As executives gathered here this week for the America's Community Bankers annual convention, the topic on nearly everyone's tongue was rescuing the thrift charter.
The new ACB chairman, Cornelius D. Mahoney, exhorted an audience of about 1,500 to ask lawmakers to oppose pending financial modernization legislation that would abolish the charter.
"We must continue to vigorously oppose any legislation that will harm our institutions and the communities we serve," Mr. Mahoney, president and chief executive of Woronoco Savings Bank, Westfield, Mass., said Wednesday. "We will need each of you to help get the message across."
On Monday Rep. Edward Royce, R-Calif., said the bill would "retard modernization."
"If we lose the thrift charter, we destroy a model for modernization," said the House Banking Committee member and longtime thrift industry ally.
Rep. Royce also told thrift executives to contact their congressmen. "You can achieve ends that your trade group can only dream of," he said.
The group provided members with tools to put the advice to work: a table with a dozen phones, lists of lawmakers' phone numbers, talking points, and staffers to coach callers.
ACB officials estimated that 2,000 calls were placed during the three days the phone bank was open.
After taking a playful swing at Mr. Mahoney with an oversized wooden gavel, C. William Landefeld, president and CEO of Citizens Savings Bank, Normal, Ill., handed over the ACB mantle Wednesday.
The group also elected E. Lee Beard, president and CEO of First Federal Savings and Loan Association, Hazleton, Pa., as vice chairman, and William A. Fitzgerald, CEO and chairman of Commercial Federal Bank, Omaha, as second vice chairman.
Addressing the thrift industry for the first time, Office of Thrift Supervision Director Ellen S. Seidman offered both praise and caution.
Reflecting on the troubled past of the industry, she said, "It is so much nicer to walk into a situation where there is not a single (Camels) 5 in the industry."
However, Ms. Seidman said OTS examiners are finding some risky loans on thrifts' books. "The 1994 and 1995 vintages of mortgage loans don't look so good," she said. "We have all got to be extremely vigilant."
Thrift directors aren't always of the same mind as their chief executives, especially when it comes to mergers and acquisitions.
During a seminar Monday on building a better board, an audience of about 130 was asked to respond to questions via a handheld electronic keypad. Robert E. Hallagan, CEO of the Center for Board Leadership, asked attendees whether they thought their institution would be acquired by 2000.
Only 20% of the directors there said they thought so, while half the CEOs predicted their thrifts would be snapped up by 2000. "This will make for some interesting dinner conversation tonight," Mr. Hallagan said.
At the business show, thrift executives and their spouses collected complimentary goodies from more than 100 vendor booths.
The free gifts included pens, football-shaped stress balls, bottle openers, and umbrellas. On Tuesday exhibitors drew winners from fishbowls full of business cards dropped off at their booths.
Prizes ranged from fly rods to putters. The American Stock Exchange found perhaps the most unlikely winner: American Bankers Association president William T. McConnell.
The chairman and CEO of Park National Corp., Newark, Ohio, won a handheld computer that tracks an investment portfolio. "That proves the drawing wasn't fixed," quipped Mr. Landefeld.