PHOENIX — Time is short for any banker interested in regaining the public's trust, Stephen Steinour, the chief executive of Huntington Bancshares (HBAN), said Wednesday.
"Our industry is at a crisis point," Steinour said in prepared remarks provided to American Banker ahead of his keynote address at the Consumer Bankers Association conference here. "There is a path forward for the industry and it starts right here. With us."
Steinour said it is up to bankers "to step up and take responsibility for changing our image and showing the country that there are bankers they can trust."
Trust of course must be earned, and Steinour believes that will require bankers to flag dodgy players and practices and recommit their companies to putting the customer first.
Bankers must speak up "when we know an industry practice will lead to the next crisis and demand accountability for those who engaged in the practice," Steinour said. "In 2008 when flagrant problems in the industry were exposed, we should have expressed our outrage. We should have called out the shadow banking institutions and gone on the record for transparency, accountability and ethical behavior.
"More recently, we have seen stories about LIBOR, payday lenders and misleading marketing. They are reminiscent of the kinds of practices that bubbled up in 2008," he said. "They are also an opportunity for us to speak out."
The cost of silence is more regulation that Steinour said makes it tougher for traditional banks to focus on customers and deliver products and services effectively.
Still, bankers also have to "embrace the fact that what is good for our customers is good for our business," he said.
The Huntington chief pointed to the Community Reinvestment Act, which he called "one of the best pieces of legislation that has been enacted."
The law is an opportunity to invest in a bank's community, to empower people and to help businesses expand, he said. He also dismissed the notion that CRA somehow contributed to housing crisis as "pure fantasy."
"The CRA is not just a requirement to be checked off our to-do list," he said. "It is an opportunity to showcase the unique role we play and to build strong partnerships to drive local economic recovery."
As an example of putting customers first, Steinour pointed to Huntington's overdraft policy.
While other banks were raising fees to pay for new regulations, Huntington went the other way, offering not just free checking but a 24-hour grace period to customers who overdrew their accounts.
"It cost us $36 million the first year," he said. "But we knew it was the right thing to do. And we believe that this program, as well as several other innovations… have been important factors in our record-setting consumer household acquisition that has driven our growth."
While it took Huntington nearly 150 years and 42 acquisitions to acquire 900,000 customers, Steinour said the new customer-friendly moves have brought in more than 275,000 checking accounts in the past two years.
Huntington has bucked another industry trend by lending more through the recession. In 2010, Huntington committed to $4 billion in small business and exceeded that goal, and now it is the nation's No.3 SBA lender, up from No. 15.
"We can't use the pressures of a low-rate environment, the slow recovery or the costs of regulation as excuses to fall into the traps of the past," he said. "We have to set a higher standard."
Steinour urged the bankers to work through their trade associations to make their collective voices heard in Washington.
"We need to have a voice when a few in our industry do the wrong thing and all of us are thought to be guilty in the eyes of the public," he said. "We need to have a voice when we believe change is needed. And we need to engage in meaningful, constructive dialogue with our regulators."
The newest of those regulators, of course, is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency many bankers view with suspicion.
In a question-and-answer period following his speech, Steinour spoke highly of CFPB Director Richard Cordray, an Ohioan whose nomination has been stymied by Senate Republicans in the dispute over the agency's structure.
Though Steinour stopped short of calling for Cordray's immediate confirmation, he did say: "I happen to know Cordray. I believe he's a man of principles with high ethics and a terrific leader."
Somewhat reluctantly, Steinour also weighed in on another highly charged topic — the break-up of large banks.
Pressed by a questioner on whether the industry as a whole would be better off if they were broken up, Steinour said succinctly, "Yes, in aggregate."