Observers not familiar with the banking industry might look at an annual convention in Bermuda as a boondoggle. But Al Griffith, president of the New Jersey Bankers Association, recognizes that bankers learn enough from the networking at an out-of-town convention to make a gathering like the one his group held recently worthwhile.
This is especially true now that the commercial banks have finally learned what the thrifts have known for decades: that it is a far better convention when regulators and lawmakers are invited to speak. It gives the bankers a chance to know the regulators better, explain their positions, and understand in return why the public officials take some of the actions they do.
The public officials are as sensitive as the bankers to appearances when they take a trip to a lovely place like Bermuda. Many of them pay their own way and refuse to accept an honorarium. And as for traveling first class- forget it!
Both the bankers and the public officials spurn first-class travel even if they have free upgrades because of how it looks. Meanwhile, one top regulator did not even charge his agency for the flight, instead paying personally with frequent-flier miles.
These are just a few of the tidbits I learned during the convention.
As for the convention itself, there were fewer bankers than in the past because New Jersey, like most states, now has fewer banks.
However, Mr. Griffith was proud to report that six new banks had recently been chartered in New Jersey and more may be coming.
The incoming association chairman, Kenneth T. Neilson of Hubco Inc., Mahwah, N.J., talked about the "generous" way in which many credit unions define their common-bond requirement. But he also gave a hint that New Jersey could see banks and thrifts combine their trade associations as their functions become more similar. And I couldn't help but laugh when he talked about "our friends in the thrift industry." I remember many a convention when a banker might have been ostracized for such a comment.
One notable absence in Bermuda and at other state conventions I have attended recently was representation by the major correspondent banks.
There was a time when banks like Manufacturers Hanover would send large teams of people to help the respondents and fuse relationships.
Now the only correspondents I saw were from smaller banks such as Summit Bancorp, Princeton, N.J.
I should have known that the typical correspondent bank account is not profitable enough to money-center giants to justify courting them. I tried for three months to interview Yawar Shah, senior vice president at Chase Manhattan Corp., which has just become the largest correspondent bank in the United States. But each time, our appointment was canceled, as he obviously had something more important to do than let community bankers know what Chase could do for them.