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Lifetime Achievement Honoree: BOK's Stanley Lybarger

From his ninth floor office in the center of downtown Tulsa, Okla., Stanley Lybarger is pointing in all directions. The president and CEO of BOK Financial gestures to the north, where the Brady Arts district (directly behind the 52-story BOK Tower) is enjoying a revival with new restaurants, galleries and stores.

To the northeast is where the Tulsa Drillers' new minor league baseball stadium, ONEOK Field, has risen, within the historically black Greenwood district.

Directly west is downtown Tulsa's newest jewel, the 19,000-seat BOK Center arena. Circuses, concerts, college basketball and the wildly popular Bassmaster Classic fishing tournament (more than 100,000 in attendance over three days) have packed the center during the four years it has been open. It's an impressive, and iconic, circular structure of stainless steel and window paneling drawn up by Cesar Pelli, the former Yale University architecture school dean and creative force behind New York's World Financial Center complex.

"Paul McCartney, he's been here twice," beams Lybarger. "In fact somebody has a picture of him leaning out the window of his limousine taking a picture of the BOK Center. He loved the facility so much."

It's doubtful that Lybarger, as a young MBA graduate from Kansas driving into Tulsa in 1974 to take a management trainee job at a small community bank, imagined he would turn a Beatle's head someday. But from his participation in economic development plans to personally recruiting construction funds and sponsorships for the BOK Center, Lybarger has been a central figure in the rebirth of downtown Tulsa.

Lybarger is a quiet leader, rarely giving interviews, but he's been the key player in putting Tulsa, and the Bank of Oklahoma, on the map as a regional financial force during his long tenure at the $27 billion-asset BOK (including 17 years as its CEO).

Rising through the ranks at the bank (formerly known as the National Bank of Tulsa), Lybarger became an institution behind the institution. Early in his career he handled roles in retail and commercial banking, private banking, correspondent services and credit analysis. Often he was the "fixer" behind problem or unproductive areas of the bank.

As a leader he made crucial decisions to enter new lines of business, particularly those driven by fee income, and avoided many of the mistakes of other banks, such as overburdening portfolios with risky real estate loans.

At the end of the year, Lybarger will make his last decision as CEO, to step down from his active role at BOK. "It's 40 years. It just seemed like a good round number," laughs Lybarger, American Banker's Lifetime Achievement honoree for 2013. "I have had the privilege of having worked with some great people, and I think maybe it's their turn, to give them a chance to have the opportunity to run the company."

Lybarger plans to spend retirement traveling with his wife, visiting his daughters and their families in Dallas and Denver, and plying his woodworking hobby. He will remain on BOK's board. He will be succeeded as CEO by one of his longtime lieutenants, bank president Steve Bradshaw.

"I think that Stan's legacy will be that he took the leadership of an Oklahoma bank that had not been the leader in the state, and made it dominant in its home market," says BOK Chairman George Kaiser.

Kaiser is the billionaire energy kingpin who bought the Bank of Oklahoma in 1990, after it ran into trouble. It had been partially owned by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. at the time, and a rare open-assistance package had kept management on board during its recovery. Kaiser soon turned to Lybarger, then the bank's president and COO, to complete the turnaround.

In 1991, BOK had $1.7 billion in assets and fewer than 100 employees. Today it employs about 4,800. While at the helm (Kaiser was never involved in day-to-day operations, despite his early CEO title), Lybarger built the company into a nine-state network of retail banks, brokerages, commercial loan offices and private banking/wealth management centers, steering it calmly through booms and busts in the region and in the bank sector. BOK practically shrugged off even the financial crisis, choosing not to participate in the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

The bank mostly grew organically. The few acquisitions it has made were to fill incremental, strategic needs or were opportunistic steps, like when it snapped up Bank of America's New Mexico branch network in a 1998 fire sale, after BofA's merger with NationsBank forced it to break up its concentration of Albuquerque branches.

"Even as the others gained national stature through consolidation with local banks and ultimately money center banks," says Kaiser, "[Lybarger] expanded into nine other states and generated one of the 25 largest U.S. banks in size and profitability, without large acquisitions and without intervening stumbles."





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