Such sweet sorrow

The banking industry lobbyist reluctantly readies for retirement.

By Spencer Campbell

The second-floor conference room is filled with keepsakes, including a photo of the historical marker designating where 25 Tar Heels gathered in 1897 at the Atlantic Hotel in Morehead City to form the North Carolina Bankers Association. But Thad Woodard, the Raleigh-based group’s longtime president and CEO, focuses on a memento of failure. “The seal of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Greensboro,” he says. “We had to put a brace in the wall to hold it up. You and your brothers couldn’t lift that.”

It weighs heavy on his mind, too, because in 1977 — a year before he became president of North Carolina Savings and Loan League Inc., which later merged with the bankers association — the regional office, one of 12 in the nation overseeing thrifts, moved to Atlanta, taking with it the Gate City’s designation as a financial center. “Had I been there, I swear to you, I would have laid down in front of that moving van. We would have fought tooth and toenail to the bloody finish to keep that Federal Home Loan Bank in Greensboro.”

Ray Grace doesn’t doubt it. “He has a very rare knack,” North Carolina’s commissioner of banks says. “That’s the ability to never take no for an answer. Once Thad gets his foot in the door, he’s relentless.” Even at home, Grace can’t escape him. “Oftentimes, when I wake up in the morning and turn on the morning news as I’m getting ready to go to work, I will see Thad in my bedroom.” (It’s usually a commercial for Warmth for Wake, a partnership between NCBA and Wake County that provides heating fuel for low-income households.) Soon, however, Woodard will depart Grace’s boudoir for good.

On Jan. 1, Woodard, who’s 68, will retire after 37 years as lead lobbyist for financial institutions in the state. He’s less than thrilled about it. “I hate that, I just hate it. Hell, I’m old. But I’m 18 years old inside my body. I’m looking at you right now, thinking, ‘Don’t I look like Spencer?’”

 

"The tide comes in and the tide goes out... That's a good thing. Except when you get old and you feel young and you think, 'Man, this ain't ever going to end,' and here you are."

 

Woodard was born in Raleigh, where his father was chief federal probation officer for eastern North Carolina before being appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to the U.S. Parole Commission, thanks to the pull of North Carolina’s two senators, Sam Ervin and B. Everett Jordan. After graduating from Pfeiffer College in Misenheimer, he chauffeured Greensboro businessman Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles — father of former Clinton administration chief of staff and UNC president Erskine Bowles — who was preparing to run for governor in 1972. Bowles, a Democrat, would lose to Jim Holshouser, the state’s first Republican to hold the office since 1901, but his driver learned an important lesson. “Skipper Bowles went to see an old friend of his. He said, ‘Doc, I’m going to run for governor. What kind of car should I drive?’ And this old fellow who worked at a textile mill said, ‘Mr. Bowles, don’t you drive no Cadillac cause people will think you uppity. Don’t you drive no Chevrolet cause that’s beneath the position. You drive a Bu-erk.’ I’ve been driving a Buick since 1971.”

After the election, Woodard went to work for State Bank of Raleigh, then his alma mater as vice president of development, a job he wasn’t sure he wanted to leave when the S&L group offered him its presidency in 1978. His father told him to take the job: thrifts were beloved, and it would be a stable position. About that time, limits on interest rates were lifted, which would contribute to the collapse of the S&L industry. “Soon as I got there — wham! — that change started taking place, and it was never again to be that staid and simple business that it had been,” he recalls. “Never, never, never a dull moment.”

Deregulation culminated in the S&L scandals of the mid- to late-’80s, when many thrifts failed after making risky investments. “I often compare it to Pfeiffer and North Carolina on the basketball court. Pfeiffer could play North Carolina head-to-head for one minute. And then because of no height, no depth on the bench and going up against all those high school All-Americans, they’d be wiped out.”

As membership shrank, the S&L league became Community Bankers Association of North Carolina, which merged with North Carolina Bankers Association in 1997. The combined group kept him as president. “The old NCBA was pretty focused on the bigger banks. The smaller banks — and there were a good number of them — were not getting through the association the services they wanted.” For example, his old group had started in 1980 a for-profit subsidiary that offered health insurance to members. It also held an annual secondary-mortgage market, where bankers sold loans to bankers in other parts of the country to spread risk.

That income stream meant the organization wasn’t dependent on the patronage of big banks. “When we merged, we capped dues on big banks at $25,000. Across the country, I’ve heard stories about how much they were paying — I can’t verify them — and it was huge.” Besides, the too-big-to-fail crowd didn’t need a state-level advocate. “We’ve got single-shot rifles, and they’ll send us out in that first wave at Normandy. And we’re happy to go. That’s what they really get from us, because they’re self-contained. … We have people at other banks that count on us for every single thing.”

The number of smaller banks, however, is shrinking. Capital ratios required by the 2010 federal Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act are particularly onerous for community banks, which make up the bulk of NCBA’s members. There are myriad other compliance issues that must be met. That requires more employees. “It has been an overreaction — the smaller community banks simply are not able to survive it. If they’ve been there for a while, they’re ready to throw their hands in the air, sell their bank and walk away. If you kill this system of banks that understand local credit needs, you’re going to be faced with having to recreate it all over again. That’s where I hit a wall. Because I’m at the end of my career.”

The association plans to announce Woodard’s successor by October. He’s not involved in the search but hopes his replacement is, above all, creative because the bankers association must adapt to remain relevant, as more regulation originates in Washington than Raleigh and the number of community banks dwindles. Maybe, he suggests, that means packaging and selling loans at a deeper discount than Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or offering insurance products he hasn’t thought of yet.

“Someone will come in with different skills, different aptitudes, different perceptions,” Grace says. “So things will be different, and that’s often a useful thing.” Woodard agrees, and that’s the hardest thing about retiring, knowing his time has passed. “The realization that I’m there. I’m going to leave at 5 o’clock on Jan. 1. I always work on New Year’s Day because it brings me luck. ... So I’ll go out. My wife will come pick me up. I’ll lock the door. And I’ll probably shed a tear. I’ll give her the key, and she’ll bring it back, and I won’t ever come back. They don’t want some old gray-haired fellow with antiquated ideas and … ,” he stops. “If they need me and call me, that’ll be great.”