WASHINGTON - James Culberson begins his year as president of the American Bankers Association this week determined to draw the industry's smallest and largest members closer together.

"Although I'm coming from a small bank, I spent the first 15 years of my career with Wachovia," he said in an interview. "And I've learned that, fundamentally, banking is banking."

Less regulation, lower deposit insurance premiums, access to new products and services benefit banks of all sizes, he said.

Still, stepping up to the association's top job will require Mr. Culberson to change some of his priorities.

As head of $270 million First National Bank and Trust in Asheboro, N.C., and past chairman of ABA's Community Bankers Council, Mr. Culberson has lobbied hard for the rights of small banks.

Now Mr. Culberson must speak for all banks.

"Of course, there will be certain issues that will be pushed by banks that are large and banks that are small. But we have to do a kind of balancing act to create the best environment we can for banking as a whole, " he said.

"It's like a marriage - my wife and I don't agree on everything all of the time, but we still manage to stay married."

The marriage of large and small banks into a cohesive lobbying force is crucial to success on Capitol Hill, according to outgoing ABA president Howard McMillan.

"The advice I would give is to work hard to keep the banking industry as united as possible, so we don't make ourselves more vulnerable to attacks by limited-issue industries like the insurance industry or credit unions," said Mr. McMillan, president and chief operating officer of Deposit Guaranty Bank in Jackson, Miss.

Mr. Culberson is aware that big legislative fights loom for the ABA.

Legislation designed to reduce the industry's regulatory burden has been watered down and is stuck in limbo with the Glass-Steagall repeal bill.

Congress also is considering a plan to force banks to pay a big chunk of the Savings Association Insurance Fund bailout. The ABA's goal has been to get something in return. So far, lawmakers have only agreed to consider goodies for the banking industry after the thorny financing questions are answered.

"I would like to see some of the things that are hung up in committee get done," Mr. Culberson said, adding that he didn't want to make concessions "based on a promise that Congress will take care of things later."

While disappointed that lawmakers have diluted the regulatory relief bill, particularly Congress's decision to drop key Community Reinvestment Act changes, he is optimistic that the legislation will pass this year.

"I would hope we might get the question of Glass-Steagall resolved as well, and hopefully BIF-SAIF is basically going to be resolved."

While the ABA's legislative agenda remains a high priority, Mr. Culberson said that he will go beyond congressional lobbying to focus on some practical issues, such as helping the banking industry improve its reputation among lawmakers and customers.

"Bankers haven't had the greatest public image lately," he said. "There's a misunderstanding about the way that banks have been moving into the 'new world' - the whole issue of banks becoming larger, the mergers of banks, interstate banking, the fact that banks sometimes collect fees on things that used to be free.

"We haven't done a good job explaining our reasons for these things."

He's not sure yet how to improve the industry's standing.

"I really don't know what route we're going to go yet," he said. "We're going to see where the bankers want to go."

Another focus of his year as ABA president will be helping bankers move into the 21st century.

"One of my other concerns is helping bankers cope with the technology changes," he said. "As you know, some bankers have been slow to embrace these developments, so that's an area where the ABA can help the industry move forward."

The possibilities of some emerging technologies excite him.

"A lot of money has been spent by some of the large banks on home banking, and we're still trying to find out what's the best route to go," he said. "Whether it's going to be through the Internet, or whether it's going to be direct with the banks.

"Home banking is not quite there yet, but I think it's really an emerging thing. Sort of like ATMs. When they first came out it took a while for the public to buy into them. But they've sure bought into them by now."

Mr. Culberson will be leading the industry on its technological journey at the same time that he moves his own bank forward. He describes First National as "medium" on the technology scale, noting that it has invested in advanced teller and platform automation as well as check imaging.

"We've made a lot of steps, but we've still got steps to go," he said.

During his 21 years at First National, Mr. Culberson, 66, has been involved in a wide range of community activities, serving as a board member of the United Way, as president of the local Chamber of Commerce, and as chairman of the North Carolina Zoological Society.

He has held leadership posts in several banking organizations, including president of the North Carolina Bankers Association and co-chairman of the ABA's Government Relations Council.

He has also served as a member of the Charlotte board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

His ABA predecessor, Mr. McMillan, says these experiences should serve Mr. Culberson well in his new role.

"I think he's got the potential to be one of the best presidents that the ABA has ever had," Mr. McMillan said.

Mr. Serb writes for the Medill News Service.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.