Agenda is full for ABA’s new chairman, but it all starts with COVID

James Edwards Jr. would prefer to spend his one-year appointment as chairman of the American Bankers Association pushing for regulatory reform or innovation — hallmarks of his recent predecessors’ terms.

Instead, the third-generation Georgia banker steps into the high-profile role amid the throes of a pandemic that has reshaped society, whipsawed the U.S. economy and tested the banking industry’s mettle on numerous fronts. The last time a new ABA chairman faced a massive challenge was 2008, when Arthur Connelly, CEO of South Shore Bancorp in Massachusetts, began his term at the height of the financial crisis.

Coronavirus “is the No. 1 thing affecting all of our lives,” Edwards said in an interview. “We’ve all adjusted to a very new reality.”

Bankers’ reponse to the coronavirus and its continued spread throughout the country topped Edwards’ list of priorities when he formally accepted his title last week during the ABA’s convention. The association’s flagship gathering, originally set to take place for Boston, was instead conducted virtually for the first time because of the virus.

“As an industry, we have a lot that we must stay focused on,” says James Edwards, CEO of United Bank and chairman of the American Bankers Association.

Edwards, CEO of United Bank Corp. and its $1.8 billion-asset United Bank unit in Griffin, Ga., said the ABA has not lost sight of industry challenges — anti-money-laundering reform, clarity on cannabis banking, rules and regulations for fintech and credit unions — but helping banks lead customers through the depths of the pandemic-induced tumult rises above all else.

“Banks large and small stepped up in big ways” when virus outbreaks arrived last spring, Edwards said. “We really became economic first responders. That was incredibly helpful at a very scary time … and we need to continue to lead and get people through this.”

The best example, he noted, was banks’ collective effort to handle the Paycheck Protection Program — the $659 billion emergency Small Business Administration lending response to the initial commercial shocks of the pandemic.

United Bank, which covers rural areas of central Georgia and Atlanta’s outer suburbs, closed more than $150 million in PPP loans in a matter of weeks. In doing so, Edwards said, the bank drew from all corners of the its expertise and digital capabilities. Both, he said, have only accelerated in importance.

Digital banking has proven a vital cog in the broader financial wheel as bankers look to assist businesses and consumers during a public health crisis that limits physical interactions. Those channels are enabling transactions, both simple and complicated, to help customers that are unaccustomed to managing accounts online.

“The PPP reminded or informed so many of our customers that, in this age, digital channels are so efficient,” and it reinforced that relationships with bankers “are vital,” Edwards said.

Laurie Stewart, who just wrapped up a year as the ABA’s chairman, echoed that sentiment in her convention speech.

“I want to encourage you not to give up,” Stewart, the president and CEO of Sound Financial in Seattle, told bankers who had tuned in remotely. “We all worked so hard this year, and we can see the reward in the jobs saved, in the communities served, and in the clients who were steadied.”

United Bank, which launched interactive teller machines seven years ago, has since invested substantially in digital platforms. Those decisions proved crucial in the bank’s ability to swiftly respond during the pandemic’s onset and to continue to serve clients without interruption.

The ABA will place a heavy emphasis on guiding banks that need to develop digital operations, provide information on pandemic lending programs, and advise on best practices for navigating future challenges created by the virus.

Diversity and inclusion efforts are another important part of Edwards’ agenda. Banks must emphasize diversity when recruiting and training leaders, he said.

United Bank, for example, runs a yearlong mentoring program called Leadership United. In addition to developing future management talent, the effort adds to the bank’s recruiting arsenal by attracting bankers from varied races and backgrounds. The goal is to have United Bank’s workforce reflect the customer base it serves.

“This is an area we can all grow in,” Edwards said.

Edwards will also find ways to promote all the ABA’s other regulatory and policy priorities such as AML reform, clarity when it comes to banking marijuana companies and continuing a fight to have credit unions taxed.

“As an industry, we have a lot that we must stay focused on,” Edwards said.

“Nobody really knows yet when we are going to be on the other side of” the pandemic, he added. “So we have to adapt to this and stay on top of everything else that’s so important for our industry.”


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