Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Jack Guynn has a blunt message for the industry: Invest in technology or become obsolete.
"The industry ought to use this opportunity of great profitability to get itself in a position to compete in the new environment," he said in an interview. "Technology is going to cause a sea change for the industry."
Banks, he said, must introduce smart cards and similar products before nonbank suppliers of electronic money dominate the field.
"Banks do not have a lock on this business," he warned. "This is going to be like all other technologies: There will be more losers than winners."
Specifically, Mr. Guynn is pushing banks to adopt electronic check presentment, which could save the industry billions of dollars. But he complained that banks do not seem interested in eliminating the physical transport of checks.
"This can't be done a little bit at a time," he said. "The industry needs to come to grips with whether this is the direction it wants to go."
Preparing for the future has been the hallmark of Mr. Guynn's 33-year career at the central bank. He oversaw construction of the Miami branch, creation of the bank's computer system, and conversion to automated check processing in New Orleans.
"He is a good thinker and a good implementer," said James B. Williams, chairman and chief executive of SunTrust Banks Inc. "His background is just right for the position. He's been in operations and supervision."
"He has the execution skills, which are critical," said Howard L. McMillan Jr., president at Deposit Guaranty National Bank, Jackson, Miss. "You can have the greatest plans in the world, but if they just sit in a notebook on a shelf they don't do anyone any good."
Mr. Guynn's penchant for planning came through during the 1996 summer Olympics. The streets were so clogged that armored cars and employees could not reach the Atlanta Fed's building. At the same time, tourists demanded a record amount of foreign exchange and currency services.
The solution: Shift most processing work to the predawn hours, when spectators were sleeping; have some workers bunk at the bank, so people were always available to keep operations moving; and permit anyone who didn't need to be downtown to work from home.
"We were at ground zero," Mr. Guynn said. "But we never had a crisis that showed through to the public. It worked out beautifully."
Mr. Guynn, 54, grew up in rural Virginia. The son of public school teachers, he had his first job at age 12, delivering newspapers. He spent his summers hauling coal and painting the tin roofs that dot the mountainous countryside. "That will make you want to go to school so you don't have to do that for your life," he said.
He arrived at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, in 1961 and quickly joined the Army ROTC. "The university was just like the military academies," he said. "You were required to go through the whole rat year."
An industrial engineering major, he graduated in 1964 and was courted by IBM, oil companies, and other big firms. Instead, for reasons he still can't quite explain, he signed up with the Atlanta Fed as a systems analyst.
He borrowed money from his hometown bank to buy a red Corvair convertible, which he used for his move south. It was his first car and it still sits in his garage. "I'm determined to get it started again," he said. "It is a great reminder of that period of time."
His big break occurred in 1965, when he led the team that successfully automated check processing at the New Orleans Fed branch. He was promoted to coordinate automation throughout the district. He also spent the next four years earning his master's in industrial management at Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta.
After a few years helping to setup the newly created Miami branch, Mr. Guynn became manager of the New Orleans branch in 1972. He was active in the community, raising money for the United Way and orchestrating a campaign to encourage families to use their local public schools rather than private institutions. His efforts were recognized in 1976, when he was named New Orleans' "young man of the year."
Returning to Atlanta in 1979, Mr. Guynn became a senior vice president in charge of bank supervision, the legal department, and discount window lending. He was promoted in 1984 to chief operating officer and took the reins as president in 1996 when Robert Forrestal took early retirement after 12 years at the helm.
Mr. Guynn was a natural choice for the top job, said Leo H. Benatar, senior partner at A.T. Kearney Inc. and former chairman of the Atlanta Fed board.
The board initially was concerned that Mr. Guynn did not have enough experience with community outreach efforts, Mr. Benatar said, but conversations with local business leaders who knew Mr. Guynn convinced them otherwise.
"Jack has just done an outstanding job since he has become president," Mr. Benatar said. "He has given me absolutely no reason to question our decision."
On policy questions, Mr. Guynn shares many of the traditional views of a central bank president. He supports the convergence of the banking, securities, and insurance industries. "We have to be willing to let the industries evolve," he said. "It will give us the most innovative products and keep us competitive with the rest of the world."
He also favors keeping the Fed in the electronic payments business. "We play a unique role in the payment business," he said. "The banking industry is so fragmented that we are the ones who have to take a leadership in payment processing to make things happen."
Like many of his colleagues, Mr. Guynn also is thinking ahead to the next economic downturn, warning banks not to relax credit standards too much.
"We have to be careful we don't get too carried away with terrific times of the last few years," he said. "Those who have lived through the 1970s and 1980s know there are economic downturns that can stress the industry."
Mr. Guynn spends about half his time meeting business leaders in the district, which covers all of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, and parts of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee. More than 2,200 banks, thrifts, and credit unions with $421 billion of assets keep accounts at the Atlanta Fed. "It is fun to ... explain to the businessman why we are doing what we are doing," he said.
This banter continues when he returns home to rural Virginia, where his brother owns an insurance agency. "You can imagine the fun conversations we have," Mr. Guynn said. "We swap terrific war stories."
When not traveling, Mr. Guynn stays busy at home. He is married with three children. A former collegiate soccer referee, he is now a woodworker who has filled his basement with homemade cabinets, and an avid gardener of day lilies.