As an investment banker who specializes in community banks, Ron Goff has offered clients financial advice, helped them find merger partners, and even taken them public. But Mr. Goff, the senior vice president at Wachovia Securities Inc. in Atlanta, has never been permitted to sit on the boards of banks he represents.
Tucked into the financial services reform bill signed by President Clinton last month was a provision that repealed a ban on so-called "management interlocks." That means investment bankers, bond traders, stock brokers, and analysts can now serve on bank boards - for the first time since the Glass-Steagall Act was enacted in 1933.
Walter G. Moeling, head of the banking practice at the law firm Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy in Atlanta, said the provision is among the new law's most important ones for community banks.
"These are people whose livelihood is analyzing these small banks," Mr. Moeling said. "They possess significant entrepreneurial and intellectual capital, not to mention [access to] tangible capital."
Mr. Goff agreed. Community banks sometimes "lose their way" after going public, he said. Investment bankers on their boards could help to "keep them focused."
One former investment banker - who became a consultant so he could be a director for a community bank - predicted that most publicly traded small banks would have at least one "Wall Street-type" on their boards in the not-too-distant future.
"This really is a sea change," said the consultant, who asked not to be identified.
Not that all securities industry professionals are rushing to become bank directors. James T. Hill, managing director at Sutro & Co., said he would be risking his credibility by joining the board of a bank that is also a client.
"What if I'm called upon to render investment banking services? That would create an immediate conflict of interest," he said.
Indeed, Jon Burke, a partner at Brown, Burke Capital Partners Inc. in Atlanta, said banks would be better off inviting stockbrokers to join their boards, rather than the investment bankers or analysts whose main clients are community banks. Brokers have the Wall Street contacts, he said, but typically don't have the same conflicts.
"Banks always need help raising capital," Mr. Burke said. "What better place to go than to a broker who already has a book of business?"
Community bankers seem to be in favor of allowing securities industry professionals on their boards.
John G. Rebelo, chairman and chief executive officer at $450 million-asset Peninsula Bank of San Diego, said that since more banks are selling securities, it only makes sense to bring in directors who understand that business.
Massachusetts banker John F. Murphy agreed. "Anytime you can get someone to sit on your board who has a broad depth of knowledge of the financial industry, you are going to be much better off," said Mr. Murphy, who is chairman and chief executive officer at $450 million-asset Bay State Bancorp in Brookline.
An investment banker or broker on a board might even make a bank more attractive to investors - especially if that bank is a start-up trying to raise money for a public offering, said Dennis Burnette, president of Cherokee Bank in Canton, Ga.
"If an investor sees an investment banker on the board," said Mr. Burnette, "then he knows that board member is going to put the interests of the shareholder first - not management, not the community, but the shareholder."
Still, some bankers have reservations.
Linn Wiley, president and chief executive officer at $2 billion-asset CVB Financial Corp. in Ontario, Calif., said investment bankers who join boards may not always have a bank's best interests at heart. Mr. Wiley said that though he would not rule out having an investment banker on his board, he would be wary of those who might be only looking to sell the bank.
"Investment bankers tend to be transaction-oriented," he said, "and they could follow that tendency to the directorship of a community bank."