WASHINGTON Rob Nichols, head of the Financial Services Forum and a former top Treasury Department official in the Bush administration, will be the next president and chief executive officer of the American Bankers Association, the ABA announced Wednesday.
The selection marks a strategic return for the group to having a leader with in-depth policy expertise. Nichols has a positive reputation in policymaking circles and a wide network of contacts on Capitol Hill and with regulators. He has been active in key banking issues, including recently testifying before Congress on cybersecurity issues, what many consider to be the gravest threat to the financial system.
"We wanted someone of substance, someone who understood the industry and the policy," said John Ikard, the chairman of the ABA and president and CEO of FirstBank Holding Co. in Lakewood, Colo., in an interview. "We wanted someone who was going to be a hands-on, active CEO. I think the ABA is going to benefit from Rob's strategic outside-the-box thinking."
Nichols will succeed Frank Keating, the former governor of Oklahoma, who took over the ABA four years ago. Though a political heavyweight, Keating was criticized at the time and throughout his tenure for lacking experience in the banking sector.
In many ways, the selection of Nichols echoes that of Ed Yingling, Keating's predecessor, who was formerly the ABA's chief lobbyist and was well known for digging deep into policy details.
"You look at what the organization needs in its evolution; you need a leader that reflects that evolution," Ikard said. "Washington is becoming one of the biggest issues that bankers face. We need somebody who can identify across the spectrum in an extremely difficult political climate."
But Nichols will have his work cut out for him. The ABA faces deep skepticism from some community bankers that it primarily serves the interests of the largest institutions. That criticism has been voiced repeatedly in the ABA's history, but has become particularly acute since the financial crisis. During a hearing in February, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., accused an ABA official of secretly trying to help large banks under the guise of assisting smaller institutions.
Nichols has deep connections to the biggest banks. For the past decade, he has run the Financial Services Forum, a trade group made up of the 18 largest financial institutions, including Bank of America, Citigroup, and JPMorgan Chase, which has lobbied on issues such as cybersecurity, the end of "too big to fail," and free trade.
But in an interview, Nichols said it was important for the ABA to represent all institutions.
"For our nation to grow, we need banks of all sizes, all models, to be serving the needs of local communities," he said. "We desperately need community banks, midsized banks and large banks. All provide a critical role in the ecosystem."
He pointed to his experience at the Treasury Department, where he served as assistant secretary for public affairs from 2001 to 2005.
"Treasury is not about any institutional size," he said. "It's about creating policy circumstances that can help the economy grow."
Prior to Treasury, Nichols was communications director for the Electronics Industries Alliance, and a senior aide to lawmakers in the House and Senate.
While Nichols said it was too soon to discuss his agenda, he emphasized the ABA's "advocacy function" and adjusting to convergence in the technology sector.
Nichols' first challenge may be trying to steer passage of regulatory relief legislation through the Senate. A bill by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby cleared the panel last week along party lines, but will likely not make it to the full chamber unless a bipartisan deal is struck.
A top priority will be "regulatory burden, particularly for community banks," Nichols said. "A lot of rules are not intended for community banks."