he couldn't find the loan on the bank's books.  He looked everywhere, but it just wasn't there. 

     About that time the grandfather was sitting in his office and waved the borrower over, just to say hello. The borrower went in and said, “I'm here to pay off my loan, but (the loan officer) can't find it,” he said. The grandfather smiled, reached down and opened his bottom desk drawer and pulled out the note. “I really didn't think you'd be able to repay this loan,” the grandfather said. “I just wanted to give you a chance.”

     So the note was paid.  Over the years, this borrower became the bank's biggest depositor and during the mid-'80s when things were heading south quickly, began buying shares of the bank's stock. Soon he was elected to the board and served in that capacity until he died recently. He was in his mid-'80s.

     The other banker told a similar story about one of his customers and how he had taken a chance on a young man in whom he believed and in whom he had great confidence. He knew that somehow, someway and some day that small loan would be repaid. He too kept the note in his desk, and sure enough – it was paid off in full, with interest. 

     And there were other similar stories shared. Not all were ones that would make the headlines, but actual stories. I remembered back from my regulatory days about asking bankers about their “list” of loans they considered problematic and reminded them I was talking about THE LIST, the one in the bottom right-hand drawer of their desk. In most cases there were similar stories about the borrowers on those lists, and we managed to work through them in many instances. 

     But our conversation over dinner opened my eyes – again – about why I do this job. 

     Earlier in the day we were with a panel of seven representatives from the CFPB. In past years, there had been a series of “clashes” between Oklahoma bankers and the CFPB staff sent to meet with us that torqued off CFPB Director Richard Cordray. When that happened, I was then tasked with the responsibility of seeking him out and apologizing for our bankers' behavior. But not this year.

     I talked extensively to the panel, explaining why community banks are so important. Why they're different. Why they're special. One of our bankers attending the meeting explained how she had lost some $4 million worth of loans to FinTech and other unregulated firms so far this year. Why? Because her customers grew weary of providing personal information they considered to be private, and none of her damn business. The other lenders didn't. 

     She's a small-town girl and president of a very small but viable bank. She's a great young banker, but as great as she is, she can't afford to lose that kind of business.

     She brought a bank customer with her on the visit, and the customer articulated how critically important her friend and her banker was, is and continues to be to the success of her small business. She was eloquent in explaining how she viewed what the bank had done to help her succeed. It was an eye-opener for the Bureau workers. Some lightbulbs went on. Something clicked.

     I've reported on these things and some of the thoughts they triggered so as to explain why I continue to bang my head against this political wall – to continue to make the case to anyone who will listen on Capitol Hill and other places – to continue efforts to persuade as many people as possible of the needs and the righteousness of the community bank business model – to help non-believers of community banking, like the CFPB panel, understand just how critical such banks are to their customers, to their communities,  to their country. I gave it my best shot and I think it opened a crack in that otherwise impenetrable bureaucratic wall.

     These banker stories that were shared with me at dinner on two successive evenings helped me remember why I don't intend to quit – why I don't want to retire. Why I get up everyday and look forward to coming to the office.

     Community banks are special. Oklahoma banks and bankers are special.  They may be tired, or frustrated and perhaps even discouraged. But there is no quit in any of them. And there's no quit in me.

     For better or worse, that's why (I do this job). Thank you for letting me give my very best effort on your behalf.

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