It didn't take long for Rebeca Romero Rainey to make her presence felt.

Rainey, who has been CEO of the Independent Community Bankers of America for less than a week, has already touted the 10,000 signatures the association collected urging lawmakers to pass regulatory reform. She also came out swinging against the premise of postal banking.

She was front and center at a Wednesday symposium on the survival of community banks hosted by the American Enterprise Institute.

Her message: Community banks aren't going anywhere.

Rainey, a third-generation community banker from New Mexico, argued that small businesses and the agriculture industry still rely on community banks. While consolidation and disruption exist, she believes small banks can innovate to stay relevant and she is optimistic that regulatory relief will foster growth.

Rainey touched on many of those points during an interview soon after succeeding Cam Fine.

Here is an edited transcript of the conversation:

What are your top priorities as CEO?
REBECA ROMERO RAINEY: First and foremost is advocacy for a proportionate regulatory environment for community banks. Ensuring that we are operating on a level playing field. Within that for me are two other priorities. The first is innovation and looking for opportunities for community banks to thrive and leverage partnerships with fintechs. The next piece is education. As we look at the rapid pace of change, how do we keep up with the regulatory burden and how do we educate the next generation of community bank leaders and owners?

How will you connect with bankers?
Several different ways. ICBA is a member-driven organization, so I spend a lot of time with our bankers, hearing firsthand what’s going on and engaging with them through our committees and board. I also plan to continue to attend several state conventions throughout the course of every year. For me that’s just so important and I have loved getting out and engaging with bankers as they get together at their state conventions. For me it’s going to be very active engagement.

How do you keep up with banking news and industry changes?
Reading constantly. The email inbox is always full with everything from politics to announcements within the industry. I think ICBA is a great source for that information. We have a daily newsfeed that we read internally and share with our community bankers. American Banker is a great source for that. It’s never being too far away from the computer screen or the iPad.

Rebeca Romero Rainey
Rebeca Romero Rainey, incoming CEO of the Independent Community Bankers of America, poses with attendees at this year's convention.

How close do you think regulatory reform is for small banks?
I’m very optimistic that we're very close. The most obvious sign of that is where we are with Senate Bill 2155. I think we have incredible traction there and bipartisan support for community banking. I think we’ve seen the differentiation and the need for community banks to have proportionate regulation, and so I see that continuing to evolve, and the passage of this bill will be a great indicator of that. And then we will continue to move beyond that as we think about all of the variety of issues and challenges that face our community banks and fight for that proportionate regulation.

Beyond regulatory reform, what challenges do small banks face today?
Several different pieces come to mind. One is the world of succession — planning for that next generation of community bank leaders. Engaging operators and owners is a key piece facing our industry. I think the level playing field is one of the challenges for community banks as we think about the variety of competitors out there, whether it’s the untaxed credit unions or the nonbank fintechs that want to be banks. That’s why it’s so important for community banks to have a voice that’s dedicated to ensuring that their business model is represented and that we help them operate on a level playing field.

What's your stance on consolidation? There's an argument for banks to stay independent with local decision-making. On the other hand, there could be a compelling financial reason to merge.
I have a pretty firm stance. Remaining independent. As we think about the economic growth that happens at the local level when a community bank is engaged and invested in that community, and the opportunity for that economic model to really thrive, offers significant long-term potential and growth.

That's why I think what the ICBA does is so important, because some of the challenges that may be driving consolidation today in terms of the disproportionate regulatory burden and economies of scale are where the ICBA plays a role. [We want to] ensure that, as we move forward, we have proportionate regulations so community banks can be focused on remaining independent and doing what is in the best interest of that individual community. There's just so much value in independent and relationship-based banking.

What do you think community banking will look like in five years?
The model will stick to its core of relationship banking. I think as we continue to be successful in ensuring that proportionate regulatory environment, I think that will help the industry to continue to grow and I think we will see an interesting evolution as innovation comes in to support the banks, allowing them to focus on that relationship-based lending and community-focused engagement.

What role do you see the ICBA playing in five years, given how fast the industry is changing?
I really see that role as leading the path for community banks as we think about ensuring a tiered and proportionate regulatory environment, innovation and how we as an industry continue to grow and keep up with that rapid pace of change. There’s obviously a lot that goes into that in terms of what we do, but for me that big picture is leading that path and being that advocate to ensure all of those pieces come into play.

What was it like working with your predecessor, Cam Fine, for the last year?
I’m so grateful to have had that opportunity to work next door to Cam for the last four months and over the course of the last year as we’ve prepared for this transition. Cam is such a passionate advocate for this industry and I’ve learned so much from him as he’s reflected on his 15 years of leadership within this association. I’m just so honored to succeed him.

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