WASHINGTON — Ed Yingling, a key player at the American Bankers Association for the past 25 years, announced Wednesday that he would step down as president and chief executive at yearend.

Though the plan has been in the works for more than six months, Yingling's pending departure was a well-kept secret, and caught most industry observers by surprise.

"I was shocked," said ABA Chairman Art Johnson, who was among the few told in December of Yingling's plans. "That has been a common reaction to everyone that has heard the news."

Yingling, 61, has led the ABA since May 2005, after heading the group's government relations department for two decades. But it has been an eventful tenure, as Yingling guided the group's merger with America's Community Bankers and dealt with the financial crisis and the resulting regulatory reform debate.

In an interview, Yingling said it was time for him to do something else. "These are just pressure-cooker jobs," he said. "At some point, you need to move on. … What I would like to do is to stay active and concentrate on individual issues rather than having to deal with a new issue every five minutes, which is the nature of the current job."

Yingling said he was interested in returning to private practice — he was part of his father's law firm before he joined the ABA — or pursuing other options.

Unlike in 2005, when then-ABA President Don Ogilvie's departure was announced in tandem with the promotion of Yingling to be his successor, the ABA did not name the next president. Instead, the group said it had formed a search committee composed of board members and former officers to conduct a search. The ABA said it had retained Korn/Ferry to assist it.

Johnson, who is also chairman and chief executive of United Bank of Michigan in Grand Rapids, said the search would include inside and outside candidates.

"We think this is an important enough position that it warrants a very open, broad look at potential candidates," Johnson said.

Though a full list of candidates was still unclear, one possibility is Diane Casey-Landry, the ABA's chief operating officer. Casey-Landry was the president of the ACB before its 2007 merger with the ABA, and was instrumental in its successful completion.

"Diane will be in the running for sure," said Ogilvie, who now chairs the Deloitte Center for Banking Solutions and is not part of the search committee. "The way I read it, they are serious about looking at both internal and external candidates."

Yingling appears ready to leave the job with few regrets. Though the ABA adamantly opposed the current regulatory reform bill, it is still expected to be signed into law. But Yingling said the group did the best it could to tone down the most extreme parts of the legislation. "I don't know what we could have done any differently," he said. "It really, and the key word here is unfortunately, played out pretty much as we thought it would. … I think we did everything we could to represent the industry and bankers were very supportive of our efforts."

Johnson said the bill would have been more onerous without Yingling's efforts. "Does that mean we won every battle? Clearly not," he said. "But have we had an impact? I think clearly so. As bad as this bill is for this industry, it could have been much worse."

But the ABA's opposition to the bill has earned it some enmity. Privately, some government officials have complained that the group has exaggerated the potential impact of certain provisions in order to gin up opposition to the legislation. Others, meanwhile, have said the group is more focused on helping large banks than community institutions.

Still, it's clear the ABA continues to maintain considerable influence on Capitol Hill, and Yingling has been a key reason.

"In my personal judgment, he's the best government relations person for banking that there is," Ogilvie said. "He is as knowledgeable and politically savvy about banking issues as anybody I know. His father was in the bank lobbying business — this is a man who is really steeped in the history and intricacy of bank regulations.

"I think the industry was tremendously fortunate to have him and his knowledge of the banking industry for 25 years. He brought a level of detail that would not be possible to replicate."

Yingling said his most important goal was to ensure the group had credibility — even with opponents. It's crucial "to have the ABA be a very credible representative of the industry for Congress and the regulators and hopefully the media," he said. "We worked hard to be an effective spokesperson."

During regulatory reform, "we maintained our credibility with all sides."

"The Democrats that supported the bill were talking to us until the end about how things would work," he said. "They obviously didn't agree with us always, but they were talking to us."

Though Yingling has been involved in every major banking bill of the past two decades, including those that followed the savings and loan crisis, reg reform, and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, he counts the Riegle-Neal Act of 1994 as one of the most important.

Before the law was passed, opponents of banking industry bills could effectively split the financial services lobby by introducing an amendment on interstate branching. In 1992, at a meeting in a Denver hotel room, Yingling and state banking representatives helped hatch out a compromise that allowed banks to branch across state lines, but let states decide if the power should extend to de novo institutions.

"That issue was tremendously divisive within the industry," Yingling said. "We needed to get that issue behind us."

But others said Yingling's role was also apparent during the debate over Gramm-Leach-Bliley. Ken Guenther, the former president of the Independent Community Bankers of America, which opposed the bill, said Yingling was so influential, the legislation should have been called the "Gramm-Leach-Bliley-Yingling Act."

Still, though he often disagreed with Yingling's positions, Guenther said he respected him. "He is always very gracious," he said.

Cam Fine, who succeeded Guenther as president of the ICBA, said Yingling "has given outstanding service to ABA for 25 years."

"He has left a strong legacy of honorable and effective service to the industry," Fine said.

Yingling's toughest challenge may have been its merger three years ago with ACB. The two groups had tried to merge a decade earlier, only to have that effort end in acrimony. But working with Casey-Landry, the two successfully combined staff and members.

"The merger was tremendously important," Yingling said. "It made the industry stronger and us stronger. … We have built an association that provides a lot of services to the industry at a time when they really need it."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.