Bankers' new standard-bearer

Bankers' new standard-bearer
© Greg Nash

Rob Nichols is settling into a new home. And he’s doing it by hitting the road. The new president and CEO of the American Bankers Association (ABA) has been on the job for two and a half months, and most of that time has been spent traversing the country.

“I’ve been living at 35,000 feet,” said Nichols in a recent interview with The Hill, before rattling off an exhaustive itinerary of 11 trips in two months spanning Seattle
to New York.

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Nichols has been racking up frequent flier miles meeting with ABA board members and state banking executives, and opening banking conferences nationwide.

As the new face of the nation’s largest banking association, it all comes with the gig, which the former Treasury Department official calls a “huge honor.”

But that doesn’t mean Nichols, a
father of two, wouldn’t welcome a few groundbreaking technological leaps to lend a hand.

“I’m looking for a quick, quick advancement in human cloning,” he said. “Having three of me would be a lot better — I say that with a smile.”

Nichols takes the reins at the ABA from Frank Keating, the former Republican governor of Oklahoma, who had led the group since 2011.

He comes to the ABA after heading the Financial Services Forum for a decade and finds the industry at a transitory point. The financial crisis is nearing a decade old, and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street financial overhaul is half a decade old. But the industry’s reputation still has a long way to go, as banks are frequent punching bags for Democratic, and even some Republican, presidential candidates.

It now falls to Nichols to help lead the charge to move the needle away from stricter rules on the financial sector while doing the bigger job of rehabbing the image of banks among the public, particularly younger Americans who felt the brunt of the recession.

“We’re still in a post-crisis hangover, I totally get it,” he said. “It’s no secret that the sector has taken a lot of barbs and arrows, but we just need to keep always focused on demonstrating the critical role banks play in the economy.

“We need to do a better job of that, and I think over time that will break through,” he added.

To that end, the ABA recently launched a print, radio and digital ad campaign, throwing its weight behind a package of financial rule tweaks offered by Senate Banking Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).

Nichols brings a lengthy Washington pedigree to the group. A George Washington University graduate, Nichols worked in the chief of staff’s office under President George H.W. Bush and also put in stints as a Hill staffer. Under President George W. Bush, Nichols rose to Treasury’s assistant secretary for public affairs, heading up a staff of roughly 100 as that department’s outward-facing arm.

Nichols’s shift from the Forum to the ABA is a significant one. The Forum and its handful of staff specifically serve as the Washington voice for 18 chief executives at the top of some of the biggest names in finance.

Now at the ABA, Nichols is charged with representing the entire banking industry, ranging from Wall Street giants to the smallest community banks. While the Forum was founded in 2000, the ABA dates back to 1875, making it one of the oldest trade associations in the country.

Nichols says he is embracing the transition, as he now heads an organization that spans five floors of a downtown Washington office building and employs 354 people.

But moving from representing the heads of Wall Street giants to every bank, big and small, also has Nichols now pushing for a unified front from the financial industry. For years after the crisis, big and small banks sparred over bearing the brunt of new rules, with smaller banks pushing tougher restrictions on “too big to fail” giants.

But now, Nichols is pushing for banks to join forces against common foes, such as nonbanks and tech companies looking for footholds in traditional banking services.

“Our biggest enemies are not banks of different sizes,” he said. “It’s nonbank lending, it’s the technology convergence.

“We need to lock arms and stand together,” he added.

In particular, Nichols is pushing for banks to make inroads among millennials, the generation that came of age during the crisis and is wary of traditional banks.

“They don’t know if they need a bank … but that’s 84 million potential clients and customers that we can’t give up on,” he said.

A longtime fixture in Republican offices on Capitol Hill and Washington, and the face of the banking industry, Nichols may surprise some with photos in his office showing him alongside President Obama.

In addition to his banking work, Nichols is the vice chairman and head of national advocacy for Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), a group that advocates on behalf of Americans with food allergies.

Nichols’s son has a severe peanut allergy, and when Obama signed a 2013 law encouraging states to provide easier access to epinephrine in schools that could save kids like his, Nichols was on hand for the bill signing.

He was even able to show the president how new EpiPens make it easier to administer a live-saving dose of the drug after someone is exposed to peanuts.