Association Leader

(Editor’s note: The following story ran in its orginal form in the May 2015 issue of Oklahoma Banker.)

By Jeremy Cowen
Senior Vice President/Communications

Like the mythical phoenix, Roger Beverage’s undying love and respect for community banks and bankers rose from ashes … the figurative ashes many years ago of a bank he himself was forced to close.

They say good things can spring from bad situations and this is very literally the case in Beverage’s career, which as president and CEO of the Oklahoma Bankers Association, is coming to a close with his retirement at the end of this month.

It happened during the mid-80s when Beverage was the Director of the Nebraska Department of Banking and Finance. He was in the midst of talking to a group of townsfolk and depositors after having to close the local bank. He remembers it happened right before Christmas and one depositor’s wife was crying, and he was trying to console her, but she just kept asking, “What are we going to do now? They’re taking our house; they’re taking our Christmas.”

It hit him then just how important these local community banks are to people, towns, cities and the nation as a whole.

“Up to that point, I really had not understood the mechanics of how banks worked and why they were so special,” Beverage said. “I mean, I knew they were good clients and good people, but I didn’t really understand what they represented. When I had to close some of these banks and went out to the resulting depositor meetings, it was then I realized what happens when you close a bank: businesses fail, doors are locked, farms sold, loans called in.

“I had $35 in my pocket and I gave it to (the man and his crying wife). I told him it’s all I had right then but I’d send him some more. I was just rattled; I had no idea that’s what happened. I know how important banks are now. I’ve seen what happens when you take them away. I’ve seen what happens to people, to families, to farms, to ranches, to businesses, to whatever – when you close the local bank, you take away their access to capital and just crush them economically.”

These events eventually led Beverage to a career of helping banks avoid those dark days of the early- and mid-80s. As the president and CEO of the OBA – a position he has held for 33 years – Beverage has been a tireless and devoted supporter of community banks, fighting endlessly to avoid seeing any unnecessary repeats of what he had to deal with as the banking department director in Nebraska.

A graduate of the University of Nebraska, Beverage initially set out working in private law practice. It was while defending clients who, while far from saints, were still innocent of the crimes of which they were accused, he learned a person really had to be emotionally invested to do his or her job correctly.

Eventually, while working as a lawyer, he met Bob Harris, who was then in charge of the Nebraska Bankers Association. Beverage and Harris soon became fast friends and when Harris moved on to lead the Oklahoma Bankers Association, he pushed his friend to replace him at the NBA. Thus began three years leading the Nebraska association, before moving on to take care of family business and make a short return to private law practice.

It indeed was a short return as after just a few weeks, he was contacted by then-Nebraska Gov. Bob Kerrey to helm the Nebraska banking department through what was shaping up to be some very rough seas in the 1980s.

“The first day I walked in, there was a big stack of papers on my desk,” Beverage said about heading the Nebraska Banking Department. “I asked my assistant what they were and she said they were reports of bank examinations. And I was like, ‘Really … why are there so many of them?’ She said it was the latest reports just on the most problematic banks in the state and that I had to make a decision on what to do about them.

“For the first six months or so on the job, I was just trying to get my arms around what was happening, because the ag sector was just imploding.”

What Beverage was getting his arms around was the fact he ended up with no choice but to close nearly 20 financial institutions that were severely under-capitalized. It was a nightmare for both him and his family as death threats were regularly lobbed his way and worry and stress filled his waking hours. It was also during this stretch he had the fateful meeting with the one failed bank’s depositors that opened his eyes to the importance of community banks.

After two VERY long years as director in Nebraska, Beverage again returned to private law practice. He was lured back to the banking realm by Harris: this time to replace him as head of the OBA in 1988. It’s a position he’s held since, and one in which he’s been nationally recognized for his successes.

In April 2015, Beverage was celebrated by the American Bankers Association at its annual Government Relations Summit as one of 12 bankers and industry leaders who go above and beyond in advocating for banks. The honor – the ABA Excellence in Advocacy award – caught him completely off guard.

“I was just stunned, it just didn’t compute for me,” Beverage said of his ABA recognition. “I couldn’t believe that I was seeing my name up there. And then (ABA Past Chairman) Dan (Blanton) said some really nice things and I was just humbled my peers and the ABA concluding I was worthy of that recognition. It really just touched my soul. I was overwhelmed and speechless … and rarely am I speechless.”

It’s an honor that came as no surprise to those who work closely with Beverage.

“My eyes have been opened, as I worked throughout the year, to what a great staff and team we have at the OBA – and I don’t say that lightly: I’ve watched Roger among his peers and he’s a leader among leaders and the ABA recently recognized that,” said OBA Past Chairman Paul Cornell, who served longer as OBA chairman (2014-2016) than any other person during Beverage’s time as president and CEO. “Not having been in that particular environment before, you don’t realize how good you have it until you realize that we are an association that is a leader among associations and that’s powerful and affirming to me.”

His fervor for the industry comes naturally as he feels he has a lot more to give to community bankers and others than the $35 he had in his pocket all those years ago in Nebraska.

“(Bankers) are under assault from regulators and special interest groups who want to turn banking into a utility,” he said. “The bankers work hard, take care of their customers, and when they do that, not only does that customer thrive and survive, but so does the community. I’ve seen that. They’re the heart and soul, the bedrock of Oklahoma communities.

“To claim that Morgan Stanley is the same as the (former) First National Bank of Nash is just absurd. It doesn’t make any sense to apply the same rules intended for giant financial services companies to community banks. You’d think anyone could be able to see that. But Congress just keeps doing what it does, and our small-town bankers are suffering a lot of unnecessary expense because they are paying for the sins of others.”