He was a senior in law school in 1973 when his father, who ran Gothenburg State Bank in Nebraska, died. Williams put his career on hold to take over the family owned bank.
Nearly 40 years later, he remains the chairman and president of the $125 million-asset bank. In mid-October, he will become the chairman of the American Bankers Association, joining a long list of Midwestern bankers to lead major banking groups. (Jeff Gerhart, a fellow Nebraskan and the chairman and CEO of Bank of Newman Grove, is chairman of the Independent Community Bankers of America.)
In a wide-ranging interview last month, Williams discussed his priorities for the ABA, the tough act of balancing the needs of large and small banks, and why Midwesterners make good leaders.
The following is an edited version of his remarks.
How did you get into the advocacy side of banking?
Ten or 12 years ago I became very involved with the Nebraska Bankers Association. Through that involvement I saw what the ABA was doing on a national level. The reason I chose the ABA route is because the [group] represents banks of all sizes. I think unity is extremely important. We have the ability to sit at our board table and hear the views of banks of all sizes, all charters, all business models, and all geographies.
The ABA is excellent at representing the general, overall view of all banks. Advocacy is one of the most important things that an association can do for banks. We are an industry that is greatly affected by rules, regulation and legislation. It is just a natural thing for me to be involved with that.
What are your biggest priorities as the ABA chairman?
Our industry has always been one that has faced change as far as challenges with regulation. That's been the situation for years, but it has certainly been accelerated right now. Specifically, we have the Basel III proposals that are out for comment right now. For those banks, including our bank, that have spent time looking at the effect of the proposed rules of Basel III, it has major effects on most of us.
The implementation of Dodd-Frank as we move forward continues to have consequences to banks of all sizes. We continue to recognize that banker unity can be very helpful in addressing these issues in Washington.
How do you balance rules that divide banks based on size, geography or capital strength?
That's the beauty of the situation that I've been in, where I have been working over the years with the grassroots involvement of the ABA. With the government relations committee that I've served on for years, I've had the opportunity to sit at the table with banks of all sizes. So we have a unique ability to understand how different proposals affect banks and then form an advocacy strategy that complements everyone as best as we can.
Other than regulation, what are the biggest challenges for banks?
We oftentimes get caught up in talking about how much things have changed. I'm always reminded that the more things change the more they stay the same. What I mean is that the most critical aspect of all of these changes is people and leadership. That part does not change.
One of the challenges for our industry in a time of stress is continuing to recruit and retain new talent into our industry. One of the things that happens when you go through periods of economic strife . is just a feeling of helplessness or a lack of excitement about the industry. I'm terribly excited about the future that banking has. We've come through many challenges before . and we have survived because we have had a purpose and a committed leadership. The challenge is to continue to energize people and help them realize that banking can be a solution in our country.
We're not the problem, and yet, clearly, bankers are still trying to reclaim that reputation. We're working hard on that. .
I'm the banker that is 1,362 miles from Wall Street, but it isn't that distance that makes me a community banker. It is the community that I live in. The number that I always throw out is 3,080. That's the number of volunteer hours that my bank's 28 employees committed last year to efforts in our community and the surrounding area. You name it and we've been there. That's what bankers are doing all around our country. So telling that story helps us repair the image that has been damaged.