Former bank president turns to regulation as new commissioner

Jerry Wilson figured to spend the first six months of his retirement as president and CEO of BankFirst clearing his noggin of 43 years of banking clutter.

Good thing he didn’t quite finish the clearing. He’ll be calling on that four-decades of banking knowledge daily in his new job as Mississippi banking commissioner.

The 67-year-old Wilson, an Alva native and son of a farmer father and school-teacher mother, began his tenure as commissioner last Monday. The day marked his first venture into the regulatory side of banking since his graduation from Mississippi State University, when the young banking program graduate went to work as an examiner in the Memphis region of the U.S. Treasury Department.

But don’t call him a regulator — at least not yet. Four hours on the job is much too early for that designation, he said at mid-afternoon of his first day as commissioner.

In time he will wear that tag but for now he is still finding his way around the building, he said.

As head of the Department of Banking and Finance, Wilson leads a staff of about 60 people and has responsibility for all state chartered and licensed financial service activities outside of insurance and the death-care industry.

His immediate goal is to make bank examinations less cumbersome for both examiners and the banks, he said. And he wants to ensure his examiners are good listeners and clear in the information they convey, he added.

“Certainly, we want to make the exam process more efficient. I’m not interested in making the exam easier for the banks.”

Drawing from his time in the banking field, Wilson said bankers want a process that is fair “with open lines of communication.”

He does, however, bring a perception that “the industry is very heavily regulated” and that factor has impeded both the prosperity of banks and the communities they serve.

Unlike Alabama, Georgia and Florida, the Magnolia State does not have a lengthy list of problem banks. Wilson wants to help keep it that way. “As a former banker it should be easy for me to point out to a banker what they are doing wrong. I know what needs to be done to run a good, safe bank…. If there are some corrections to be made, I think I can do it in a very positive way.”

Appointment of the career banker fulfills Gov. Phil Bryant’s goal of putting someone with extensive banking sector experience in the job. Wilson never expected it to be him, however.

He retired as president and CEO of Macon-based BankFirst on Dec. 31, ending a 27-year stint in which he guided the state-chartered bank from a $46-million institution with a couple branches to a $732-million bank with 13 locations throughout the Golden Triangle and as far south as Madison and Rankin counties.

Wilson made his entry into the banking field in Tupelo at the Bank of Mississippi, which is today BancorpSouth. Five years later he went to Grenada to be the community president there for Peoples Bank & Trust, where he remained for 10 years.

At age 39 he took over as CEO of Merchants & Farmers Bank in Macon, which is today Bank First.

Bill Thomas, owner of Shuqualak Lumber Co., served as chairman of the BankFirst board of directors in the last half dozen years of Wilson’s time as CEO. Thomas calls him “an excellent leader” who can “make things happen.”

Thomas said he thinks of Wilson as one of the best executives for taking a challenge and “seeing it through to the end.”

Like most all banks in the last decade, BankFirst encountered some difficult times and found the post-banking crisis regulatory environment a sizable challenge, Thomas said. “We were able to plow straight through them. We kept it on the right course.”

The course included rapid growth as a survival strategy, according to Thomas. “We all sat down together and decided if we were going to survive as a bank we needed to expand our reach into other parts of the state.

Columbus came first, then West Point and Starkville and the southern outposts in metro Jackson. “We started from the dirt up” in all of them expect for acquiring a small bank in Starkville, Thomas said.

Wilson waited for the waters to smooth out before departing BankFirst. “I felt real good when I retired that the bank was in good shape,” he said.

Wilson had no plans other than sticking to a commitment to relax for six months and “get all this banking stuff out of my head.” A gig as a WalMart greeter was on his list of possibilities, he said.

Then in early spring a call came from Gov. Phil Bryant’s office. Would he be interested in replacing John Allison, who had retired after a lengthy stay in the post?

Without any political connections to Bryant or much involvement at all in politics, Wilson felt he would be a long shot, at best. Thomas, the former BankFirst chairman, thought otherwise. “He had a lot of friends who recommended him for it,” the lumber company owner said.

“I truly believe he got it on the merits of his former work in the banking industry.”

Looking at the months ahead, Wilson said he thinks his office can be a help to Mississippi’s state-chartered banks as they wade their way out of the troubles of the past half decade. “I think the main focus will be coming out of the recession. I certainly think banks have had some tough times over the last few years and we want to work with the banks as they improve their banking positions,” he said.

Banks of all sizes will face new compliance burdens from the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau mandated by the Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. “I don’t think anybody knows exactly” the extent of the compliance rules that federal officials are still drafting a year after enactment of Dodd Frank, Wilson said. “People are still finding out things.”

He expects the number of banks in Mississippi to continue to dwindle as larger ones swallow up the small ones. “Some of the smaller banks are going to have no choice but to sell out for merge or whatever,” he said. “To run your bank profitably today you’ve got to be bigger to survive.”

The move from small to big is unfortunate for Mississippi’s small towns, where the local community bank helps to stitch the fabric of the community together. “I hate to see the number of community banks decrease,” Wilson said, predicting that Mississippi banks will drop from around 80 today to fewer than 50 in 10 years.

His task, in the meantime, is to share his knowledge of sound banking practices and to see that they are followed.

“I know what you need to do to run a good, safe bank,” he said.

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