The new president of the American Bankers Association is not your average cowpoke.
Hjalma E. Johnson does speak with a drawl. The 65-year-old banker even dabbled in cattle ranching for years, until his ticker started acting up. "It was a real joy for me," he said. "I just kept my work clothes on my truck."
But he is equally happy herding dollars.
Mr. Johnson has been chief executive officer at five banks since the 1970s and remains chairman and chief executive officer at one he founded: $105 million-asset Bank at Ormond-by-the-Sea in Volusia County, Fla.
The onetime systems engineer and International Business Machines Corp. mainframe salesman can also talk about information technology until the cows come home.
"The Web and the Internet already are bringing enormous productivity benefits," he said in an interview last week. "But they hold vastly greater opportunities. It is the infancy."
Mr. Johnson, whose first name -- pronounced YA-ma -- reflects his Norwegian ancestry, says he has several goals as he begins his one-year term as ABA president today.
One obvious goal is to help financial reform legislation become law, a banking industry obsession for decades. Letting banks, brokerages, and insurance companies own each other would make U.S. companies more competitive and reduce costs for consumers. Mr. Johnson said small banks would get some breaks, too, such as the ability to pledge small-business, farm, and other loans -- not just mortgages -- as collateral for advances from the Federal Home Loan Bank System.
Financial reform would also clear away what Mr. Johnson called the "regulatory debris" that prevents financial companies from making unfettered choices about where to direct their capital. "That's what free enterprise is all about," he said.
A self-described optimist, Mr. Johnson gives the bill a "better than even" chance of being enacted this year, despite persistent clashes over the Community Reinvestment Act, unitary thrifts, and powers for direct bank subsidiaries. He pointed to the unprecedented unity of the bank, thrift, insurance, and securities industries as a positive sign.
"Hjalma goes into everything like he is about to charge San Juan Hill," said Alex M. Sanchez, chief executive officer at the Florida Bankers Association. "We need people like that in the banking industry because we have been too passive in recent years."
Mr. Johnson's chief obsession, however, is the Internet. "At the end of my year, I'd like to look back and see that all of us in banking have a better understanding of what this power is, and what it can do," he said.
Mr. Johnson speaks excitedly about ABAecom, a for-profit ABA subsidiary designed to give banks a central role in electronic commerce. He says the industry has a leg up on others offering "digital signature" services because consumers already trust banks with their money.
"We think this is as big a 'killer app' as will ever come down the line," he said, a reference to Larry Downes' book Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Dominance, which is required reading among ABA higher-ups. "We see all types of financial transactions being handled through the banks."
"The ABA is so serious about finding the next 'killer' Internet application that it is talking with several information technology consultants. "We've got some substantial money budgeted for this," said Mr. Johnson, a former president of the Florida Bankers Association and an ABA officer since 1995.
Mr. Johnson describes his own company, Bank at Ormond-by-the-Sea, as technologically "behind the curve." The three-branch bank just recently began offering telephone banking, and its Web site is not yet transactional, though it will be soon.
Bank at Ormond -- whose officers include Mr. Johnson's wife, Laura, and son, Leonard -- is not a profit leader, either. For the quarter that ended June 30, its return on equity was 5.51%; the average is 12.67% for commercial banks with assets of $100 million to $300 million. Its return-on-assets ratio was 0.36%, versus 1.24% for its peers.
Mr. Johnson called Bank at Ormond's relatively low profitability ratios "part of a plan." Earnings are partly consumed, he said, by a free stock ownership program. Employees now hold the second-largest stake in the bank, at 27%. "We do that with pride," he said.
Profit is also constrained by a risk-averse lending policy. "We will not stretch for yield," Mr. Johnson said, a policy he called "very much in synch" with regulators' wishes and one that has kept the bank's chargeoffs to a minimum. Because of a dearth of commercial lending opportunities locally, Bank at Ormond is limited mostly to issuing residential mortgages, he said.
Mr. Johnson had a rude introduction to Washington politics this year. As one of four ABA representatives chosen to pursue a merger with the thrift trade group America's Community Bankers, he had a first-class seat when the deal went down in flames.
Yet he remains upbeat, noting that the two groups will soon begin meeting regularly to discuss policy and organizational issues. "Obviously, we wouldn't go back next week and talk about putting this (merger) together," he said, "but that is not off the table. There are wonderful synergies there, and the items that divide us are so small."
Mr. Johnson -- who is also managing director of Synagen Capital Partners Inc., Orlando, and president of Investment Advisors Inc., Dade City -- can hold his own when pushed.
During an appearance before the Senate Banking Committee in February, he exploded after a witness for the Independent Insurance Agents of America accused banks of pressuring customers to buy insurance before approving a loan. "Have you had any complaints come to you about tie-ins?" he asked Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C. "No, sir," the senator responded.
In 1975, he nearly drove New York City into default by demanding that Chase Manhattan Bank and J.P. Morgan & Co. make good on a $1 million city bond that had matured. The banks blinked.
In addition to his cattle ranch, which he now leases out, and a ski home in Colorado, Mr. Johnson owns a 24-acre tract called Feather Hill Farm that is home to him, his wife, son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. A converted chicken coop on the farm hosts parties for the teenagers. A renovated barn houses cars and other vehicles.
When Mr. Johnson turned 65 in August, his family threw him a party. A giant sign they tacked on the side of a barn poked fun at his upcoming ABA promotion.
"First, Andrew Johnson, 1865, then Lyndon Johnson, 1964," the banner read. "Now, Hjalma, 2000."