Inside Rebeca Romero Rainey’s plans to help community banks flourish

From Taos, N.M., to Washington, D.C.—it’s been an incredible journey for new ICBA president and CEO Rebeca Romero Rainey. Here, she shares her vision for the community banking industry and tells us why its success means so much to her.

By Andrea Lahouze, Photos by Stephen Gosling

One of Rebeca Romero Rainey’s signature traits is her steadfast belief that a challenge and an opportunity are one and the same. So when I ask for her take on the community banking industry’s biggest challenges of the moment, she offers a warm smile and highlights a collection of opportunities instead. Romero Rainey, who takes the reins as ICBA president and CEO this month, pinpoints three critical factors in the industry’s continued ability to flourish: encouraging innovation, easing regulation and planning for succession.

These areas, she believes, are the keys to succeeding in a marketplace that’s changing at a rapid pace, whether that’s in terms of fintech, the compliance burden or the shifting employment expectations of millennials and Generation Z.

First, innovation. Romero Rainey defines this as how community banks can use technology to continue offering an exceptional banking experience while creating efficiencies that allow them to introduce new products and services and compete with fintech providers and the megabanks. She specifically mentions technologies that fall under the “regtech” category, helping streamline compliance operations behind the scenes so bankers can spend more of their energy connecting with clients.

Second, easing regulation. Romero Rainey says the Senate’s passage of the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act (S.2155) is reason to be optimistic.

“I think it shows the bipartisan support we have for community bank relief,” she says, “and I’m hopeful that as we get through this, it continues to create opportunities for us to tackle specific issues of regulatory burden and help to level the playing field for community banks.”

Her final area of focus is succession planning—something of which she’s had firsthand experience. A third-generation community banker, Romero Rainey took the helm of Centinel Bank of Taos at a young age. “I looked around, and there weren’t a whole lot of young people,” she says. “As we look forward, we are at a time when both management succession and ownership succession is critical. How do we help support community banks both in the development of future leaders and in creating an environment that encourages excitement about engaging with this industry?”

Advancing all of these factors, Romero Rainey says, is essential if we’re to see a resurgence of de novos entering the community banking space. She considers industry growth a “huge issue,” especially in communities that do not have a community banking presence.

A deep-rooted passion
Romero Rainey’s desire to bring community banks—and the opportunities they provide—to more people runs in the family. Her paternal grandfather, Eliu E. Romero, was a fourth-generation Taos, N.M., resident. After serving in the U.S. Navy and Merchant Marines and earning a law degree, he returned to Taos in 1953 to establish his own law office. But despite his education, service to his country and deep roots in the local community, his application for a $50 furniture loan was turned down. This experience sparked Romero’s idea to create a bank that would provide everyone in his community with equal access to financial services.

Over the next decade, he and his wife, Elizabeth, worked to secure 300 investors in Centinel Bank of Taos, which opened for business in 1969.

Almost 50 years later, Eliu Romero’s granddaughter remains inspired by his determination to make things happen. “I think, for me, that’s part of the legacy,” Romero Rainey says. “It’s not only about continuing the bank and helping to make dreams come true; it’s that determination to tackle a problem as a challenge, turn it into an opportunity and figure out how to create a win-win scenario for everybody involved.”

Romero Rainey at ICBA’s Washington, D.C., office, where she’ll work with the association’s staff to advance the community banking agenda.

Both Romero Rainey’s parents and her maternal grandmother worked at Centinel Bank of Taos, and Romero Rainey herself became a part-time teller at age 15. She left New Mexico to attend Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and visions of a big-city life and a career involving international travel appealed to her. But as graduation drew nearer, her perspective shifted.

“It began to become more real to me: What would the impact be? How could I make a difference?” she says. “I could work hard and have a lot of fun, but what would I really have to show for it at the end of the day?”

It was community banking that soon pulled her back to her roots and ultimately became her calling. After earning degrees from Wellesley and the Pacific Coast School of Banking, Romero Rainey returned to Centinel Bank of Taos. She became its president and CEO in 1999 at age 22, making her the youngest bank president and CEO in the country, a fact announced in The Wall Street Journal.

As two generations had before her, Romero Rainey threw herself into her role and thrived, taking delight in her community bank’s ability to make a lasting, positive impact on its local area. “[Community banking] is an opportunity to work incredibly hard and have an incredible career, but at the end of your day, your week, your year, you can look back and see businesses that have grown because of what you’ve done together,” she says. “You can see families and homes that go on for generations.”

From Taos to D.C.

It’s not every day that you pack up and move from a mountain town of less than 6,000 to a bustling East Coast metropolis. Among a few surprising contrasts for Rebeca Romero Rainey and her family since arriving last summer: Whereas distance in Taos is measured in miles, distance in the D.C. area is measured in travel time.

“Living in a remote area, you don’t even think twice about traveling 60 miles,” she says.

Her family has enjoyed visiting the monuments and exploring the D.C. area’s robust dining scene. Their favorite restaurant at the moment is Masala Indian Cuisine in McLean, Va. Among the monuments, Romero Rainey says the Lincoln Memorial and the Roosevelt Memorial are her favorites.

“As you climb the steps to the Lincoln Memorial and then look back to the Capitol [and] the Washington Monument, there’s something so surreal that in that setting is just wonderful,” she says. “As you walk through [the Roosevelt Memorial], you read the inscriptions and, again, as you look back to the city, it’s very humbling.”

Industry advocate
Romero Rainey’s love of her career moved her to take an interest in the broader community banking industry. She has served on the FDIC Advisory Committee on Community Banking and the Kansas City Federal Reserve Community Depository Institution Advisory Council. She is a past president and board member of the Independent Bankers Association of New Mexico. She has met with Presidents Obama and Trump to discuss key issues for community banks. For ICBA, she has served on many committees and held several chairmanships, including the association’s Federal Delegate Board and Minority Bank Council. She was elected ICBA chairman in 2016.

And so when ICBA first asked her to serve as president and CEO, Romero Rainey says she was “immediately humbled and incredibly honored.” There were many considerations, including a cross-country move with her husband, John, and their two young daughters, and transitioning out of her leadership position at Centinel Bank. Romero Rainey says her ultimate decision came down to the opportunity to help ensure a strong future for community banks.

The power of storytelling

As a Latina, a woman and the nation’s youngest bank president and CEO when she took the helm at Centinel Bank of Taos, Rebeca Romero Rainey is a rarity among community bank leaders. But for her, those distinguishing factors are just another opportunity to build more connection points with others.

“For me, it was an opportunity to take these factors that were a little unique about myself and the organization and use them as an opportunity to tell our story,” she says.

“It came to be not just about Centinel Bank but about every community bank in the country,” she explains. “Over my year serving as [ICBA] chairman, I had the opportunity to see the amazing work that was being done, to meet the bankers who had put so much of their lives [and] their passion into what they were doing. And this opportunity to … do whatever we can do to ensure that they are supported, that the industry thrives and that each individual community bank has that opportunity to grow stronger in the future and is supported in doing that, has become an incredible calling for me.”

That calling has brought Romero Rainey to ICBA’s Washington, D.C., office to fight for the continued vitality of community banks. Part of that vitality is ensuring a leadership pipeline of talented people. For her, attracting young people to the profession is about telling the community banking story, highlighting the industry’s ability to make a positive, lasting impact on the communities it serves. Also key, she says, is differentiating the community banking industry from banking in general.

A barnstorming performance

At this year’s ICBA Community Banking LIVE, Rebeca Romero Rainey brought the crowd to its feet. Here’s a glimpse of what she said.

  • “If anyone can talk about inspiration that translates into meaningful change for the communities we serve, it’s community banks.”
  • “More than 16 million people in roughly one in three counties would have limited or no physical access to mainstream banking services without the presence of community banks.”
  • “The relationships we have with our customers … of helping them with their dreams of new homes, of new business opportunities, of building the future for all of us … it’s the ultimate collaboration, inspiring the very lifeblood of our communities. That is who we are.”
  • “Every community deserves an independent community bank invested in and dedicated to its successful future, and all Americans deserve to have a community banker on their side.”

“I think there’s an incredible opportunity for us to define more what being a community banker is,” Romero Rainey says. “And so, what does that look like for community bankers? It’s getting out into the local high schools and participating in the career fairs and being very deliberate in the comments about defining what it means to be a community banker, not just a banker. The potential for impact that you can make in the community, the potential to learn different skill sets—I think that’s something that is often overlooked.”

The next generation
She also wants to give young people more chances to engage with the industry firsthand. Romero Rainey cites an annual Conference of State Bank Supervisors case study that invites students from several colleges and universities to study a community bank and talk about its activities and business model. She encourages community bankers to offer internships that give students a glimpse of life as a community banker. “[Internships have] always been something I believe very strongly in from a mentoring perspective,” she says. “There’s also some reality in terms of the tasks that we do that a part-time high school or college student can be very helpful with, whether it’s getting projects done, training on the teller line or helping some of the other bank employees to engage with technology.”

In terms of her leadership style, Romero Rainey says she is a collaborator who enjoys bringing multiple ideas into a conversation. “I firmly believe that the ability to come up with these solutions for our challenges and opportunities is a collaborative process,” she says. “I love to listen and really, as a leader, think it’s imperative that I understand what the challenges are before we do anything else.”

The third-generation community banker already has a keen understanding of many of those challenges. “I know what the impact of regulation is, I know what the challenges are as it relates to grooming that next generation of leadership,” she says. “I understand, I relate, and I can bring that with me to Washington.”

Romero Rainey is most excited to work with fellow ICBA staff to help the industry and the association to continue to thrive. She hopes her love of her career will help inspire a continued passion within ICBA that will help it excel in its mission. And she will measure her own success in the role by the same metrics that gauge the vitality of the community banking industry: its long-term performance.

Romero Rainey says her life’s work is to achieve ICBA’s mission.

“My life’s work is to ensure that everything we do contributes to creating and promoting an environment where community banks flourish,” she says. “I look forward to developing a framework with my team that helps us gauge our success and highlight the future needs and challenges of our members.”

Striking a balance

In her busy life as a leader, wife, mother and volunteer, Rebeca Romero Rainey’s balance-seeking strategy is to take things one day at a time but to measure balance over time and not daily.

“No day is perfect, but every day gives me an opportunity to learn, grow and interact with those I enjoy spending time with,” she says. “The life lessons, moments and opportunities I experience and cherish ultimately make me better at everything I do.” Her roles also tend to benefit one another. For example, Romero Rainey says, “As we at ICBA talk more about bringing up the next generation of community bankers and advocates, I’m so glad that my daughters have an opportunity to see what this great industry is all about and how it makes a positive difference in this world.

Romero Rainey in Taos, N.M., with her husband, John, and their two daughters.

“The important values I’m able to instill in my children by doing the critical mission-driven work I do also helps me find balance.”

She adds that a strong familial support system is key. “If I need help, I ask for it,” she says. “Our family is all in this together, and one person’s success is our family’s success. When I was asked to consider the role of ICBA president and CEO, our family made the decision together. John and I sat down with our girls, and we talked about the opportunity, what it would mean and if it was something we wanted to pursue.

“I’m so proud that we made this decision together, because it makes the ICBA mission a family mission.”

Andrea Lahouze is deputy editor of Independent Banker.