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American Banker - On Focus and In Depth

Thursday, July 7, 2011, as of 09:42 AM EDT

American Banker's 2007 Banker of the Year Awards Dinner

American Banker  |  Friday, November 30, 2007

There was no denying that this year's credit crunch was on the minds of honorees and attendees alike at American Banker's seventh annual Banker of the Year ceremony, but a festive atmosphere still dominated as honorees focused giving credit to the people they said got them on to the podium.

Indeed, teamwork and appreciation may have been the words most often uttered by the year's winners, who were saluted by an audience of more than 350 bankers and regulators at the gala black-tie event at New York's Pierre Hotel last week, and who often turned the spotlight right back toward their colleagues.

As James E. Rohr, PNC Financial Services Group Inc.'s chairman and chief executive, who was named the Banker of the Year, put it: "Tonight is about a team of people who for the last five or six years have been rowing the oars pretty much the same way."

Several times during his speech Mr. Rohr expressed surprise at being honored.

"I never aspired to be Banker of the Year. I never even considered it possible," he said.

Mr. Rohr, who was recognized in part for his company's deftly-handled acquisitions of several troubled institutions, said in an interview before the ceremony that PNC would not be looking to apply that particular skill set to shopping for lenders mauled by the current environment.

"We can handle regulatory issues, and we can handle accounting issues … because we know how to address them," he said. "But credit risk is different. The problems there last longer, and they cost more."

Elizabeth R. James, the vice chairman at Synovus Financial Corp., also cited teamwork as a key factor in her recognition as the Innovator of the Year. She was honored for her role in establishing the Columbus, Ga., banking company as a pioneer in electronic payments.

"It is a blessing to work at Synovus," she said, accepting the award on behalf of "hundreds of other" people who helped make the company an industry pioneer.

A self-deprecating sense of humor pervaded the comments of several recipients and was put to most effective use by the community bankers honored.

William S. Stuard, the president and CEO of F&M Bank in Clarksville, Tenn., who received the Retail Performer award for building business with event-led marketing, delivered the evening's best punch line, recounting what he said was a discussion he had with his wife on the flight to the event. "I asked her, 'In your wildest dreams, did you ever think we'd be in New York picking up an award like this?' She said, 'William, you know, you've never been in my wildest dreams.' "

As the room burst into laughter, he said, "I guess that's the reason I like working so hard."

Robert A. Glassman, the founder and co-chairman of Boston's Wainwright Bank and Trust Co. and the recipient of the Advocate award, honoring his company's commitment to community development lending and progressive causes, had an anecdote of his own, citing with ironic gratitude "the bank examiner who, after reviewing my lending portfolio 20 years ago, thought I had a future in philanthropy."

Thomas S. Wu, the chairman, president, and CEO of United Commercial Bank in San Francisco and its parent, UCBH Holdings Inc., gave an emotional speech in which he thanked his wife, Jessa, for her support, and recalled in particular the 1998 management buyout of UCBH, a transaction that was the first of its kind for a U.S. bank. "We sold everything we had back then to raise the cash," he said. Mr. Wu received the Builder award for his turning UCBH into one of the nation's largest banking companies serving Chinese-Americans, with $11 billion of assets.

The credit crunch did take center stage several times and was certainly a topic of conversation in many asides. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, the keynote speaker, used his comments to deliver a sobering assessment of the mortgage crisis. (See story here.)

L. William Seidman, the Lifetime Achievement Award winner and former Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. chairman, continued on the thread, leavening his remarks with a bit of sharp humor.

"We are looking at a major problem" if the U.S. government is called to bail out a major institution like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or Citigroup Inc., Mr. Seidman said as attendees tucked into chateaubriand.

If nothing that drastic occurs, then "this is one of the rare instances when the real losers finally are the rich," he said.

Earlier in the evening, during a video played to the audience, Mr. Seidman got one of the biggest laughs all night — and a review of "pretty radical" from one audience member — when he quipped that in the mortgage crisis "the little guy is getting his revenge" on financiers through his inability to repay a loan.