WASHINGTON — After nearly 15 years fighting on behalf of community banks, the Independent Community Bankers of America’s CEO Cam Fine is hanging up his boxing gloves.
At the group’s Washington summit on Tuesday morning, Fine is set to announce his intention to retire next year. He plans to hand the reins to Rebeca Romero Rainey, the chairman and CEO of Centinel Bank in Taos, N.M., and a former ICBA chair. Rainey will join the ICBA’s staff in January as president-elect before taking the job next May.
“It’s just time,” Fine said in an interview before the announcement. “I’m an aging baby boomer. I think it’s time for the next generation of the community bank CEO with a different vision to write the next chapter of this association.”
Fine, 66, will leave some very large shoes to fill. If there’s truth to an old Arabian proverb that you shall know a man by the reputation of his enemies, Fine’s place in banking history is secure.
Since taking the job in May 2003, Fine has made a habit of angering the powerful within and outside of the industry with his fierce, sometimes aggressive, advocacy on behalf of community banks. Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, famously called Fine a “jerk” on television, while Walmart sparred with Fine and lost big in its efforts to win a bank charter.
He’s consistently frustrated other banking trade groups that want the industry to stand united on issues, worrying that in doing so, community banks will end up paying for the sins of the largest institutions.
“Unity sometimes can turn into conformity and conformity is not always good,” Fine said. “There’s strength in unity. But there’s also strength in diversity. I’m not going to fall into lockstep with other organizations when our best interests might be threatened.”
Fine has racked up an impressive amount of victories over the years. Before the financial crisis, his biggest foe was Walmart, which tried to obtain a charter through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Walmart has long been the bogeyman of community bankers, who fear that it could quickly run many of them out of business if it was allowed to open branches in all of its stores.
To hear Fine tell it, Walmart executives thought they were headed toward an easy victory when they met with him in early 2004 to tell him they had applied for a banking charter.
“They thought they’d have their bank charter by June,” Fine said. “I told them, ‘Well, we’ll see about that.’ They kinda chuckled as they walked out the door. The rest is history.”
What followed was a massive resistance effort, the kind the group, under Fine’s predecessor, Ken Guenther, had mobilized last time Walmart unsuccessfully tried to obtain a thrift charter a few years earlier.
Fine helped enlist bankers across the country to lobby regulators and lawmakers on their behalf, leading to congressional hearings and even unprecedented hearings by the FDIC to determine the impact of granting the charter.
During the fight, Walmart tried to strike a deal with Fine, hoping to find some way to compromise. But in the face of regulatory delays and bipartisan anger on Capitol Hill, Walmart eventually threw in the towel, withdrawing its charter application and handing community banks and Fine a sizable victory.
“That made everybody sit up and take notice,” Fine said. “It was my first big battle and it went well. If it hadn’t gone well, we probably wouldn’t be talking now.”
A native of Missouri and longtime community banker — he ran Midwest Independent Bank in Jefferson City before joining the ICBA — Fine’s tenure has not been without controversy. While other banking groups moved in concert against what became the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010, Fine worked with members of both parties to cut deals on the legislation.
That gave rise to hard feelings, particularly with the American Bankers Association, which at one point blamed Fine and the ICBA for the passage of Dodd-Frank.
But Fine has no regrets about his tactics, arguing that he helped his group cut deals important to community banks, including a permanent hike in the deposit insurance limit to $250,000 and a significant change in deposit insurance assessments that ensured larger institutions paid more. Moreover, community banks with less than $10 billion of assets escaped direct supervision by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, though they must still follow any regulations the agency issues.
The way Fine sees it, the bill was going to happen with or without his group — the Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress following a massive banking crisis that nearly sparked a second Depression — but he tried to ensure it was less painful than it might have been.
He also saw a chance to distinguish community banks from the largest institutions in the minds of policymakers.
“I was consciously trying to play the long game,” Fine said. “I could have been shortsighted and said, 'Hell, no, we won’t go.' But I saw an opportunity to say community banks are unique subset of the financial services industry.”
That may ultimately be Fine’s most important legacy. The one thing both political parties agree on is the need for regulatory relief for community banks, though the form and breadth of it is under debate. Community banks are seen as a powerful lobbying force on Capitol Hill, so much so that Fine has been labeled a “top lobbyist” by The Hill for nine years running.
“Prior to the crisis and prior to the Dodd-Frank, the policy attitude was a bank is a bank is a bank,” Fine said. “No longer. That is because ICBA forged its own path during the great financial reform debates and we staked our own territory and we demanded to be treated differently.”
That strategy appears to still be working with the Trump administration. Fine and more than 100 ICBA members met Monday with the president, Vice President Mike Pence and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn. During the meeting, Cohn suggested the administration favors a two-tiered regulatory strategy, with different rules for big versus small banks. It’s no coincidence that is a long-sought goal of the ICBA.
“They pledged to us to create a unique regulatory system for community banks,” Fine said. “A system that recognizes the community bank business model regulatory system that is scaled to a community bank's regulatory capacity. Playing the long game is paying off.”
During his tenure, Fine has been able to work with policymakers on both sides of the aisle, a tricky business in an era of hyperpartisanship.
“Someone once asked me, ‘Are you a Republican or a Democrat?’ ” Fine said. “I said, ‘I’m a community banker.’ If you try to work reasonably with people, you can generally get things done.”
Fine has no intention of resting during his final year in office. He said he plans to remain actively engaged with the group before helping with the transition for Rainey next year. It’s clear that he sees her as part of a vibrant future ahead for the group.
“She represents the youth, energy and vision to carry community banking well into the 21st century,” Fine said. “She is poised, she’s experienced. She has a fierce passion for community banking and the business model that it represents. I think she’s going to do an outstanding job for the nation's community banks.”