Hitting a Home Run With George Makris

Sports probably kept George Makris out of jail. 

At least, that’s his telling of it. Makris is now chairman and CEO of Simmons First National Corp, the holding company of Simmons Bank, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, but he admits he wasn’t a great kid. Thanks to the guidance of his parents and a love of sports, Makris ended up on a more straight and narrow path.

He played baseball and football at Washington and Lee University in Virginia in the 1970s and then transferred closer to home, to Rhodes College in Memphis. He took over running his family’s Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship, which has several parallels to banking. For one, they’re both sensitive to interest rates. Makris says that when interest rates rise, people tend to move from Budweiser to Busch.

While it may seem odd to go from beer to banking, Makris did so gradually. He joined the board of Worthen National Bank, a small bank, in the 1980s. Through consolidation, that bank eventually became a part of Bank of America Corp. He joined Simmons’ board in 1997. Years later, Simmons’ longtime CEO Tommy May had to step down because of illness. 

The board asked Makris to take the top job. Close to a decade later, the bank has grown from under $4 billion in assets to more than $27 billion in assets, mostly through strategic acquisitions. 

He talks in this episode of The Slant Podcast about market share and how lessons from sports can help navigate life and career. Due to technical difficulties, this conversation has been abbreviated.

This episode, and all past episodes of The Slant Podcast, are available on Bank Director.comSpotify and Apple Music.

Becoming a CEO

The chief executive officer is usually the single most important person in any organization, but it’s a job that most individuals grow into over time. The transition is often filled with challenges and difficult learning experiences.

Such was the case for Ira Robbins, the chairman and CEO at Valley National Bancorp, a $54 billion regional bank headquartered in Wayne, New Jersey. The 48-year-old Robbins was just 43 when he succeeded long-time CEO Gerald Lipkin in 2018. Lipkin, on the other hand, was closing in on his 77th birthday when he passed the baton to Robbins after running the bank for 42 years.

Robbins is deeply respectful of Lipkin but shares that one immediate challenge he faced was changing a culture that hadn’t kept pace with the bank’s growth over the years. He said Valley National was a $20 billion bank that operated as if it was still a $5 billion bank. Changing that culture was not easy, and he had to make some very difficult personnel decisions along the way.

Robbins is thoughtful, introspective and candid about his growth into the CEO role at Valley National. His reflections should be of great interest to any banker who hopes to someday become a CEO.

This episode, and all past episodes of The Slant Podcast, are available on Bank DirectorSpotify and Apple Music.

Postcard from the 2013 Bank Chairman/CEO Peer Exchange

It was cold and rainy in Chicago in early April when a group of bank chairmen, directors and CEOs gathered to compare strategies, share problems and swap stories—fitting weather for an industry that is feeling the deep chill of margin compression and rising capital requirements.

This was the fifth year Bank Director has held the Bank Chairman/CEO Peer Exchange, which is built around a small number of presentations and three peer exchange sessions where the participants (representing 43 institutions) were able to share their thoughts in a private, off-the-record setting. And if I came away with one overriding impression, it’s that the attendees are determined to run successful organizations regardless of the challenging business climate they must operate in.

Plotkin.pngAnd the operating environment for banks is very challenging, to be sure. In a comprehensive review of the state of the industry, Stifel Vice Chairman Ben Plotkin laid out a good-news bad-news scenario. The good news: Improved profitability (due to under-provisioning for loan loss reserves, so this might be bad news for the future), a strong revenue flow from home mortgage lending, capital levels that are at a 70-year high and a significant improvement in bank valuations. The bad news: Slow economic growth and slow loan growth (which typically go hand-in-hand), increased regulation and net interest margin compression.

While the sessions were confidential, I think I can share a couple of things that came out of the three peer exchange sessions that I sat in on.

  • The directors and CEOs embraced the concept of enterprise risk management (ERM) as a risk mitigation tool rather than because regulators are forcing them to adopt it (although the bank regulatory agencies are big ERM proponents). Many of the attendees have also hired chief risk officers and set up risk committees. One CEO described ERM as a profit enhancement tool since every dollar saved through risk mitigation falls pretty much to the bottom line.
  • Many of the banks have responded to the margin pressure by expanding their lending activities into (for them) new areas. Examples include municipalities, mortgage warehouse funding, auto loans (including something that sounded very much like subprime), hotels (so-called non-destination hotels rather than resorts) and franchise companies. The point is that they are experimenting with new loan categories in an effort to protect their net interest margins, particularly since C&I lending has become extremely competitive. One participant commented that C&I loan pricing has become so irrational (both in terms of loan rates and duration) that he wondered if some bankers learned anything from the financial crisis.
  • Most of the participants seemed to have adopted a stoic attitude toward regulation. Many of them feel that they are overregulated, but they don’t waste a lot of time complaining about it because compliance is not optional. It is better to focus on something that can have a positive impact on, like margin compression.

Nash__Wolohan.pngThe most poignant session was unquestionably a joint presentation by Citizens Republic Bancorp CEO Cathy Nash and Chairman Jim Wolohan. Citizens was acquired by FirstMerit Corp. last fall—in fact, the deal closed on April 12—after a long, tough fight by Nash, Wolohan and Citizens’ executive management team and board to recover from wounds inflicted by the recession. The bank had regained profitability and was making good progress on its long-range strategic plan, but the FirstMerit deal gave Citizens’ shareholders a quicker payoff than the board and management would have been able to deliver. That’s a difficult position for any board of any target company. Whose interests do you put first, those of your shareholders, or management and the board?

“You do what’s best for the shareholders,” said Nash.

While Nash and Wolohan are not staying on with FirstMerit, I think they are two very talented and highly principled individuals who will resurface in major roles very soon. Cream always rises to the top, as the old saying goes.