Whatever happened to Joseph H. Neely?

You remember, that outspoken guy who turned the Mississippi banking department upside down. The one who jumped on stage to play the drums with a rockabilly band at last year's Conference of State Bank Supervisors convention. The politically well-connected fellow who had the majority whip of the U.S. Senate pounding on doors to get him a job on the board of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Well, he got the job. And ever since the Senate confirmed his nomination in December, he's been uncharacteristically quiet.

Mr. Neely moved into his sixth-floor office at FDIC headquarters Jan. 29. Since then he's been attending lots of meetings, taking lots of notes, and consciously striving to keep a low profile.

That will eventually change, Mr. Neely says. But the 44-year-old former banker is acutely aware that his lone vote on the five-member FDIC board is no guarantee of real influence within the agency, and he wants to make sure he doesn't start off on the wrong foot with its chairman or its staff.

"I cannot come in here and demand credibility," he says. "I've got to earn that credibility over time."

As a result, Mr. Neely has not staked out an independent stance on either of the two big ongoing dilemmas facing the FDIC - what to do about the undercapitalized Savings Association Insurance Fund and how to slim down an agency that grew huge during the bank and thrift troubles of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Instead, he says simply that he thinks FDIC Chairman Ricki Helfer is on the right track on both issues, but adds that coming in after the major decisions were made puts him in a tough spot.

"I found it to be a very difficult challenge to step into the FDIC board position at this stage of the SAIF controversy," he says. "Not having been here when policy was being formulated makes it even more difficult to address this issue with different constituencies."

As for the downsizing, he says he knows the FDIC needs to make more staffing cuts, but adds, "One of the things I'd really like for you to say in the story is, I've been tremendously impressed with the caliber of personnel that's here at the FDIC. I really would appreciate your saying this."

If this sounds a bit like a small-town lending officer and Kiwanis Club president eager not to offend his new friends in the big city, that's because it is. But Mr. Neely's track record at the Mississippi Department of Banking and Consumer Finance suggests that, one of these days, he will start making waves.

"He's not shy," said James A. Hansen, Nebraska director of banking and finance and chairman of the Conference of State Bank Supervisors. "Joe will express himself very well. My guess is he's trying to kind of sort out how the land lies and what the issues are."

Mr. Neely says he got into banking because he was failing his pre-med courses at the University of Southern Mississippi and decided he could get better grades as a finance major.

By 1990, he was a senior vice president at Merchants National Bank, Vicksburg, Miss., which now has assets of about $200 million. He was a leading citizen of Vicksburg, a city of 20,000 on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, playing key roles not just in Kiwanis but the United Way, the chamber of commerce, and the heart association.

Mr. Neely was not, however, particularly prominent among Mississippi bankers. He wasn't involved in state politics either. But one day late in 1990 or early in 1991 - he can't remember exactly - one of his biggest customers, a local construction company owner named Kirk Fordyce, came into his office and changed all that.

"He shut the door and announced to me that he was going to run for governor," Mr. Neely recalls. "I was quite surprised, and I made some comment like, 'Oh really,' and I thought to myself, 'You've got to be kidding.'"

Much to the surprise of Mr. Neely and the Mississippi political establishment, Mr. Fordyce was elected in 1991 as the state's first Republican governor in more than 100 years. Not long after, he stopped by Merchants National Bank to make another announcement - that he wanted Mr. Neely to be his banking commissioner.

Mr. Neely accepted the job, traditionally a political plum that wasn't expected to involve a whole lot of real work, and quickly started changing things.

He laid off 15% of his staff, then persuaded the state legislature to give a 40% raise to his remaining employees. After that he successfully lobbied lawmakers for a complete overhaul and modernization of the state banking code. And finally, he pushed for the increased enforcement powers needed for Mississippi to be accredited by the Conference of State Bank Supervisors - legislation that finally passed after he moved to Washington this year.

"He was the most innovative commissioner of banking that the state of Mississippi has had that I know of, and I've been in banking 35 years," says Bobby P. Martin, chairman and chief executive of Peoples Bank, Ripley, Miss., and a former president of the Mississippi Bankers Association.

It wasn't that there had been any opposition to the kind of changes Mr. Neely made, Mr. Martin added. It was just that no one had done anything similar in the job before.

Mr. Neely also became active in the Conference of State Bank Supervisors, where he quickly rose to a spot on the board of directors and became a major player in the group's efforts to adapt state bank regulation to the new world of interstate banking. And on occasional trips to Washington and political events back home, he got to know Mississippi's powerful pair of Republican U.S. senators - Trent Lott, now the majority whip, and Thad Cochran.

Mr. Neely's prominence within banking supervisors group led to consideration for the open FDIC slot, and his connection with Sen. Lott and Sen. Cochran sealed the deal.

"Trent Lott and Thad Cochran just both took a personal interest in a Mississippian being nominated to this position," Mr. Neely says. "It caused me to be humbled a great deal to see both of them take such a personal interest in it."

When it comes to exactly what Mr. Neely intends to do in his new job, it's hard to get any specifics out of him. He does plan to spend a lot of time on the one area of FDIC activity that he says was already "second nature" to him, regulation and supervision. Ms. Helfer has asked him to lead the agency's effort to rewrite its rules to reduce regulatory burden.

"I've seen the type of impediments on the front lines that regulatory burden can create not just for the bank but also the customer," Mr. Neely says. Ask him which regulations he finds most troublesome, however, and his response is, "I think it would probably be inappropriate for me to say right now - since I'm heading up that project here - which ones I liked the least."

He's also chairman of the FDIC's audit committee, which reviews the agency's internal controls. And he says he's not going to be satisfied unless he gets to have a real impact on how the agency works.

"The chairman and I have discussed this at length and she has encouraged my involvement in the breadth of FDIC activities as I learn my role and responsibilities here," he says. "The chairman and I are very similar in that we're both people of high energy and fairly determined in our methods. We're both very driven."

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