From his ninth floor office in the center of downtown Tulsa, Okla., Stanley Lybarger is pointing in all directions. The president and CEO of BOK Financial gestures to the north, where the Brady Arts district (directly behind the 52-story BOK Tower) is enjoying a revival with new restaurants, galleries and stores.

To the northeast is where the Tulsa Drillers' new minor league baseball stadium, ONEOK Field, has risen, within the historically black Greenwood district.

Directly west is downtown Tulsa's newest jewel, the 19,000-seat BOK Center arena. Circuses, concerts, college basketball and the wildly popular Bassmaster Classic fishing tournament (more than 100,000 in attendance over three days) have packed the center during the four years it has been open. It's an impressive, and iconic, circular structure of stainless steel and window paneling drawn up by Cesar Pelli, the former Yale University architecture school dean and creative force behind New York's World Financial Center complex.

"Paul McCartney, he's been here twice," beams Lybarger. "In fact somebody has a picture of him leaning out the window of his limousine taking a picture of the BOK Center. He loved the facility so much."

It's doubtful that Lybarger, as a young MBA graduate from Kansas driving into Tulsa in 1974 to take a management trainee job at a small community bank, imagined he would turn a Beatle's head someday. But from his participation in economic development plans to personally recruiting construction funds and sponsorships for the BOK Center, Lybarger has been a central figure in the rebirth of downtown Tulsa.

Lybarger is a quiet leader, rarely giving interviews, but he's been the key player in putting Tulsa, and the Bank of Oklahoma, on the map as a regional financial force during his long tenure at the $27 billion-asset BOK (including 17 years as its CEO).

Rising through the ranks at the bank (formerly known as the National Bank of Tulsa), Lybarger became an institution behind the institution. Early in his career he handled roles in retail and commercial banking, private banking, correspondent services and credit analysis. Often he was the "fixer" behind problem or unproductive areas of the bank.

As a leader he made crucial decisions to enter new lines of business, particularly those driven by fee income, and avoided many of the mistakes of other banks, such as overburdening portfolios with risky real estate loans.

At the end of the year, Lybarger will make his last decision as CEO, to step down from his active role at BOK. "It's 40 years. It just seemed like a good round number," laughs Lybarger, American Banker's Lifetime Achievement honoree for 2013. "I have had the privilege of having worked with some great people, and I think maybe it's their turn, to give them a chance to have the opportunity to run the company."

Lybarger plans to spend retirement traveling with his wife, visiting his daughters and their families in Dallas and Denver, and plying his woodworking hobby. He will remain on BOK's board. He will be succeeded as CEO by one of his longtime lieutenants, bank president Steve Bradshaw.

"I think that Stan's legacy will be that he took the leadership of an Oklahoma bank that had not been the leader in the state, and made it dominant in its home market," says BOK Chairman George Kaiser.

Kaiser is the billionaire energy kingpin who bought the Bank of Oklahoma in 1990, after it ran into trouble. It had been partially owned by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. at the time, and a rare open-assistance package had kept management on board during its recovery. Kaiser soon turned to Lybarger, then the bank's president and COO, to complete the turnaround.

In 1991, BOK had $1.7 billion in assets and fewer than 100 employees. Today it employs about 4,800. While at the helm (Kaiser was never involved in day-to-day operations, despite his early CEO title), Lybarger built the company into a nine-state network of retail banks, brokerages, commercial loan offices and private banking/wealth management centers, steering it calmly through booms and busts in the region and in the bank sector. BOK practically shrugged off even the financial crisis, choosing not to participate in the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

The bank mostly grew organically. The few acquisitions it has made were to fill incremental, strategic needs or were opportunistic steps, like when it snapped up Bank of America's New Mexico branch network in a 1998 fire sale, after BofA's merger with NationsBank forced it to break up its concentration of Albuquerque branches.

"Even as the others gained national stature through consolidation with local banks and ultimately money center banks," says Kaiser, "[Lybarger] expanded into nine other states and generated one of the 25 largest U.S. banks in size and profitability, without large acquisitions and without intervening stumbles."

 

In describing the early portion of his career, Lybarger need only look in another direction from his spatial executive suite. Directly south is a beautifully preserved, 22-story building at 320 South Boston Ave., a classic edifice of Gilded-age architecture. The building was the original headquarters of the Exchange National Bank of Tulsa, an institution co-founded by petroleum industrialist (and later famed Teapot Dome Scandal figure) Harry Ford Sinclair, who saw potential in extending loans to wildcat oil drillers that most banks refused to back. Sinclair, being an oilman himself, began the bank's tradition of specializing in the energy field, where on-staff engineering resources are needed to verify the underground collateral reserves that back the loans.

Exchange was reorganized in 1933 as the National Bank of Tulsa, BOK's predecessor bank, and for the next 40 years was a staple of Tulsa financial life. The South Boston site, which still houses a Bank of Oklahoma branch office in the main lobby, is where Lybarger first strode through the bank's doors. He had four other job offers with better salaries, but chose NBT because the others failed to meet more important criteria for Lybarger: warm weather, a quick path to management and a city that he could adopt and embrace.

"Part of it was, frankly, a lifestyle thing," says Lybarger. "I liked the idea of becoming part of a community, and being able to establish roots in a community. And with one bank, one location, you knew where you were going to be at least for the near term."

Or in Lybarger's case, a career. He didn't necessarily set out to remain with one company for four decades, but Lybarger says the right opportunity to go elsewhere rarely came along—and when it did, "I got promoted," he laughs.

Lybarger made the Bank of Oklahoma and Tulsa his life's work. After an initial stint in credit analysis and commercial banking, he became an assistant vice president in retail banking in 1976 and quickly thereafter was tasked with helping form a private-banking unit for NBT. By 1978, when the bank had changed its name to Bank of Oklahoma, he was a commercial lending officer.

"I got into a pattern where if they had something that was broken or they wanted to reinvigorate or enhance, I kind of drew those assignments," says Lybarger. "It ended up creating some great opportunities for me."

Opportunity didn't come without stress. One of his assignments in the 1980s was to build a loan production office in Oklahoma City—BOK's first foray into the state capital—to bulk up a sagging correspondent banking division. While he was there, the management of BOK made the fateful decision to merge with the state's No.5 institution, Fidelity of Oklahoma.

As many state banking veterans of that era will confirm, financial services was a fast-and-loose game in the early part of the Reagan era. National rules had been eased on savings and loans, and Oklahoma was in the midst of one of its greatest oil booms ever. Exploration firms like Western Co. of North America advertised their drilling services on TV, urging mom-and-pop viewers, "If you don't have an oil well, get one!"

It was in this environment that the the Penn Square National Bank scandal erupted in 1982, when a small commercial bank in Oklahoma City had been able to sell (fraudulently, as proven later) over $1 billion in loan participations to out-of-state banks (including the destined-to-fail Continental Illinois in Chicago).

Following the Fidelity merger, Lybarger was tasked with reviewing the books, and it turned him ghost white. He determined that BOK had just bought itself $20 million to $30 million in embedded, and heretofore unrecognized, losses. "That bank had a big concentration of bank-stock loans," Lybarger recalls. Although most of the loans were from rural communities within the state, "there were a lot of them."

Bank of Oklahoma fired Fidelity's management and asked Lybarger to rebuild that operation. But BOK was still in trouble over the Fidelity mess, and the oil bust that struck the Southwest region began taking a worsening toll. More than 130 Oklahoma banks failed in the 1980s, and BOK might have been one of them had the FDIC not allowed it to continue operating under a rare open-assistance package. Lybarger says the agency agreed to the arrangement because examiners saw the problems were confined to the Fidelity loans.

By 1989 Lybarger had been promoted to president and COO of the BancOklahoma holding company, and had returned to Tulsa. A year later the FDIC sold its concentration to Kaiser, who created BOK Financial. Kaiser remembered Lybarger's work in fixing the Fidelity portfolio, and saw an executive who understood the right and wrong ways to run an institution.

"My initial impression of him, as professional, competent and honestly forthcoming during times of difficulty for all banks, has not changed," says Kaiser.

Dan Ellinor, a senior executive vice president who becomes chief operating officer next year, says Lybarger is an even-keeled leader who doesn't let hot trends dissuade him from a strategic long-term view. As a result, BOK avoided bubbles in subprime mortgages and commercial real estate.

"I think it is a pretty unique characteristic, versus a leader who gets caught up in the excitement of the day and is then starting to lower the horizon of their vision," Elinor says. "Stan has not let himself do that."

Lybarger says that after observing in the 1980s "how challenging commercial real estate can be during a downtown," he was motivated to further dilute BOK's concentration of CRE loans. The company diversified in the 1990s by focusing on cross-selling brokerage, trust and other fee-income lines of business, and by expanding into payments and transactions services, like its TransFund ATM network.

BOK did this while maintaining its edge in energy lending, its legacy strength. "They've got a great energy business" that is the envy of peer banks, says Stephens Inc. analyst Matt Olney. BOK's loan book is comprised of 19 percent energy loans, and "it is probably the part of the book that they are most comfortable with," he says.

Lybarger directed much of this strategy, but was hands-off in implementing it. "Stan is certainly not a micromanager," says Bradshaw, who joined BOK in the 1990s after it bought his small broker/dealer outfit. "He's very good at painting the direction and expectation that he has. He's not prescriptive."

Lybarger's listening skills also served him well in getting ONEOK stadium built. The project wasn't just about providing a home for the Drillers, but about preventing civic fractures and healing old wounds.

The Drillers had agreed in 2007 to move to a new stadium that was planned for the south Tulsa suburb of Jenks. As Tulsans know, the south part of town is where the bulk of investment and development goes, while the long-neglected north side has lost residents and businesses. Losing the Drillers, who played at the North Tulsa fairgrounds, was about to be another blow.

Lybarger and other advocates for improving the downtown, which borders the hardest-hit North Tulsa neighborhoods, wanted the team in the city, and specifically near the Brady district, a thriving area that was bringing some much-needed cultural life to Tulsa. But the space they were eyeing was along South Greenwood Avenue.

Greenwood was the epicenter of a 1921 massacre, which was prompted by a lynch mob angered at a failed attempt to hang a black youth falsely accused of attempted rape. The race riot poured blood into the streets and destroyed the famed "Black Wall Street" neighborhood as white mobs burned homes and businesses in the prosperous African-American community, with an estimated 300 people killed. Only in the past decade have historians and the city begun commemorating the event.

Lybarger worked closely with the Greenwood Chamber of Commerce to ensure the park's construction would remain respectful of the neighborhood's tragic past. "It's kind of sacred ground, because of the fact of the history there," Lybarger says.

He earned the chambers' enthusiastic support and the $40 million ballpark, built primarily with private financing efforts orchestrated in large part by Lybarger, opened in 2011, with strong attendance.

If Lybarger's role in helping build the BOK Center, the Brady District and ONEOK Field are his parting gifts for Tulsa, the gift he leaves BOK Financial is one of a smooth transition, says Kaiser. "Because of Stan's ability to recruit and retain strong banking talent and his careful planning for succession, we have two outstanding bankers ... who will lead the company without interruption of our progress."

(With reporting by Bonnie McGeer.)

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