Dorothy Savarese doesn't officially become the new chairman of the American Bankers Association until Tuesday, but her to-do list is already full.
Strengthen the industry's standing with Congress. Promote "safe banking" for seniors. Lighten the regulatory burden on small banks. Prevent the "homogenizing" of financial services. And more.
The ideas flowed freely in a recent interview with Savarese, a veteran of more than 20 years in banking and now the chairman and chief executive of Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank in Orleans, Mass.
Savarese, who began running the now $2.9 billion-asset bank in 2005, chaired the Massachusetts Bankers Association in 2012-2013 and has been on American Banker's "25 Most Powerful Women in Banking" list multiple times, including this year.
Savarese gave the interview ahead of the ABA's annual conference in Nashville, Tenn., which was set to start Sunday. She discussed her agenda, the challenges facing her peers and what it's like for her to be the second woman to lead the ABA board. Elizabeth Duke was the first, in 2004-2005.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What do you hope to accomplish in your one-year term as ABA chairman?
SAVARESE: It breaks down into three big areas: advocacy, what I call empowering, and outreach. And what I mean by that of course is advocacy is going to be very, very important as we educate a brand-new Congress and administration about the value of our diverse banking industry and how to work together to continue to improve the regulatory and legislative environment to support banks so that they can support our economy. And then on the empowering side, we're doing a lot to really reach out and provide information and tools to help our community banks succeed at a time when so much is changing demographically and in terms of technology. … Then the third thing in terms of outreach, and this really resonates so much with me in terms of my bank, is we've got programs on safe banking for seniors to help really educate people about how to prevent senior fraud and how to help them responsibly manage their time at a time when people may be preying at them. [The effort also includes] financial education outreach and really supporting and shining a spotlight on a lot of the community activities that banks are doing around the country in order to encourage reproducing those.
What do you see as the biggest challenges facing bankers today?
The extended low-interest rate environment is a challenge for, particularly, traditional banks. The regulatory environment has been, again, a burden particularly for smaller institutions, and I think there have been a lot of studies … that show that the smaller institution, the smaller you are, the heavier that reg burden is. Community banks and banks across the country are also trying to adapt to changing consumer habits and meet those consumers and actually delight them and exceed those expectations. So that means rapid deployment of technology and integration of that into their operations. And then the demographic changes of millennials now outnumbering the [baby] boomers mean that community banks and banks across the country have the challenge of enticing millennials as employees and supporting them in their career growth and also reaching out to them as customers.
You're going to be the second woman to hold this job. How does that make you feel, and what does it mean or say about the banking world?
Just as a banker, I'm excited to be in the role. And as a woman, the [ABA] has been working with the [Alliance of State Bankers Associations] and all of our member banks to help them understand that the more diversity you have at the management level, the more high-performing organization you have. … You've seen all those studies and so having a visible representation of the commitment of the [ABA] to this concept of diversity I think is a good tool for us to continue to articulate that message … to the 2 million employees in the banking industry across the country and to all of the CEOs and boards that when you incorporate diversity into your institution, you are producing a higher-level, higher-performing institution. And in addition to that, you're having ripple effects that push out into the community as well. So we all benefit from diversity of all kinds — gender, age, national background, race, even geography. The more points of view you have at the board table, at the senior officer table, the better off you're going to perform. So I think it's a wonderful opportunity to have that conversation.
You obviously come from a community banking background. As chairman of the ABA, how will you go about working with all different sizes of banks?
Well, I think one of the things that I've been clear about throughout my entire career … even before I was in banking, was that the country needs a diverse ecosystem to support our diverse economy. So, for example, I know that General Electric is moving to Boston. Well, my bank can't provide the financing for their new office building. And yet we play a very critical role in our community. Cape Cod Five has No. 1 market share in deposits and loans in most of the markets that we're in, and that's for a reason. We do a really great job meeting the needs of the local community so I keep saying we need diversity. One of the things frankly that worries me … as we get into this regulatory environment that puts everybody into sort of this box, we're homogenizing banking and I don't think that's good for our country because the diversity of our banking industry supports the diversity of our economy and we know that a diverse economy is a resilient one and creates more jobs. So I have had a lot of background and experience working with banks of all sizes — you know I was chairman of the Massachusetts Bankers Association. We have a diverse environment here. I have been on the board for some time working again with representatives from banks of all sizes, and I think that's a strong commitment that the ABA has.
How do you feel about consolidation, especially as it affects smaller banks?
The consolidation of the industry is something that concerns me to a degree — a great degree actually when some of the triggers appear to be regulatory burden. … Traveling around the country for the last two years really brought this home for me. I heard the statistic that one out of five counties in the United States … only has a bank because a community bank is representing them and has a physical office there. If that consolidates away, then those people are without a local bank. … The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. does a study on this every year, but nearly half of all business loans are done by community banks. I was looking at some numbers on that when we just went under 6,000 [banks nationally], we're at 5,991, and so … I went back and I looked since 2010, we've lost 1,708 banks during that period and as far as my understanding is, we've only approved three new banking charters. So I think it's twofold. … First of all, I think we need to have an environment that is supportive of de novos. … An industry that's not growing is dying, and so we need to make sure that we are creating a fertile ground for de novos and then ABA is working very hard particularly with community banks to facilitate the issue of technological transformation. And the one big thing that we need to work on together which has in many cases the most deleterious impact, has been this overreach in the regulatory environment and the costs associated with that. Just to give you an example, I've been asking people, OK, who have you hired lately at community banks, and they all say more compliance officers. They're not saying more loan officers. And the loan officers are the ones who support the businesses who create the jobs so that's what concerning me about consolidation.
Is there anything in your experience in Massachusetts that will be especially useful for you in this national role?
Because of our predominance of mutuals, it's really helped me — and we're a mutual bank — understand that business model, and there are mutuals around the country and ABA has a very, very strong commitment to mutuals; we have a required number of them on the board. So I think that's been helpful. And being involved with ABA at a national level has given me a deeper understanding about how many different economies we have, and hyper-localized approaches to banking. I've been so thrilled to find out the niches that everybody has found. Just as we have here on Cape Cod in a highly seasonal market that's highly reliant on tourism and retirees, I've been so delighted to see sort of analogous things where people have — whether it's an agricultural area, or an urban area — adapted to the local needs. So drawing on that experience of finding niches, and discovering how others have, has been helpful.