New Small Bank Leader Goes From High Desert to K Street

By Jeff Bater

Rebeca Romero Rainey has known only one employer since graduating college two decades ago: the community bank founded by her grandfather in Taos, N.M., that finances local art galleries, home mortgages, and car purchases.

Next year, Rainey will leave behind Centinel Bank in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and replace Camden Fine as leader of the small bank lobby in Washington, the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA).

Rainey isn’t exactly a newcomer in the nation’s capital: She has served on the FDIC’s advisory committee on community banking and is also a past chair of the ICBA. In that capacity, she appeared before the Senate Banking Committee last year to discuss the burden of Basel III capital requirements on small banks.

Running Centinel amid unfolding layers of bank regulation has helped prepare her for the challenge of becoming a Washington insider and leading the ICBA, Rainey says. “I’ve spent time in the city and have had opportunity to engage in this type of work,” the third-generation community banker said. “I’m also bringing my 20 years of direct experience here at the bank and the stories, the opportunities, the challenges to Washington.”

20 Years of Experience

Rainey’s transition from the small-town Southwest to the nation’s capital seems dramatic, but it’s not all that different from her predecessor’s experience. Fine chartered and organized Midwest Independent Bank of Jefferson City, Mo., and served as its president for nearly 20 years before joining ICBA in 2003. He also owned MainStreet Bank of Ashland, Mo. and had served in state government as the Missouri tax director under former Gov. Christopher “Kit” Bond.

Nevertheless, Rainey may find the job “significantly easier” thanks to the work Fine did building “a powerhouse organization that’s respected all over town,” Better Markets President Dennis Kelleher told Bloomberg BNA.

“Building on that foundation is going to be Rebeca’s challenge,” Kelleher said. “The second big benefit she gets is unlike Cam she gets to push on an open door in a political environment that’s broadly aligned with interests of community banks and the ICBA.”

President Donald Trump met with community bank executives in March and assured them he’ll deliver regulatory changes that will make it easier for them to lend money. Rainey attended the meeting and told reporters afterward Trump was receptive to their ideas about regulatory reform.

Blaming Overregulation

The power handoff at ICBA comes at a challenging time for small banks. Since the 2008 financial crisis, bank formation has dried up. Rainey blames overregulation.

“We’ve really got to have that steady influx of de novo charters starting with regulatory relief that’s tiered and proportionate,” she said.

Asked for a sense of when regulations began snowballing, Rainey said, “To point to an exact time period is hard. For me, where the scales have become more imbalanced probably goes back even before Dodd-Frank, as we started seeing some of the Credit Card Act legislation,” she said. “It feels like it’s just one more piece on top of another.” The Card Act was enacted in 2009, followed by Dodd-Frank the next year.

Rainey said she’d been preparing for a state examination in recent days that required her bank to submit 1,700 pages of pre-examination information. “To me, that’s just not proportionate to the risk. It’s a perfect example of how so much has been layered on.”

Jay Jenkins, who runs Carlsbad National Bank in Carlsbad, N.M., pointed out Rainey has “the experience of actually running a bank pre- and post-Dodd Frank, recognizing the regulatory challenges and burdens passed on to customers and our industry regarding the excessive overreaching regulations.”

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau mortgage rules were a tremendous burden, and now community banks are preparing for the agency’s heightened reporting requirements under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, Rainey said. Centinel faces examinations for information technology risk, the Bank Secrecy Act, compliance with state and federal banking laws, and safety and soundness.

A Fintech Opportunity

A big challenge that her predecessor didn’t face when he took over the ICBA reins is financial technology. As head of the lobbying group, Rainey’s task will be to make sure as fintech firms evolve, that they operate under the same standards as community banks.

“For me, that is the challenge to ensure we have that level playing field,” she said, adding that it is an “incredible opportunity” for community banks to leverage technology. “It’s the answer to how we continue to meet the evolving needs of customers.”

Kelleher says fintech is a challenge for all banks, but small lenders have “a decisive advantage.”

“Their business model is built on the ties and relationships with the communities they operate in, as distinct from the bigger banks, which don’t benefit from local knowledge,” he said.

Grandfather’s Bank

Rainey’s grandfather, Eliu Romero, founded the bank in 1969 after he was denied a loan to finance his startup law practice.

She began working there at age 13, answering the telephone and doing other sundry chores. “That was still in the day you were sending paper checks in the mail. I sent out a lot of statements over time,” Rainey said. “At a community bank, you wear any number of hats.” She also trained as a teller, a job she was promoted to at age 15.

She decided on a career at Centinel because to her, seeing the impact of what she was doing was really important. “You walk through the community bank and see people you’ve worked with over the years,” Rainey said. “You drive through the community and see businesses you helped formed, you see construction projects.”

Chat with any community banker long enough and the phrase “relationship lending” eventually creeps up. Small banks proudly tout their business model as one based on making loans that bigger lenders might not extend.

Centinel helped a local resident buy an FCC license to start the first Spanish radio station in Taos that has since expanded throughout the region, and assisted local artists wanting to buy and renovate their studios and galleries.

Taking a Chance on ‘Earthships’

Rainey likes to tell of one local venture Centinel got behind: Earthships, which are off-the-grid homes made of recycled materials.

“On paper, it was a completely new, untried technology,” she said. “But it was something we believed in in terms of wanting to help our community find the answers for responsible growth, construction and alternative forms of energy.”

The alternative energy homes were developed by a local architect, Michael Reynolds, and Centinel began working with him early in his career.

“We helped finance the original construction loans and to this day continue to do this,” Rainey said. “Now, he travels internationally to train on the technology and the specific type of building. He travels to disaster sites, uses rubble to help create housing.”

Rainey uses the anecdote to illustrate the value of small-bank lending. “It all started here with a concept and a community bank that was willing to get to know what he wanted to do and believe in his ability to make something happen,” she said.

“You could go to any community bank and find those unique needs and consumers and dreamers that are making things happen.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Bater in Washington at jbater@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Ferullo at MFerullo@bna.com

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