To Be a Banker Is to Be in Heaven

As a kid, I knew a boy whose father was a carpenter. The boy learned how to use a circular saw at an alarmingly young age, and he and his father built a magnificent tree house that earned the envy of the grade school. Another friend's dad was an FBI agent. The son never really knew what his father did, which ensured that the dad was perceived to be important, but the son didn't learn a trade.

My father was a banker. He ran a community bank in Valparaiso, Indiana for thirty years until the bank was sold against my dad's and my every effort to prevent the sale. I began answering the bank's switchboard at age 5. I couldn't really read yet, so I memorized twenty or so extension numbers for the most frequently requested employees and departments. I passed off the phone to the operator--my first of many bank supervisors--when I didn't recognize a name.

At 9, I was filing paperwork for various departments, and at 15 I became a teller. I still remember when my dad tried to convince me that "Congress did a good thing today." It was 1999 and Congress had just passed the now-vilified Gramm-Leach Bliley Act (GLBA). GLBA (pronounced glee-bah) freed commercial banks to engage in non-banking financial activities, such as insurance sales and stock brokering. I was seventeen years old. By the time the bank was sold, I had worked in and heard my dad's philosophy about nearly every aspect of banking, from IT to Trust and Roosevelt to Reagan. Banking came as naturally to me as carpentry to my classmate. It got in my blood.

It's easy to suppose that I was raised with a sense of entitlement about the bank. But that wasn't the case. I learned that the bank existed because of its employees and customers--not its shareholders. And that the money in the bank did not belong to us. We were its custodians. We mediated between the savers and the borrowers in an act of financial alchemy I now know to be called the "multiplier effect." The process, as we've all learned, is more treacherous than a circular saw and as mysterious as the FBI. But I grew up with it, and came to understand and appreciate the magic of collecting one hundred deposits in order to provide one loan, which generates more deposits and loans, and so on.

Upon my college graduation, my dad gave me a strange-looking picture I had made when I was nine years old. I'd drawn a large grey cat in a shirt and tie (presumably an illustration of my father, modeled after our family cat), wearing a familiar bank pin on his lapel. The cat stands in his office and next to a yellow couch sprinkled with dollar signs. Above the couch, I drew a brown wooden frame around the declaration, "To Be a Banker is To Be in Heaven!" I knew my place in the world earlier than most.

After years of working at--and then trying to stave off the sale of--the bank, completion of law school, and finally, an exhaustive (but ultimately withdrawn) pursuit to form a de novo (new) bank, I find myself playing a new role in the world of community banking--as an advocate. From here on out, I'll be blogging regularly about community banking issues--legislation, current events, publications, and generally about what community banks are and do and why they're an essential and overlooked part of our economy. I stumbled upon this opportunity after becoming enamored with the Move Your Money campaign, which was co-founded by Arianna Huffington. I hope to support that campaign by explaining just what makes a community bank unique, useful, and deserving of your money.

"To Be a Banker Is to Be in Heaven" still hangs on the wall of my home office as a reminder of the peace of mind I enjoyed for so long about the vocation. But now I can't help but wince when I consider the philosophy. It was always odd and maybe absurd, but now it just seems tasteless. To be a banker is to be an embarrassment. But it doesn't have to be. In this forum, I hope to show the world that there are banks where your money is safe, your fees are reasonable, and the service is friendly and competent. I bet there's one in your community.