Building better bankers

School helps financial professionals prepare for stronger careers

Bankers gather for orientation at the Alabama Banking School.

On Oct. 22, 2023, dozens of banking professionals will meet at the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel. Though they will come from many different areas throughout Alabama, be at various stages in their banking careers and have very different backgrounds, titles and interests in banking, they will all be seeking the same thing — eventual graduation from the Alabama Bankers’ Association’s prestigious Alabama Banking School.

In 1975, Alabama — much like the rest of the United States and even the world — was struggling with a deep recession that saw record-breaking unemployment numbers and high stagflation.

The Alabama Bankers Association (ABA), however, had a plan. It adopted a proposal to create a new banking school, the first for the state, called the Alabama Banking School, or ABS. This program would enhance participants’ knowledge and skills in banking, custom-designed for the needs of Alabama-based banks. The inaugural class convened the next summer in 1976, and since then, the Alabama Banking School has helped many banking professionals bolster their skills and enhance their careers.

Scott Latham, the current president and CEO of the ABA, elaborates on the school’s uniquely Alabamian history: “The chairman of the education committee in 1975 was Kay Ivey, who was a banker at the time,” says Latham. “She actually… proposed the creation of the school. Soon, that school will be 50 years old. We’ve graduated over 2,000 bankers, and there are seasoned, experienced bankers all over the state who talk about their years at the Alabama Banking School.”

At first glance, the school’s structure can sound deceptively barebones: one 40-hour week of classes once per calendar year for three years, with case studies to pore over in the evenings and practical home study problems to work between class sessions.

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However, the course load is decidedly thorough. Lawrence Johnson is an executive vice president, commercial lender and project manager at Friend Bank in Dothan and is one of the most recent ABS graduates, having finished the program in 2022. For him, the knowledge he has gained comes in handy on a regular basis. “I’ve still got my notebooks from the Banking School that I’ll pull out from time to time and refer to for something about title insurance or… liquidity.”

Ann Hamiter, a commercial relationship manager at United Community Bank in Birmingham, is a 2009 graduate of the Alabama Banking School, and was invited in 2020 to join the program as a class director. She points out that the skills and information gleaned in the ABS has a very broad appeal for bankers. “When I went through as a student, I graduated understanding the entire bank — not just the retail/commercial relationship side of banking.”

And the condensed timeframe of in-person classes does not pose a significant hurdle, according to Johnson. “They hit the nail on the head. They do a good job in a short amount of time, taking folks and giving them information that can benefit them for an entire career,” he says.

Topics for the three-year program cover the gamut of banking, from academic subjects like banking history, accounting theory, banking law and economic principles to nuts-and-bolts instruction in topics like bankruptcies, title insurance, tax return analysis and commercial lending. Up-to-the-minute trends, such as cybersecurity and cryptocurrencies, are also covered.

The week of in-person instruction posed a particular challenge in 2020, with the rise of the pandemic. That’s when the ABS transitioned to an entirely paperless model.

Scott Latham, president and CEO of the Alabama Bankers Association.

“We have now adopted software exactly the same as used in colleges called the Canvas Learning System,” remarks Latham. “So, everything we do now is online — [students] bring a laptop, they take their tests online, they receive instruction and notes ahead of time online.

“It’s certainly a classroom experience, but we’ve lifted the paperwork out of it.” While such a complex change could have come with a host of complications, Latham takes pride in the school’s painless transition. “It could not have gone smoother.”

The in-person week of courses not only provides students with valuable face-to-face time with seasoned instructors, but also with a chance to network in the industry.

“Our industry is a small industry. It is a tight-knit group,” says Johnson. “We genuinely do work together.

“You’re taking bankers from all over the state and shoving them into a room for a week and they’re having a beer or two, having dinner afterwards. Those relationships are just as important as the things you learn in the classroom.”

Ann Hamiter, commercial relationship manager at United Community Bank in Birmingham.

Hamiter is particularly proud of the class she directed. “[They] showed themselves to be a class of one rather than a class of individuals… The class lost a class member after their first year. They, as a class, sent a donation to his church as a memorial and additionally donated in his honor upon their graduation. I was proud to be one of them.”

First- and second-year students have final examinations to ensure they have grasped key concepts before moving forward. By the end of the third year, the broad base of training has provided such a foundation of knowledge that students try their hands at running entire banks — virtually. Students form teams and must successfully navigate a virtual banking simulation known as BankExec, a powerful computer-assisted virtual banking simulation created and administered by the American Bankers Association.

Teams decide on participants’ roles — CEO, marketing officer or chief financial officer, perhaps — make decisions and compete against the other teams’ banks for the week, then give presentations on their results.

“They really sit in the seat, buckle in and run a bank,” says Latham. “And at the end of that week, we bring in real CEOs to hear their presentations.”

After a successful presentation, students are designated as ABS graduates, which is a boon at most any stage of a banking career. “You’ll find something for all levels [of employee],” says Hamiter. “If you have a banker you want to invest in, this is the perfect place to invest, support and grow the individual in a rewarding way to both the banker and bank.”

Steven Castle is a Mobile-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the July 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

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