Looking at the agenda for the Community Bankers of Florida's 39th annual convention, being held this week in Orlando, gives further validity to the old saw, "What you fear most never happens, something else does."
Seeing some of the topics being discussed: such as "enhancing stock value through mergers and acquisitions" and "how to maximize your investment in technology," I could not help but think what the topics under discussion in the mid1950s, when the organization was started, might have been.
Community banker conventions have come a long way. I remember the letter I got from Tom Watson, head of the Community Bankers of Georgia, before my first talk for them. It went something like this:
"You must recognize we do not want an objective talk. We want to hear our side only." Tom and I later become good friends, as he had been a Pullman conductor during the war and I am a rabid railroad enthusiast. And in later trips to his association, we laughed over the fact that community banks had been so insecure in the worlds of giants like Southeast, in Florida, C & S in Georgia and South Carolina, and the burgeoning untaxed savings and loans that they wanted to make sure that, as the song says, "seldom is heard a discouraging word."
Boy, has the world changed! Southeast, once Florida's largest bank, is gone, C & S has been acquired, and the savings and loans that have survived into the 1990's have often merged their trade associations with those of the community bankers as they recognize they now have common goals.
But what is interesting, as one looks at the topics for discussion at this Orlando meeting, is what is not on the agenda.
How can there be a bankers' convention today that does not highlight the Community Reinvestment Act and governmental intervention into not only where to lend but now even into where to have branches?
How can you avoid spotlighting nonbank competition from every aspect of the financial word?
How can a convention ignore the micromanagement of banking from Washington and the state capitals that new regulations and reporting requirements breed?
Sure, these topics are bound to be discussed. But is it possible that the reason they will not get the central attention they would get at a convention of all-sized banks - community, superregional, and money-center institutions - is because somehow the community bank operates in a way that minimizes the adverse impact that these developments have on the giants of the industry?
What this could well show is that community banks make their bread and butter doing what they always have done: taking deposits, making loans, and making people feel that the bank wants and needs their business. That's all there is to banking for most people.
Sure, this week the Florida Community Bankers will stress topics like "creating a sales and service culture," or the benefits of a community bank holding company, but to most attendees at Orlando, the most important issues on their minds as they plan for the banks' viability and profitability are the same issues that were on their minds when the first convention was held in the mid-1950s.
One basic reason for starting the association then must have been fear of the growing giants and the impact of branch and holding company banking on independent bank operations. But today not only is that fear gone, but with the Independent Bankers Bank of Florida providing so many correspondent services to its member owners - the community banks themselves - even the dependence on the correspondent services of the larger competitors has been drastically reduced.
It's a far cry from the days when a community bank trade exec could say, "We want to hear our side only," and the independent bank felt its smaller size to be a disadvantage. For this size feature has turned out to be rather a plus in helping them provide the personal attention in banking service that so many Americans crave.