This month’s Corner Office spotlight shines on Christopher Williston VI, vice president of communications for the Independent Bankers Association of Texas (IBAT), the nation’s largest community state banking institution. Its members include more than 2,000 banks and branches in 700 Texas communities.
Association Adviser: Tell us a little bit about IBAT.
Christopher Williston: We’ve been around since 1974. We’re the nation’s largest community state banking institution. We have about 2,000 member banks and branches in 700 Texas communities. Our members have anywhere from $10 million to $20 billion in combined assets, but I guess you could say a typical member has about $150 to $250 million in assets. The key is that they’re focused on supporting and investing in their local communities—they’re really part of the community, not just a money source. Unlike the big multinationals, our members can’t suddenly pull out of a region. It’s their home, too.
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AA: So do you come from the banking industry?
CW: Shortly after graduating from Texas Christian University, I spent a few years as a teller and account services manager. It was good experience being in the trenches, but that’s as far as my traditional banking career went.
AA: Unlike many of the association leaders we profile, you actually didn’t “stumble” into the business, right?
CW: Actually, I kind of did [laughing]. I have a master’s in theology and spent six years in the ministry before joining the association world. But you know what? It became a job, just like any other. It was all about moving the needle—how many baptisms did we do this year? How many new members have joined the church? I wanted something I could be passionate about. I wanted to measure how we’re really changing people’s lives. I’m still very involved in my faith and in volunteering, but I wanted to get back to my family roots in Austin, Texas, and into the association world where both my father (Christopher Williston V, currently IBAT CEO) and grandfather (C. “Linc” Williston IV, longtime head of the Texas Medical Association) excelled.
AA: Tell us about the impact your family has had on your career.
CW: People in the association world know the Williston name, but that wasn’t a built-in job guarantee. I posted my resume in many, many places and finally landed a position as communications director for the Texas chapter of NAIFA (the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors). After a three-year stint there, I served as IBAT’s director of association management services before transitioning to my current role as IBAT’s vice president of communications.
AA: What’s it like working with your dad every day?
CW: Rule No. 1:Keep work at work. Our families get together all the time, but we rarely discuss work at those gatherings. Family time is too important. In terms of our styles, we’re both very passionate and strategic, but dad’s the big dreamer, focused primarily on strategy at this stage of his career. I’m more on operations—helping turn our strategy into action.
AA: Is it tough making big changes to the organization when your dad’s still at the helm?
CW: My position didn’t exist on the org chart when I first become VP of communications. It was crafted based on what I thought the association needed. For instance, information tended to be pretty siloed before I got there. Everyone on the staff needs to know what’s happening throughout the organization, not just in their own area. If they don’t know the big picture, how are they going to get word out to members effectively?
AA: What is the biggest challenge for your members?
CW: As I mentioned earlier, most members are in the $150 to $250 million [asset] range. They’re closely held, family-owned banks. Keeping up with compliance has been a big issue, especially as banking regulations have toughened since the financial crisis and passage of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Reform Act. The regs have been a knee-jerk reaction from Congress and, unfortunately, they view small MainStreetbanks (i.e., our members) the same as they view large multinationals. Our members can’t afford to attract the talent they need to keep up with all the new compliance regulations. It’s much harder for them to do relationship banking now.
AA: How is IBAT helping them?
CW: Resources. Again, our members are mostly closely held family-owned businesses. They need lots of help with compliance issues, information and advocating on their behalf. In addition to our annual conference, which attracts about 600 attendees, we publish a monthly magazine, Texas Independent Banker, plus the Capitol Comments newsletter, a “hot topics” summary of legislative and regulatory concerns, a white paper research series on important banking issues and we provide leadership training.
AA: Do you have any special strategies for recruiting and retaining younger members of the profession?
CW: For more than 20 years, we’ve had a special leadership division for the next generation of leaders within our membership. About 500 members belong. That’s important because we have a huge boomer population running banks right now and not a lot of talent to fill those roles when boomers retire. There’s also been a lot of industry consolidation, which really reduces the pool of potential members. The number of community banks in our region has shrunk from 1,000 to 600 between my dad’s time and mine.
AA: How about social media’s role in your outreach efforts to younger community bankers?
CW: Not as much as you might think. The next group coming up the ranks are Generation Xers. They’re not as deeply engrossed in social media yet. We’re taking a very long term view of social media and building it out slowly.
AA: Tell us more about your leadership philosophy.
CW: I’m a lifelong learner. I love to read, and I look for people who have the ability and desire to keep learning. You need to diversify your talent and constantly better yourself. Also, my faith gives me tremendous passion for life and learning. As my dad and granddad wrote in their “Little Black Book” for association executives, your staff and volunteers expect five things from their leaders:
- Honesty, integrity and competence.
- Clear, concise direction and accountability.
- Shared vision. How will we know it when we achieve our goals?
- A long rope. Hire or recruit the best and let them do their job.
- Recognition. Money builds net worth, but praising someone for a job well done builds self-worth and loyal servants. Recognize and praise often.
AA: Overall you sound pretty fulfilled. What’s keeping you up at night?
CW: How do we undo the harm that’s being done to our members through regulations and Congress? It’s going to drive a ton of consolidation in our industry.
AA: Any final career advice for our readers?
CW: I strongly recommend a career in the association world. It’s fun. It challenges you in many different ways. Even if you’re not a member of Generation Y, it’s great for people like me with short attention spans. Depending on how you look at it, you get to do (or have to do) so many different things, you don’t get placed into just one niche. An association career requires you to bring all your gifts to the table. Your voice will be heard. Your efforts will be appreciated, and you’ll get immediate feedback from members.