Rebeca Romero Rainey takes on ICBA chairmanship as a next-generation community banker
By Ed Avis
Assets: $210 million
Retail locations: Three
Aura and David Garver were working as personal trainers at a physical fitness spa in Taos, N.M., when they decided to open their own center about a decade ago. With no capital, the couple needed a bank that would support a startup—their first full-fledged business venture—in a tough business climate.
“Our business was a leap of faith,” Aura Garver says.
Fortunately, the couple had an important connection. One of the Garver’s clients was Rebeca Romero Rainey, chairman and CEO of Centinel Bank of Taos. Then 29, Rainey was known as a young community banker who cared deeply about the overall success of her community and the people living there.
“We approached the bank and they said, ‘You are exactly the kind of entrepreneur we like to support,’” Aura Garver recalls. “They gave us the loan that launched our business, and we just celebrated our 10th anniversary in September. It’s just wonderful to have a relationship with a local bank that is willing to support the community.”
That understanding of a community bank’s vital role in building a dynamic, growing and economically vital community, along with a special appreciation that people of all abilities, experiences and perspectives best contribute to that outcome, are qualities Romero Rainey is bringing to the position of ICBA chairman. A third-generation community banker, she will be serving for the next 12 months as ICBA’s top volunteer executive and community banking’s national ambassador starting at the end of this month’s Community Banking LIVE national convention in New Orleans.
“Every community has its own unique needs and challenges, and we need community banks in those communities run by people committed and invested in the long-term success not only of that bank but, even more importantly, of those communities,” Romero Rainey says. “Individual community banks can believe in their people and give them the opportunity to lead. I was given an amazing opportunity by my father and board to take over this organization and pour my heart and soul into what I was doing.”
A family history
Centinel Bank of Taos not only has deep local roots but also deep family roots. However, the bank began as a result of a regrettable circumstance. It began in response to one man who was turned down for a $50 business loan. That man was Romero Rainey’s grandfather, Eliu Romero.
A fourth-generation citizen of Taos and a military veteran with a new law degree, Eliu Romero had moved back to his hometown in the 1950s to start his own law practice. One day he approached a financial institution for that $50 loan to buy new furniture for his law office. A young Hispanic man who was raised speaking only Spanish, he vowed after that offhand rejection to start his own bank. That bank would be a community bank, one that he promised himself would provide equal access to financial services.
On March 1, 1969, Eliu and his wife, Elizabeth Romero, with the support of more than 300 local stockholders, opened the doors of Centinel Bank of Taos. Their son Martin, Rebeca’s father, eventually took over the bank’s leadership in the early 1980s.
In that familial way, the responsibilities, routines and tasks of community banking became a natural, everyday part of life for Romero Rainey for as long as she can remember. She was 2 years old when her father began working at the bank. She was 8 when her mom became the bank’s human resources director. Her maternal grandmother, Pat Height, was the bank’s chief financial officer for many years. Her uncle, David Height, helped transform the bank’s approach to technology, and her cousin, Winonah Bolander, helped streamline the bank’s recordkeeping and accounting practices.
“It was all in the family, whatever it took to get the job done,” Romero Rainey recalls. “Early hours, late nights, weekends, whether it was sorting checks or working through a conversion—we did it!”
Today, Romero Rainey works to keep a great family team around her. Her husband John is the bank’s marketing director. Her brother Chris is a vice president and loan officer. Her sister-in-law Leslie handles organizational and community development, and her niece Miquela is in college but also works as a teller.
Community banking and family have long been pervasive, inseparable realities of Romero Rainey’s life. While growing up, Centinel Bank was her after-school hangout. Some of her earliest memories include adult conversations among family members about running the bank. At the age of 13, she began fulfilling various jobs and responsibilities there.
“By high school, she was doing payroll and working the teller line after school,” Martin Romero recalls. “We were already having fantasies that she would become president. She’s an old soul in a young person’s body.”
Despite that early upbringing at Centinel Bank, Romero Rainey says she wasn’t always certain that community banking would be in her future after she graduated from high school. To gain new perspectives, she chose a college far from New Mexico’s high mountain desert sun and breezes—Wellesley College outside of Boston.
Life in the big city beckoned. Taos, with a year-round population of 6,000 people, has an economy based on one industry, tourism. Skiers, hikers and artists flock to Taos, some living there year round. But a college senior at an Ivy League university has a wide range of almost unlimited opportunities. Boston offered new and seemingly exciting opportunities.
So as Romero Rainey approached graduation from Wellesley, her first move was to seek work in Beantown. She thought a career in international business might be rewarding. “As I started looking at some of those offers, I started thinking about what I’d be doing and the impact I would—or would not—be making.
“That’s when it became really apparent to me that I had this incredible opportunity to come back home, work side by side with my dad and be able to see the results of what I was doing day in and day out.”
So Romero Rainey returned to Taos and found yet another place at Centinel Bank. By then she had already worked in nearly every department, and she was familiar with the bank’s people and practices. She took a position working every day beside her father to learn firsthand about leading the institution.
“For me, this was making a difference and that’s what I wanted to do—as a young person to see what I could do to make my community a better place to live and work,” Romero Rainey says. “It’s probably the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life to come back home. To be able to raise a family here and to work at a community bank, to develop relationships with our employees who are my extended family, there’s no way I could have created a better environment for me and my family anywhere else.”
Two years later in 1999, at age 22, Romero Rainey took the banks’ reins from her father. Undoubtedly among the youngest bank presidents, she was suddenly in charge of a $90 million-asset institution. The gravity of her position and responsibilities weren’t lost on her.
“At age 22, I obviously did not have all the answers, but I knew where to find them,” she says.
Romero Rainey put her stamp on the bank quickly. Her youthful enthusiasm and nurturing personality immediately impressed employees. “She empowered the employees and totally changed the atmosphere,” her father offers. “She nurtures folks and will go to the greatest lengths to take care of an employee. If you’re on her team, she will go to bat for you to the last inning.”
Empowering Centinel Bank’s 45 employees means letting them do their jobs and generously recognizing their achievements, says Angel Reyes, Centinel Bank’s president and chief financial officer. He says Romero Rainey, whom he has known for two decades, is tactful and diplomatic when discussing things that need to get done. Her leadership encourages and inspires. It doesn’t dominate.
“She’s not a micromanager,” Reyes says. “She projects a great vision for where she wants to go.”
One way Romero Rainey exhibits her vision is through daily “morning huddles” with her entire staff, something she started about seven years ago. “The idea is if we can take a little bit of time together as a team before the doors open, we can deliver consistently exceptional customer service and a great workplace,” she explains.
Romero Rainey’s vision for Centinel Bank’s role in Taos is that of a community builder. This became particularly important when the housing market crashed locally and nationwide in 2007 and 2008. Around the same time, local tourism took an economic hit from drought conditions that reduced the area’s skiing and other outdoor activities. Centinel Bank, the only community bank left in Taos, worked overtime to help many businesses weather the lean times.
“It’s been a tough five to 10 years, but we stuck by those who were with us through thick and thin, and now we are all coming into better times,” Reyes says. “And weather conditions are getting better. This last year was the best. That always brings some enthusiasm for our economy.”
The roster of local businesses Centinel Bank has helped financially is long and diverse, ranging from restaurants to retail shops to hospitals. The Taos Pueblo, a village occupied by Native Americans for more than 1,000 years, is an American historic site and community that draws thousands of tourists annually. In addition to its popular outdoors tourism, Taos is internationally renowned as a cultural arts and environmentally visionary community. The bank has supported businesses involved in both activities. One long-term client of the bank is Earthship Biotecture, a company that has pioneered building off-the-grid houses out of recycled materials. Another is internationally known artist and sculptor Larry Bell.
“For such a small community, we have a very diverse population, but our goal is to be there and support all of these initiatives, all of these groups,” Romero Rainey says.
However, Centinel Bank’s community support goes beyond lending money to business owners. Youth initiatives are a major priority. The bank funds a college scholarship program for area students and a grant program that provides teachers with resources to reward promising students in the classroom.
Romero Rainey is deeply involved in several youth initiatives, most notably the Bridges Project for Education, a nonprofit organization that she cofounded. The organization provides college counseling to anyone needing support, with a focus on minority students and students whose parents did not attend college.
“I was working on this idea to start a nonprofit in Taos to help low-income and first-generation students go to college, and dreaming about how that might happen,” remembers Pamela Shepherd, a cofounder of the Bridges Project with Romero Rainey and now an academic advisor at the University of New Mexico in Taos. “A friend of mine had met Rebeca and suggested that I meet her. So we had lunch and got excited about this idea.”
The Bridges Project was born during that lunch, and in its 18 years of existence has helped more than 2,400 high school graduates further their education. “It was really Rebeca’s gifts and skills that helped us do those things,” Shepherd says. “She has the creativity to start things and is also able to keep them going.”
Romero Rainey knows that the success of Centinel Bank—the bank now has $210 million in assets, more than double the amount when she began as its chief executive—does not depend solely on its efforts in Taos. The larger banking environment plays a major role in every community bank’s success, she says. So 14 years ago, she first began exploring the issues influencing the overall banking industry by becoming involved in the Independent Community Bankers Association of New Mexico (ICBANM).
“I was looking for any opportunity I could to ensure that my needs as an organization were being addressed, and that Centinel Bank could participate in this discussion,” she remembers.
By 2007, Romero Rainey had become the state community banking association’s chairman. In that role, she understood the importance of building relationships. So she asked ICBANM President and CEO Jerry Walker if she could join him on his yearly visits to community banks across the state. Walker agreed, and that year they visited about 75 community banks.
Today the state association’s chairman routinely makes that annual journey, a tradition Romero Rainey started.
“What the trip accomplished was that it gave her—and every chairman since then—a good sense as to what goes on in the other banks in the state,” Walker says. “We want to know what is troubling our CEOs, what is on their minds, what keeps them up at night. It also solidifies the family feeling among the members.”
Romero Rainey’s community banking advocacy work moved to a national level in 2009, when she was invited to the White House to discuss banking issues with President Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Later, she served two terms on the FDIC Community Bank Advisory Council and on the Kansas City Federal Reserve Community Depository Institution Advisory Council. In 2011, she joined ICBA’s Executive Committee as an at-large member.
“All of these experiences helped shape for me the importance of being engaged, participating in the conversations, and educating others on the truly unique model of a community bank,” she says.
As a still young community banker, Romero Rainey wants to help ICBA continue to prepare and encourage young people starting their careers in community banking. She wants to tap the creativity and energy of today’s young community bankers. That’s part of what she sees as every community banking leader’s responsibility to ensure a strong future for not just community banking today but also Main Street America.
This year, Romero Rainey says her call to action as ICBA chairman for community bankers is to get engaged in ICBA’s industry advocacy. “Community bankers are a unique breed,” she says. “We are often a humble, quiet group; we need to take credit for what we do and tell our story.
“We need our congressmen and women and our regulators to know enough about how and what we do that it becomes personal to them as well, that they become invested in the outcomes of our industry.”
Ed Avis is a freelance writer in Illinois.