WASHINGTON — Rebeca Romero Rainey, a third-generation community banker who rose to executive leadership in her early 20s, has been tasked to lead the Independent Community Bankers of America at a pivotal time.

Following the crisis and unprecedented regulatory response, policymakers are now more open to regulatory relief and more willing to acknowledge differences in how rules affect small banks versus large. Rainey's charge will be to turn that positive momentum into real-world benefits for the ICBA's members.

“What we’ve seen is the one-size-fits-all approach to regulation,” Rainey, 40, said in an interview with American Banker. “The rules, whether it’s mortgage lending rules, whether it’s capital rules, don’t take into account some of the unique characteristics that we represent.”

Rebeca Romero Rainey, chairman and CEO of  Centinel Bank
“People understand and know the difference, community banks versus the bigger banks. And folks are also seeing the impact of the unintended consequences of the legislation that has been put in place,” said Rebeca Romero Rainey, CEO of Centinel Bank in Taos, N.M., who will succeed Camden Fine as head of the Independent Community Bankers of America.

Rainey, chairman and CEO of Centinel Bank in Taos, N.M., and a former ICBA chair, was named Tuesday as the successor to Camden Fine, who is retiring, as the trade organization's chief executive. The leadership transition will occur in May 2018.

She will take the helm as bankers, buoyed by the Trump administration's industry-friendly statements and executive orders, press for changes to ease the regulatory burden on smaller institutions. The ICBA has called for a tiered regulatory system in which rules can be tailored to a bank's size. Yet the obstacles to enacting meaningful regulatory relief, particularly in the Senate, appear steep. Several analysts have said a substantive legislative relief package is unlikely.

But in a speech Tuesday at the ICBA's Washington summit, one day after community bankers participated in discussions with President Trump, Rainey struck an optimistic tone.

“Yesterday at the White House, we heard the vice president and the president of this country say things like, ‘When community banks are strong, America is strong,’ ” she said. “Community banks are the backbone of small businesses in America."

Rainey said she would take up the fight to push for regulatory relief in the halls of Congress and the White House. She noted that the current regulatory regime has impaired community banks' ability to lend, especially for institutions that rely on their own judgment and knowledge about their unique communities to make credit decisions.

"For example, in my community, there are no two houses that look exactly alike. And so when you get into things like appraisals and evaluations, it’s hard to create a general format that doesn’t limit our ability to make those loans," Rainey said in the interview.

A mother of two and graduate of Wellesley College and the Pacific Coast School of Banking, Rainey became president in 1999 — at age 22 — of the bank her grandfather had founded. Now, she is set to become the first woman to lead the ICBA. Rainey said she would maintain an "active owner" role in Centinel Bank.

Several ICBA members said that Rainey had the ideal background and leadership style to speak up for community banks in Washington.

“She is a fierce supporter of our industry,” said Robert Palmer, the president and CEO of the Community Bankers Association of Ohio. “Rebeca is an individual that wants to compromise … [but] when there’s a need for battle she will be fierce.”

John Collins, the president of Community Bankers of Washington State, said the traits that have made Rainey an effective community bank executive will also serve her in advocating for the industry.

“She epitomizes what a community banker does,” Collins said. “She’s warm, she’s caring, she’s forceful.”

Rainey said she intends to keep working to make policymakers understand the difference between big banks and community banks.

“For a long time we have spoken generally about what we do,” Rainey said. “That’s going to be part of the challenge, is continuing to tell the stories so that we can build on this momentum and move our initiatives forward.”

But unlike much of Fine's tenure, Rainey will step into the ring at a time when the administration as well as a number of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle appear more inclined than ever to hear that message.

“People understand and know the difference, community banks versus the bigger banks. And folks are also seeing the impact of the unintended consequences of the legislation that has been put in place,” she said.

“We’re at an interesting time for folks to say ‘Yes, let’s get this right for the community banking industry so they can get back to the work of protecting their communities.' “

Fine said he plans to use his 15th and final year leading the ICBA to prepare for Rainey to take over, and expressed his optimism about the chances for regulatory relief.

“We have real opportunity to make a difference in the next year,” he said in a speech Tuesday at the ICBA summit, where he formally announced his plan to retire. “And by God, we are going to do it. We are going to get significant, significant, significant regulatory relief.”

In a follow-up interview, the outgoing ICBA leader said he would keep pushing for a two-tiered regulatory system for community banks and larger financial institutions.

“I’m very optimistic that several pieces of legislation that are community bank relief measures will pass,” he said. “I never quit.”

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Lalita Clozel

Lalita Clozel covers fintech regulation, anti-money-laundering, cybersecurity and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in American Banker's Washington bureau.