Boardroom on Fire: A Bank Chairman's Painful Lessons from the Financial Crisis

April 9th, 2019

chairman-4-9-19.png“A sheriff’s car pulls up—the bank is on lockdown.” David Butler wistfully recalls that day in 2009; the day he lost everything.

“It was pretty traumatic,” he admits. “You have to ask tough questions. Can we survive it? What do we do? What's our exit strategy?”

The events that transpired that fateful Friday afternoon send shivers down the spines of every bank director—the worst case scenario. No, not a robbery. The other worst case scenario.

“The FDIC comes in. They lock the doors and secure all our records before anyone’s allowed to go home.”

Butler was a founding board member of Western Community Bank. Western was big, state-chartered and publicly-traded. In 2007, they acquired a chain of banks with a sizable chunk of money tied up in Florida real estate. It was a ticking time bomb—and, spoiler alert: it was about to go off.

The early fallout of the housing market crash saw Western hemorrhaging $6 million a quarter, making Butler’s board an easy target for regulators.

“The FDIC wanted litigation wherever they could get it; half the time, even where they couldn’t,” he groans. “The public wanted heads to roll and we made perfect targets.”

Western had a clean public shell; no run-ins with the SEC—they were squeaky clean. But as the recession raged on, it became clear that “clean” didn’t cut it. “People were investigated, detained even, based on what? The suspicion of malfeasance? Yet we saw banks engaging in improper, verging on illegal activity walk away scot-free.”

This federal fishing expedition left Butler with a lingering paranoia; the fear that an army of pencil pushers sporting black suits and earpieces might knock on his door to have their Mission Impossible moment at his expense.

One month into 2009, Western’s shares plunged 95 percent. The finger of blame inevitably found a target. “Our CEO was a great guy, but the recession hit him like headlights on a deer,” Butler laments. “We asked him to resign. It was one of the most painful things I’d ever done.” The resulting shuffle in leadership landed David in the role of acting chairman.

“My job primarily became keeping morale up as we scrambled to find a partner,” he recounts. “We didn’t want depositors losing money, but we didn’t want to lose depositors. If they’ve got half a million in the bank, telling them to move it is hard, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Depositors weren’t the only people Western risked losing. The FDIC shot down attempts to offer retention bonuses, leaving Butler at the mercy of employees’ goodwill. “How do you ask someone not to jump ship when they’re waist-deep in water?”

As Butler fought to keep all hands on deck, Western’s board was rocking from the turbulence of days spent sparring over the bank’s balance sheet and late-night conference calls consumed by quarrels over how and where they would stretch its tier one capital.

“You can’t measure the character of your board until it’s been strained.”

“We had our share of those who didn’t stay the course,” he concedes. “Some resigned; some pointed blame—but then there were the ones who stuck it out. Even when it looked hopeless; even when tensions ran high, their commitment never wavered. I hold those people in the highest regard to this day.”

It was an act of bittersweet mercy when, in May 2009, the other shoe finally dropped.

A cease-and-desist order earlier in the year saddled Western’s board with a bureaucratic obstacle course of audits, reorgs, policy rewrites and loan appraisals; with no less than 15 deadlined reports to the state banking commission. One of the many hoops the board was forced to throw itself through required a reevaluation of Western’s loan loss reserves; an amount they determined to be $33 million. Butler was called to meet with the FDIC shortly thereafter.

“They sat me down and told me we needed $47 million,” he says. “I told them they were about to close my bank. We all sat there silently for a minute.”

Three months later, the state banking commission seized control of Western Community Bank, just $2 million shy of meeting its reserve requirement. The bank was turned over to the FDIC and sold to a local competitor for pennies on the dollar.

Where was Butler—the man who risked it all—that Friday afternoon when they came to take it all away?

“Our legal counsel advised us to stay away from the transition to avoid any situation where we might be questioned without an attorney present,” he explains. “So my wife packed a picnic basket and we drove to the beach.”

What about the anger, the resentment, the righteous indignation at the hopelessness of it all? “There was plenty of that to go around,” he admits. “The fact that we could fail was all they needed to treat us like we would. But you reach a certain age where you don’t have time to be angry. There’s no use holding onto all that bitterness.”

A decade has passed since that Friday afternoon when Butler lost it all. Murmurs of a looming recession seep from the rich vein of alarmist gossip to circulate amongst those with a finger on the pulse. “If those kind of whispers reach your ears, it means you've kept one to the ground,” Butler posits. “If you’re a bank director, you’ve got a choice. You can pick that ear up off the ground and look towards the future. Or,” he adds with a grin, “you can bury the rest of your head.”

jpeinhardt

John Peinhardt is the president and CEO of Directorpoint LLC. Prior to Directorpoint, John served as a management consultant for Vantage Associates, Inc., where he advised management teams on strategy execution, large-scale project management and project portfolio management.

eglasgow

Ellen Glasgow is the Vice President of Directorpoint, providing quality board management software to the financial sector. Ellen is dedicated to helping banks make better decisions across the board. She can be reached at Ellen@Directorpoint.com.