Making a difference has shaped the life and work of Ohio community banker Steve Wilson, and will guide him in his leadership of the ABA in the year ahead
There’s a bit of activist in Steve Wilson. That’s ironic considering he was a Navy ROTC student at Ohio’s Miami University in the early Seventies, about as “establishment” as you can get. Wilson is hardly an anarchist—in fact he could easily be considered the quintessential friendly community banker—but the chairman and CEO of LCNB National Bank, Lebanon, Ohio, has a feisty streak that shows up when he sees something he considers unfair or improper. Negative advertising is one example. Wilson particularly dislikes it when banks take potshots at other banks or at the industry in general.
Earlier this year, while walking the exhibit hall at a state bankers association conference, Wilson spotted an exhibitor whose parent (a bank holding company) had been running such ads. Wilson stopped in and told the fellow on duty what he thought of the practice. But he didn’t stop there. He buttonholed several other bankers at the meeting to do the same, prompting the representative to place a hurried call back to headquarters saying, “We’re getting killed down here.”
“That sent a strong message back to them,” says Wilson, smiling as he recalls the incident.
All of which tells you something about the man who will be ABA Chairman beginning this month. He’s not one to sit quietly by. In whatever he does, he likes to make a difference.
That’s a big reason why he’s a banker and not a senior naval officer.
Dress whites to pinstripes
Within days of graduating from Miami University in dress whites in 1972, Wilson headed to Athens, Ga., for Navy Supply School. “The Navy, in its wisdom, assigned me to banking and food services,” he says.
Ensign Wilson was responsible for feeding 900 crew members of the U.S.S. Sierra (AD-18), a destroyer tender—basically a moveable naval base. At times that total could swell to include the crews of up to six destroyers. He had four divisions of men working for him—cooks, stewards, disbursing agents, and mess cooks. In addition to feeding the sailors, he was responsible for handling their pay and leave money.
While Wilson didn’t “see the world” during his three-year hitch (he spent much of it in Charleston, S.C.), he did learn some valuable management lessons that he uses to this day. His management book of choice? The Division Officer’s Guide to the U.S. Navy.
Each morning Wilson would muster his divisions, inspect them, and present them with the “Plan of the Day.”
“I would tell them, ‘We’re going to do this, this, and this’,” he recalls. “Basically I set expectations.”
By the end of his hitch, Wilson, by then a lieutenant, had an unexpected decision to make. As the son of a banker, he had decided before college that he would like to be one himself. However, the Navy made him a generous offer: promotion to lieutenant commander and a $15,000 bonus (this was in 1975) if he would stay in.
One thing was clear: Being a banker would initially be less lucrative—not insignificant to a young man recently married. Nevertheless, Wilson chose banking, even though it meant starting as a teller.
“A naval officer is always in transit,” he says. “As a community banker you put down roots and can do something for the community.”
Having been a banker now for 35 years—president of LCNB since 1989, CEO since 1992—Wilson has no regrets.
One example of doing something for the community that he’s particularly proud of is the YMCA in Lebanon. It is the largest single-site “Y” in the world, with five and half acres under its roof. Astronaut Neil Armstrong was one of the five original founders in the mid Seventies. Wilson served as auditor back then, and was the organization’s fourth chairman. He has served as a director or trustee ever since.
Not a ship, but shipshape
Wilson is somewhat unusual in that he succeeded his father, Howard Wilson, as CEO of a bank that is not family-owned. LCNB National Bank (formerly Lebanon Citizens National Bank) was founded in 1877 and has essentially been a publicly owned institution from the start. To Wilson’s knowledge, no one person has owned more than 5% of the bank. Shares of the $775 million-asset, one-bank holding company that owns the bank are listed on the OTC Bulletin Board.
Also unusual is the fact that this career banker has never made a loan. He’s sat in on “a million” loan committee meetings, but has never personally handed a loan note across the desk to a borrower. Wilson came up mainly through Operations. As a result, he has a good feel for the importance of technology.
As CEO, Wilson doesn’t muster the 250 employees of LCNB Corp. daily, or issue a Plan of the Day, but he does have very clear expectations. Two of these are: be a top-rated bank by regulatory guidelines, and maintain a return on assets of 1% or better. During Wilson’s tenure, the bank’s ROA has never been lower than 1% for any year.
And no, the employees don’t wear uniforms. But in other ways Wilson’s Navy background (and his personality) make for a very shipshape operation—the antithesis of a dot.com company. Things are organized, orderly, and neat. Wilson wants his employees to dress up—at least those who interact face-to-face with customers. There are not even regular “casual Fridays.”
“It shows respect for the profession,” says Wilson.
He’s a big believer in delegating. “Instill your people with responsibility and then watch and check,” he tells his managers.
Delegating—and having good people to delegate to—allows Wilson time to think through where the bank needs to be in the future, not to mention where the industry as a whole is headed in these tumultuous times. It also allowed him time to serve eight years on boards of the Fourth District of the Federal Reserve (two years in Cincinnati, six on the main board in Cleveland). Wilson says his Fed service was one of the biggest highlights of his career to date. “I was one-ninth of a one-twelfth vote on the Federal Open Market Committee,” he quips.
Hanging out at the Golden Lamb
One of the CEO jobs that Wilson has had to cut back on, reluctantly, is community obligations. There were many days, over the years, when he would eat all three meals at Lebanon’s iconic and historic hostelry, the Golden Lamb. It’s where most of the city’s civic groups hold their meetings. Opened for business in 1809 as the first stagecoach stop on the route north from Cincinnati, 26 miles to the south, the Lamb has played host to an amazing roster of notables, including 12 presidents from William Henry Harrison to George H.W. Bush. Among other famous guests: Charles Dickens (who left in a huff, but has a bedroom named after him); Mark Twain; and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
The four-story brick hotel is one of the major reasons downtown Lebanon still thrives, notes Wilson, despite having five malls within 20 miles. The city, which has a population of about 20,000, has other draws besides the Lamb. It is a well-known antique center, as well as home to a famous Shaker museum. A harness racing track is another attraction, as are the nearby ATP Tennis Center, the TPC Rivers Bend Golf Club, and the King’s Island amusement park. The county has a large base of industry, as well.
More than that, Lebanon, as Wilson likes to say, is the political center of the universe. It is the county seat of a swing county in a swing state. In his lifetime, several presidential candidates have come through town, stopping to make a stump speech on the front porch of the Lamb, the most recent being Sen. John McCain and his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin.
The merits of saying “no”
Wilson freely admits that, for most of his three decades at LCNB, Warren County and the adjoining five counties in southwest Ohio that are the bank’s market have been an ideal place to do business. As the area grew, the bank has grown along with it from $203 million in assets in 1989 to $775 million currently, with 25 branches.
In the past two years, of course, the picture has changed. A commercial real estate boom ground to a halt, and the travails of the domestic auto industry has pushed unemployment to double digits throughout the bank’s market.
Through both growth and retrenchment, however, the bank never changed its conservative lending standards. Delinquencies and charge-offs are up, to be sure, but much less than the bank’s peers, according to Wilson.
“We’re probably one of the most conservative lenders you’ll ever run into,” he says. “That’s a tradition that goes back through my father and through presidents past.” (The bank’s loan-to-deposit ratio typically averages about 70%.)
“One of the best things we ever do for our customers is tell them ‘no’ [on a loan request] if we think they are not going to be successful,” says Wilson. He points out the contrast between that traditional approach to banking and transaction-based, non-regulated lending, where the players have no motivation to say no.
As other lenders have pulled back in commercial real estate, LCNB has been picking up business, selectively.
“We’ve been inundated with people who want us to lend to them,” says Wilson. “But we’ve always required two things: no more than 75% loan-to-value, and ‘skin in the game’—a personal guarantee.” Those standards pretty much kept LCNB out of the CRE market during the go-go days. Now, when a prospective borrower protests about signing personally, Wilson’s response is, “We’re going to be in this together. You’re not going to throw those keys on my desk.”
Three signs point to success
Much has been written about how the additional regulatory burden resulting from passage of the Dodd-Frank Act, along with other new rules that restrict revenue growth, will cause many community banks to look for a buyer over the next few years. Steve Wilson doesn’t disagree with that scenario, but he doesn’t plan to be one of those checking out.
Wilson, his board, and the rest of his team are confident they know what it takes to remain independent. The first requirement is a given: You have to have good people. “This is a people business,” says Wilson, “and we have a great team.”
Beyond that, a bank has to do three things to survive and prosper, he says. “If you fail to do any one of the three,” he adds, “you will probably have to sell.”
The first requirement is straightforward: The bank has to make money to keep shareholders happy.
The second requirement is a little less obvious: The bank must keep up with technology and new products. “You can’t just continue to do the same old things in the same old way and not make changes,” says Wilson. “That has brought down more community banks than anything else.”
LCNB has kept up with technology for a long time. All its data processing is done in-house, and it offers customers remote deposit capture, PC banking, and check imaging. LCNB was also a pilot bank for Cisco’s voice over IP (internet protocol) phone systems.
The third requirement is: “You absolutely have to be superior in customer service.” One way LCNB does that is by answering every call in person—no “push one, push two.”
“It’s amazing to me that that’s become a unique item,” says Wilson. The bank trains its people to serve the customer at the point of first contact.
The year ahead—reinstilling pride
It’s been 13 years since an Ohio banker became ABA Chairman. The last one was Bill McConnell, CEO of Park National Bank, Newark, Ohio. He was installed at ABA’s 1997 convention in Boston, which, it so happened, Steve Wilson was attending. Wilson says that conference “fired me up for the ABA.” Soon afterward he was named to the association’s Community Bankers Council (now America’s Community Bankers Council). More than that, listening to McConnell’s acceptance speech prompted Wilson to think, “I’d like to do that.”
As his friend Benedict “Bick” Weissenrieder, CEO of Ohio’s Hocking Valley Bank, says of Wilson, “Once Steve determines to do something, he does it.” Along the way, Wilson served as chairman of ABA’s Government Relations Council and on the association’s Board of Directors, among other positions.
Wilson’s primary challenge during his term will be dealing with the fallout from the massive Dodd-Frank Act, especially its offspring, the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection. Also critically important, however, will be overseeing the leadership transition at ABA with the retirement of CEO Ed Yingling at the end of this year.
While dealing with these issues, Wilson’s goal is to help restore the industry to its rightful position of trust and respect, which suffered greatly during the financial crisis.
Wilson grew up seeing the high esteem in which his father was held. Surveys used to show bankers rated above ministers in terms of trust, he says. “Today, we’re rated below lawyers.” This is a matter of great concern to him.
“I’m proud to be a banker,” he says. “But we’ve been vilified in the media because traditional community banks were linked to Wall Street investment banks, mortgage brokers, and other nontraditional financial services players.”
Wilson says a “traditional community bank” can be any size. He defines it in terms of serving the communities the bank operates in, and understanding that the success of the bank is dependent upon the success of its communities.
“We need for people to understand again that banking is an honorable profession and that bankers care about their customers and their community,” says Wilson.
The first step to accomplishing that, he believes, is to reinstill pride in employees, so when they hear someone talk negatively about banks in the grocery store or in church, they’ll speak up and say, “Wait a minute, that’s not true.”
In addition, local image advertising—supported by ABA materials—as well as speeches to the Rotary, meetings with local reporters, and writing opinion pieces for local papers will all be required.
The Wilsons: at home and on the road
Visitors to the home of Steve and Diana Wilson can spot interesting design elements here and there. Like the diagonal molding on a pair of dining room cabinet doors, or the trapezoidal mirror in a guest lavatory. “That’s Diana’s touch,” Steve says.
The lively former elementary school teacher likes things a little oblique. If it were up to Steve, everything would be symmetrical. As in all good marriages, they’ve learned to compromise.
Their home’s location is a compromise, too. Being adjacent to a woodland green space gives it a bit of a country feel for Diana, who grew up in a rural Ohio. But the house is still within Lebanon’s city limits for Steve, who “likes utilities.”
Despite the heavy ABA travel schedule, the Wilsons find time to be with family. Steve kayaks when he can on the nearby Little Miami river with his son, Brett, who works at the YMCA and lives in Lebanon with his wife, Megan, and their daughter, Natalie, and son, Taylor. The Wilsons also drive up to Cleveland to visit with son Scott and his wife, Nicole—both graphic artists—and their two children Jude and Saige.
Visiting their daughter Kara and her husband, Nick, however, is a little tougher—the two are National Park Rangers currently stationed at Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California. Undeterred, Steve and Diana rented a Penske truck last year and drove from Lebanon to Lassen with some of Kara’s furniture. Steve allows that if he had to have a blue-collar job, he would be a truck driver. Diana, riding “shotgun” on the trip, helped him get into the role by sporting a Penske cap and faux tattoos.
Most years the family gathers for a week-long fishing trip on a lake in upper Ontario with several other families. Fishing, not golf, is Wilson’s favorite pastime—especially “fishing with my grandchildren.”
Perhaps Bick Weissenrieder sums up Steve Wilson best: “He’s very organized, very much a family guy, and spends a lot of time being prepared for whatever he needs to do.
“Steve gets engaged in life,” says Weissenrieder. “He doesn’t just watch it pass by.” •
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