Bank Reporter War Stories (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

I had a nice interview with George Makris Jr. last week in his new office at Simmons First National Corp.’s headquarters on Main Street in Pine Bluff. (You can read the newsy parts starting here, and I hope you will.) He said he knew I had been a reporter for the Pine Bluff Commercial at the start of my career; I said it had been 25 years this month since I left.

I told him that Simmons, where he’ll become corporate CEO at the start of 2014, had given me my first credit card, with a $300 limit. It took me two or three tries before I was approved for that kind of risky credit, which speaks volumes about both Simmons’ underwriting and my income at the time.

Bankers (even Makris, who is just now becoming a banker) love stories like that. I’ve previously told in this space another story from my days as a bank customer in Pine Bluff, but it was 13 years ago, so it will seem new again:

Every Friday, I would go to the downtown drive-through window, deposit most of my minuscule paycheck and give myself an allowance of cash. My teller was always a woman named Pat. If I forgot to ask for $3 worth of quarters to wash my clothes at the coin laundry, Pat would say, “Don’t you need some quarters?”

Bankers love that story, too. That’s how they like to think of their business: good people taking good care of the financial needs of their valued customers, even those with piddly balances and no washing machines to call their own. It gives them that same warm, fuzzy feeling I get when I watch “All the President’s Men” (except bankers also know that broke, young customers can be profitable if they take regular advantage of that helpful overdraft “protection”).

At the Commercial, I was a government reporter — first school boards, then the county courthouse, then city government. I covered the election of Pine Bluff’s first woman mayor (Carolyn Robinson), and now there’s another woman in that job (Debe Hollingsworth). Twenty-five years ago, neither I nor anyone who knew me would have believed that I would become a business editor.

Several things contributed to my journalistic evolution, starting with my desperation to get away from a boss who modeled himself after Captain Queeg. The day my editor at the Nashville (Tenn.) Business Journal told me that I was now a banking reporter literally changed my life.

The first bank story I covered, in the summer of 1992, was a press conference announcing that a bank from Birmingham called First Alabama was entering the Nashville market by acquiring a small mutual savings and loan. The reporters for the daily papers — back then, Nashville still had The Tennessean in the morning and the Banner in the afternoon — were asking questions about ROA and ROE, and I was taking notes as fast as I could and putting question marks by everything since I had no earthly idea what those letters stood for, much less what they actually meant.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have asked a whole lot more questions about what the depositors in that little mutual S&L were getting out of the deal. Instead, I followed up on a tossed off comment by one of the First Alabama executives about hoping to reach $500 million in assets in Tennessee within a year.

I didn’t even know what a bank asset was. But I used the Tennessee Bankers Association directory to call about two dozen bank presidents around Nashville and asked them if they were being courted by First Alabama. I was too naïve to realize that no banker would answer a question like that. Fortunately, four of those bank presidents were equally naïve and confirmed that they were in talks with First Alabama, which, you know, is now called Regions Bank.

The next Monday, the president of First Alabama called me and said, “Gwen, what are you trying to do to me? I got 40 copies of your story by fax this morning.” Remember faxes?

That was the moment I realized I had a big story. Banking instantly became my favorite beat and remains so to this day.

***

George Makris asked me if I still had my Simmons Visa card. Um, no. Eventually, I’m happy to say, not paying an annual fee meant more than having a low interest rate.

He said he might be able to work something out for me. Now isn’t that nice?

Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.