New ABA Chairman, Simmons, Has Credit Unions Centered In His Sights

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Harris Simmons has taken over as the American Bankers Association's chairman-less than a month after new mortgage data led to a rash of headlines about lender discrimination.

Yet the president and CEO of the $33-billion Zions Bancorp is unfazed, mostly, he said, because of his unwavering faith in the integrity of the industry.

"I come here not as an ABA apologist, I come here as a banker," Simmons said in a recent interview. "I got into this business because my dad was" a banker, he said. "I remember very clearly, I asked him what he liked about his job and he said, 'It's an opportunity to help people.'"

He admits that sounds trite, but his respect for the business is evident.

"There are misconceptions about bankers because the nature of our business is you have to say no a lot," he said. "But I think that this is an industry with enormous capacity to help."

Simmons, 51, got involved with the ABA ears ago and was elected to its board in 2001. Onetime ABA chairman Aubrey Patterson recruited him for the leadership ladder that leads to the top job at the Washington-based trade group.

Patterson, the chairman and CEO of BancorpSouth in Tupelo, Miss., said, "You could just see in Simmons the genuineness of his concern for his community and his customers. He has a strategic sense of where this business is going and where it needs to go."

The ABA job is a large commitment of time for a bank CEO-particularly one with four children under the age of 8-but Simmons said members of the industry ought to play a part in forming public policy. "It's important that bankers of all different stripes and all different sizes be involved in shaping legislation and regulation and policies that affect this industry," he said. "I've always felt that, and this is certainly an opportunity to be very involved in it. It was an honor to be asked."

As Simmons sees it, the ABA's mission is to "try to find common ground, to find policy that works out issues between factions between the industry."

No Pushover

None of this should suggest the new chairman, who succeeds Betsy Duke of Wachovia Bank in Virginia Beach, is a pushover.

Asked about the mortgage lending racial disparity recently disclosed in a Federal Reserve Board report, Simmons said bias was not the cause. "You can't take one measure of the outcome and say it's discrimination," hew said. "We get paid to evaluate risk."

Then he questioned the motivation of groups that use HMDA data to malign bankers.

"I think that some of the organizations that challenge the banks have agendas of their own; it's not like they don't have their own goals," he said. One of those goals: "Separating banks from their money."

Simmons said regulators should investigate lenders with suspicious data under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, and be trusted to crack down on banks that are overcharging minorities. He plans to use his position as a member of the Financial Services Roundtable to persuade larger banks to join the industry's ongoing fight against credit unions.

"I have opportunities to talk to bankers in larger institutions," he said. "The credit union issue affects banks of all sizes. It's a retail banking issue, and some of the largest institutions in the country derive a great deal of their income from retail banking."

Simmons also hopes to enlist the help of bank employees and shareholders to counter credit unions' grassroots operation.

"At the end of the day, I feel very strongly that we're on the right side of the fence in terms of public policy," he said. The ABA wants to make enough noise that lawmakers understand "the best thing to do is to take these large, very bank-like credit unions, particularly those that have community rules of membership...and recognize them for what they are, which is de facto savings banks. And they ought to have that charter removed."

He said Utah's largest credit union, the $3 billion-asset America First in Ogden, "has an advertising budget that as far as I can tell this year surpasses ours. They're very much a part of the retail landscape. And that's become an issue for us."

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