The last time I discussed my new job, thinking Hebrew, involvement in Promise Keepers and a day on the Mall in DC with Stand in the Gap. However, I need to go back a bit into that year and tell the parallel story before moving this series significantly forward.
My cup not only ran over in spiritual matters, it ran over in my occupation. After the equipment company fiasco I had retreated to a home office. I returned to my first love as a small business banker, originating and underwriting loan requests in my region. I was the first officer hired in the expansion of my new banking employer, which was a financial company owned by a bank holding company that owned a half dozen smaller rural banks. Those banks needed earning assets due to the lack of business activity in their areas. Our operation was able to provide them.
The global loan volume for small business loans that were guaranteed by the U. S. Small Business Administration and USDA guaranteed loan programs among other programs did not rise to the level of Wall Street investment houses being interested in the purchase of the guaranteed portions. However, numerous regional brokerage firms had institutional buyers interested in their purchase if packaged into larger pools, which would then be sold and securitized by Wall Street firms for sale into hedge funds, pension funds, insurance companies and so on. As more lenders entered our line of business through the years, industry profitability and influence began to increase due to the number of jobs created or saved with the business financing. The politicians began to take notice and support better as it gave them talking points in their districts.
In summary, what President Reagan and his administration envisioned in the 1980s with their modifications and boost of the industry worked. The ride was bumpy because it was a political football, but trending up as a whole for the industry.
As 1997 rolled around my book of business had grown greatly as professionals in the region learned what type of financing we could provide. That understanding led to many referrals of prospects from their clients. Add in that our company’s loan growth had increased with the addition of a couple more production officers similar to me in other regions of the state. The growth in volume began to concern ownership as we had become the largest volume lender of our type in the state, far surpassing the volumes of the big banks.
Concerned about the monster they created, ownership decided to hire a new senior credit officer (SCO) from the most conservative big bank in America at the time, Wachovia. SCO’s are charged with making sure the loans fit bank and regulator policies and requirements before they are approved and made. Executive management sets the parameters and criteria for approval. So, with the arrival of a new SCO from a highly conservative big bank, we knew we had major changes coming in the loan approval process. The CEO of our operation became concerned immediately as did I. We knew from our past experiences this was a signal of tighter credit and that the owners wanted to slow the loan volume down. Instead of increasing the deposit base to fund additional loan volume, they were choosing to throttle what they had authorized to be built, which was successful. The dog caught the car, became scared and did not know what to do with it.
Our cottage industry’s trade organization had a biannual conference coming up in the spring of that year. As things go for Goober Gump, they were holding the conference in our family’s favorite vacation spot of Hilton Head, SC. In addition to being the industry’s primary trainer, the conferences had become happy hunting grounds for recruiting new hires by employers throughout the country. with a large number of management recruiters on hand.
The holding company major owners had not consulted with us about their obvious plan to decrease the loan volume of our operation, which had already started, when they had other suitable alternatives available. We did not require huge growth in deposits since we sold the 75% guaranteed portion of the SBA loans. My ever growing referral sources and customers needed dependable funding sources as the economy was in high gear. My CEO received a cut of the profits from our company’s operations as his commission. He was a significant stockholder within the bank holding company, whose future profits would also be impacted by the decision that he was not consulted about despite being on the Board of Directors.
My CEO and I made a plan. It was time to go shopping for a new business home.
Boy, was it ever. Goober Gump and his CEO were in demand it seemed. Our steady rise to #1 in the state surpassing the big boys had not gone unnoticed in the industry.
If you have ever been to the SC beaches in late April and early May, it is usually spectacular. The temps are about 75-80 degrees with loads of sunshine and the environment is gorgeous. Upon our arrival, wife and daughter hit the beach and pool while I was in meetings for a few days. In the evenings there was entertainment and great food with families invited into a pavilion area overlooking the ocean. A photo op waiting to happen. They did things right and good times were rolling with attendees. We became acquainted with many interesting people.
As we visited with each other the discussions would turn into informal job interviews. Part of our plan was to separate and do our own fishing expeditions, which worked well. By the time the conference neared its end both my CEO and I received six informal employment offers, three of which were from the same potential employers.
Landing this many informal offers meant we needed to review them before the end of the conference and rank the three we shared in order of preference. We wanted to stick together as my CEO wanted to stay in management and I wanted to stay in production, so we eliminated the choices that did not include a package deal. We both immediately settled for the same #1 choice and agreed on the #2 that would be the back-up. We scheduled a breakfast with our #1 choice for the last day of he conference.
Boom. It was over quickly. It all fit like a glove and had great upside. Their leader had made calls to his bank’s President/CEO the evening before our meeting and received approvals to proceed. We had met our future boss as well as his SCO, so we knew their loan parameters and criteria. They were both as excited to expand their operation into the eastern U. S. as we were.
As I look back, it was the single most important and correct career decision I ever made. The Lord had been clearly opening the doors every step.
The new bank employer, SierraWest, was headquartered in beautiful Truckee, CA with a large regional presence also in Reno, NV. The bank already had a large small business finance division in the west, however, they wanted to grow its branch presence and felt that the division could provide the profitability they needed to get that done. By adding an eastern U. S. region, they would also be more attractive for acquisition by a larger bank that may want a national commercial government guaranteed loan presence to springboard into new markets.
When one enters that industry, it is so specialized that you learn you are really employed by the industry, not by your bank employer. Employers in banking come and go. Their appetite for what you do comes and goes with it. However, once you are a proven performer, you will always have a good job and opportunity with active lenders in the industry. The stable of horses who can win is limited. Fortunately with her own banking background, Rock Star began to realize this as well. It was a change from her cradle to grave employment perceptions, but she got past it.
We knew our new employer would probably sell in a few years before we joined them. We also knew California banks were the absolute best in our industry at this line of business and that we would benefit from the experience. We had hitched our wagon to one of the few industry leader stars. He was highly respected, knowledgable, fun to be around, and overall good guy who gave you the tools and got out of your way. If you had a problem or needed assistance, just pick up the phone and call.
If we needed another home in a few years because the bank sold or the lending climate changed, he would take us with him if we did good work. Meanwhile we would build our own network over time and begin building the back office support staff to handle all aspects of credit and loan processing ourselves. That would make us even more valuable to potential employers.
Not long after I had joined SierraWest and had closed a few transactions in 1998, a health issue stopped me. I was playing some driveway basketball with the neighbor kids and daughter, when I was accidentally tripped and fell awkwardly. A previously balky, problem knee from my younger days in sports was blown out. After a visit to an orthopedic surgeon who handled the athletes at the University of Tennessee, I learned my knee needed reconstruction for an ACL tear and severe meniscus damage. My new employer was gracious and gave me all the time I needed for the surgery and recovery.
While grinding it out in therapy, I spent a couple hours a day, a few days a week with this guy…
He was an iconic fixture in the Knoxville area as a restauranteur, businessman and all around high quality person. I knew of nobody in the area who did not personally like the man as well as his restaurant. He had the quality of being a friend to the homeless man on the corner or the king in a royal court. He mentored many leaders in the industry. However, he was most known for being a very close, lifelong friend of Dave Thomas of Wendy’s. Bill and Dave knew each other and worked together as teenagers, when Bill took Dave under his wing. They remained close all of their lives until Dave passed. He was a frequent visitor to our area as well as in Bill’s home and restaurant.
The only time I had ever witnessed Bill express anger and frustration was toward his therapist who he claimed was killing him after a knee replacement. 😂 We had surgery about the same time and used the same orthopedic clinic and therapy center. We would laugh at each other while the torturers worked the other over. Our experiences would come up whenever I had a business luncheon or took Rock Star to his restaurant. We complained, however, we both acknowledged our therapists were outstanding.
Things were going very well and I was able to get a number of higher profile projects and businesses financed locally to build our story. It was in the year 2000 when we were told to be on a conference call.
The expected had happened. The bank was being sold to the much larger Bank of the West out of Walnut Creek, CA, which was owned by the French international banking conglomerate of BNP Paribas. Which incidentally just completed the sale of the same Bank of the West to Canadian banking conglomerate, BMO Financial in January of this year. Will leave BNP Paribas for another day, but let’s just say they don’t mind cheating, violating sanctions and thieving; or paying the resulting huge fines and penalties for having done so when caught. So the net they keep must be off the charts to justify their criminal activities.
My first thoughts were, this will not work. We learned that Bank of the West (BOW) only had three SBA business loans in their entire $10+ billion loan portfolio. By comparison our division closed more loan transactions than that every week. Add in that our average loan size was $650 K while theirs was $3 M. A major loan culture clash was incoming.
It was obvious they wanted our bank to expand their branch banking presence in the west and to put lipstick on the pig relating to small business finance in local communities to assuage regulators. We also learned that our bank’s President/CEO was going be named the head of our small business lending division for BOW with our current boss being given a one year parting gift after he finished transitioning our unit. That was not going to work well either. The President/CEO knew very little about our line of business and our boss was a leader in the industry that was loyal and helpful to his troops. Besides, our boss had moved past being just a manager. He and his wife, who also worked for the bank, had become our friends. The trust factor had been addressed over several years.
Over the next several months we went along with it. Then I noticed an interesting, red flag thing. My regional manager tried to spin it that it would be great being at BOW. I suspected it was primarily because he was receiving a bigger salary while being able to keep roaming around having fun with little responsibility.
Meanwhile, the other production officers were as apprehensive as I was. They all had been contacting me for years as I had been named a senior officer to mentor and answer their questions. I had enough at that point, our pipelines were dying with the changes. After talking it over with Rock Star I informed our manager he had 90 days to find us a new home or I would have to make other arrangements. I wanted to continue doing what I did in a better lending environment. Our relationship had changed over the years from friendship and being co-workers doing what we did well to more of him being a distant supervisor I rarely saw anyway.
About two months into it, the manager called and said he was having no luck in finding a good fit. I doubt he had even tried as I kept getting recruiter calls from prospective employers weekly. He asked that we give it more time, that he expected it would get better as they had announced plans in meetings. I smelled a rat, that he had been given a sweet salary deal to stay, which was confirmed later. About the same time I had the largest deal of my small business career tanked by BOW credit officers through their refusal to use local, more qualified appraisers on a hotel property financing project. It was an intentional, sneaky way of declining a credit worthy loan that had already been approved by our lending partner in the deal, the USDA. It was the final straw. I began talking with recruiters.
A week later our outgoing division boss called me. Previously he had asked that if he landed a good spot, would I be interested in joining him. I told him I would. This time he asked if he could come by and see me after he returned from vacation with his family to DisneyWorld as he was winding down his transition duties at SierraWest/BOW. I asked when, to mark my calendar. Then I nearly fell out of my chair. We were going to be in DisneyWorld that exact same week!
Like I’ve said many times before, stuff just happens with Goober Gump.
We made plans to meet a day after arrival for dinner with the families. He and I met a couple more times while the families hit the parks. He had accepted the CEO role of the existing small business finance division of Imperial Bank in Inglewood, CA. It was a $5 B in assets, NYSE listed business bank. The division was one of three primary lines of business in the bank. There would be no issues with commitment to what we did or with funding it because it was the second most profitable line of business in the bank that they wanted to increase and emphasize even more. Several of the more productive division employees at the former SierraWest were coming to join him at Imperial.
He wanted me to join them under one condition, that I would be his eastern U. S. Regional Manager who would develop a production, underwriting and processing operation for our part of the country east of the Mississippi River. He was not interested in hiring my manager at all. He then enlightened me on the problems he had with the guy, that he had been placed on a quiet probation recently and that BOW had indeed inked him to a contract that our former SierraWest President/CEO had executed. Seems some palace intrigue had developed behind the scenes. What that former President/CEO thought about my manager proved how out of touch he was.
I was still grateful my soon to be former manager had provided an opportunity when we were going through difficult times as a family. We parted on amicable terms and would visit with each other at conferences. However, I no longer trusted him. It was not long before BOW pulled the plug on his region and job. He has bounced through multiple employers around the country through the ensuing years as a sales manager, which simply reinforced my decision was correct.
The Imperial opportunity meant I could remain in production for as long as I had time for both producing loans and leading the eastern U. S. development. Over time as the region’s volume grew I would exit production and hand off my referral sources to a hand picked successor. I was to be hired as an executive officer of the bank with signing authority to purchase assets needed to open and maintain offices, approve division expense reports, etc. The #2a to go with the SCO in his different function as #2b in the division
Needless to say, he had successfully drug me back into management. It was a no-brainer. This time I was paying attention to what doors the Lord opened instead of doing my own thing.
Our new CEO of Imperial’s division had mentored me into a more advanced delivery system in our industry. I had no idea at the time that I had mentored him into the faith. Over the years at SierraWest and the following years he had invited me to stay in their home when I came out for meetings instead of the usual hotel stays. In doing so we were able to get to know more about each other; our interests, families and career plans. One morning over breakfast in their home before I left to return to TN, they asked me about the book I was reading. They knew I loved the Lord and was a church goer in the Bible Belt. I told them it was a devotional book I read and prayed over every morning. I gave them my witness and asked if they had ever considered placing their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as they never talked about church or anything related. They acknowledged that they went to church some when they were kids, but never really followed up on it as adults. We talked for awhile and I left them my Bible as a gift before he drove me to the airport.
A couple of years later they were happy to tell me that they had accepted Jesus as their Savior and joined a local UMC congregation where they lived in California. They both had gone through divorces previously as had Rock Star and I. They had recently learned she was pregnant, just as we experienced. Something clicked in that they were shown that forgiveness and eternal life are available at the Cross for all who have sinned, troubled or are questioning the meaning of life. They reminded me of how much I meant to them years later as I also reminded them how much his employment and mentoring meant to me and my family. I realized the primary reasons God had placed us in each other’s lives. You just never know… unless your eyes have been opened.
Stick with me as I continue to set the stage for what is to come as it builds. Hopefully you are getting an operational view from inside banking and small business finance as well as how the Lord pays attention to even the smallest details of His children’s lives. He closes and opens doors all of the time if we are paying attention. As always I invite you to…
There is a hunger in all of us that can only be satisfied one way. Nothing else will do it.