Looking out for Main Street banks

Looking out for Main Street banks
© Courtesy of ICBA

Rebeca Romero Rainey began her career in banking by stuffing envelopes and compiling statements for her neighbors in a small town in northeast New Mexico.

Now, she leads the nation’s largest community bank trade group, representing more than 5,000 banks seeking to loosen federal rules they say strangle their scarce resources and limit their ability to lend.


Romero Rainey started her term as president and CEO of the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA) last Monday, taking the reins of a Washington, D.C., lobbying group at a critical time for the industry.

In an interview with The Hill a day after she officially took over the ICBA, Romero Rainey, the group’s former chairwoman, said the new role was the next logical step in her mission to protect small banks and the communities they serve.

“Rules and regulation were not necessarily being written for the benefit of community banks,” said Romero Rainey, the former chairwoman and CEO of Centinel Bank of Taos, N.M.

“I loved what I was doing with the community bank. I was not looking for a change. But as we went through the process of evaluation [on] that decision, it became very clear to me that this was an opportunity to take what I was doing at Centinel Bank and apply it to every community bank in this country.”

Romero Rainey grew up in Taos, a small town with a renowned artist colony, legendary Native American pueblo and abundant skiing, fishing, hiking and biking opportunities for the slew of tourists who visit each year.

Her parents ran Centinel Bank — her dad was the president and CEO, her mom the human resources director — a small firm focused on lending to the businesses anchoring Taos’s service- and tourism-based economy.

Romero Rainey said that the dinner table conversations of her youth often focused on problems facing local businesses dependent on the success of the ski season or other volatile seasonal factors.

“That economy, based off of tourism, is not something you can predict. Our customers are small businesses that a lot of time are services-based and are operating in sort of this unknown economy,” Romero Rainey said. “It taught me that community banking is an art, not a science.”

Romero Rainey started in the Centinel mailroom before training as a teller at age 15. She worked at her parents’ bank through high school and during her summer breaks home from attending Wellesley College. After graduating, she returned to Taos and succeeded her father as Centinel’s president and CEO in 1999.

“I wanted to go back to the bank, and for me it came back to, at the end of the day, being able to see the impact of the work I was doing, and I knew that at the bank I would be able to do that,” Romero Rainey said. “I wanted to do something that would make a difference.”

Romero Rainey became more attuned to the impact of Washington during her tenure atop Centinel. She got involved with the ICBA of New Mexico, the national group's state partner, and was selected to be its chief in 2007, right as the financial crisis decimated multiple financial institutions. Then-President Obama would enact the Dodd-Frank Act three years later, imposing strict new rules intended to make banks stronger, safer and more resilient to market shocks.

With just over $230 million in assets at the end of 2017, Centinel is far smaller than many of the banks under Dodd-Frank’s purview. But Romero Rainey said that federal rules for banks generally aren’t the best fit for smaller community firms, which have to adapt to the needs of their communities.

“We would look at a small business, and then we would create a product based on those individual needs,” Romero Rainey said, recalling her time at Centinel.

“The requirements for knowing and understanding your customer and their business is the core of what we do,” she continued. “If you have the knowledge and you have that relationship, you have a sense for how that customer will weather the difficult times and how the organization, the bank, can help them through those difficult times.”

Romero Rainey joined several ICBA committees and was elected to be chairwoman of its board in 2016. The next year, the board chose her to succeed Camden Fine, who had led the ICBA for 15 years before his retirement.

Romero Rainey’s ascension comes as bank and credit union lobbying groups push President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Trump-Biden debate clash The Memo: Debate or debacle? Democrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate MORE and Congress to deliver on close to a decade of promises to roll back Dodd-Frank.

The House on Tuesday is likely to clear a Senate-passed, Trump-endorsed bill that would exempt scores of community banks from lending restrictions and data-reporting rules. Federal bank regulators are also rolling out proposals to loosen other aspects of Dodd-Frank that community banks say shouldn’t apply to small, locally focused firms.

“So much of the regulation was trying to box us in, but that’s not what the small businesses need,” Romero Rainey said.

Romero Rainey said the ICBA has a slew of other issues affecting its member firms, such as the perennial battle between community banks and credit unions over the latter’s exemption from corporate taxes, leadership of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the emergence of financial technology companies.

The group’s new chief is also focused on settling into life in D.C. after relocating from New Mexico. Romero Rainey said she relishes chances to unwind with a long run, a game of cards with her two daughters and exploring the city’s parks and nearby hiking trails — a hobby she picked up in the town where her love of banking began.