ORLANDO, Fla. — The Independent Community Bankers of America's annual convention gave me an opportunity to catch up with Cynthia Blankenship, who chaired the group during the financial crisis.

One of the first articles I wrote after joining American Banker in late 2007 was a profile of Blankenship, a magnetic Texan and a wealth of knowledge about the banking industry. She was quite gracious with her time, particularly given my relative inexperience on the ins and outs of banking.

Our meeting this Sunday was brief — people line up to talk to her — but if Blankenship is representative of her peers, the mood of community bankers is on the mend.

"There is a renewed enthusiasm; a lot of bankers seem like they are ready to expand a bit," she said. "We've made some progress on the regulatory front."

Like most conversations with bankers — perhaps all of them — these days, the conversation inevitably turned to interest rates.

"We can make it, but it is tough," Blankenship said. "But we're all waiting for rates to go back up so we can get that bump in interest income."

Blankenship is vice chairman and chief operating officer of the $375 million-asset Bank of the West in Grapevine, Texas. The bank is a preferred lender of credit backed by the U.S. Small Business Administration, which is helping keep its return on assets above 1%.

Still, it is impossible to talk to a Texas banker these days without discussing oil and gas. She said Dallas has so far been fairly insulated from low oil prices, though banks in other parts of the region are not doing as well.

Bank of the West's mortgage unit is performing better than expected, she said.

"January and February were very busy," Blankenship said. "And the beginning of the year is usually slow for the mortgage business."

Blankenship, during our 2008 interview, said the priorities of her chairmanship were to keep industrial loan companies, credit unions and the Farm Credit System from increasing their influence.

By that time, the subprime mortgage crisis was growing and it was clear that regulation was about to change. Blankenship said she wanted to make sure community banks were not unfairly penalized.

She figured she'd testify quite a bit that year, too. She did more than that, however. Blankenship met with President Bush during her chairmanship and spent time with then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson talking about making the Troubled Asset Relief Program work for community banks.While she advocated for Tarp, she also told Paulson that she wouldn't participate because her bank didn't need the capital.

She also joined President Obama in March 2009 when he announced a plan to extend federal aid for small businesses.

"I've grown up a lot since we first met," I joked with her on Sunday. "I've been through a whole banking crisis."

"That makes two of us," she responded. "And we made it."

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