A Connecticut community banker has been tapped to head a national council of her peers and will work with legislators to ensure the future of small-town banking.

Nicki Brown, president and chief executive officer of Wilton Bank in Wilton, has been appointed chairwoman of the American Bankers Association’s Community Bankers Council for the 2003-2004 association year.

Brown will lead a council of 100 bank CEOs from across the country who work to strengthen the role of community banks as providers of financial services. Each state sends two banking representatives. The council sets priorities on issues affecting community banks, identifies product needs of community banks and sets the agenda for the annual National Conference for Community Bankers held by the ABA, which is the largest banking trade association in the country.

“This year, we’ll be spending a lot of time discussing – and recommending solutions to – challenges facing community banks today. These include strategies for remaining competitive in a changing economy and interest-rate environment,” said Brown.

“Our main purpose is to be advocates for community banking, provide input and direction regarding community banking concerns and to identify products and services that we need to the ABA,” she added. “We work a great deal in the legislative and regulatory areas.”

‘Similar Objectives’

With community banks constantly in competition with large regional and national banks, Brown said there’s never been a time when small banks were more necessary.

“I think community banks are critical, especially with these recent [industry] mergers occurring. Whether it’s Wilton or Southfield or Rockville, there is a community bank there dedicated to that community and its citizens. At least someone down in North Carolina isn’t pulling the strings,” she said in reference to North Carolina-based Bank of America’s recent merger with Boston-based FleetBoston Financial.

She added, “You multiply one community bank by the number of communities they serve, and community banks become a vital part of the financial picture of the state. Community banks provide leadership, support and dollars back to their community.”

Despite the fact that community banks serve small towns and niche markets in their various locales, the same issues and objectives hold true for each. Having been on the council for five years, Brown has noticed that there is a definite commonality between community banks, whether they’re from cities, suburban markets or agricultural areas.

“We all have such similar objectives, and it’s just the nicest group of people, from all across the country,” she said. As for her new position, she noted, “It’s a little awesome, to work and to do all this. But I have a wonderful staff at the ABA, and it’s a great honor. There are so many wonderful bankers out there, and to have this opportunity to work with them is just one of the highlights of my career.”

Brown is part of the council’s 20-member Administrative Committee, which meets four times a year. The full council meets biannually, with smaller task forces and work groups meeting throughout the year to work on individual projects. Most of the time the groups meet through conference calls and over the Internet, only coming together for large conferences, the largest of which takes place in February.

Brown has served on the council and its Administrative Committee for five years. She also has served on the ABA’s Government Relations Council for two terms and has been part of numerous working groups, ranging in subjects from Y2K to taxation to technology.

As chairwoman, Brown will preside over the Community Bankers Council meetings as well as serve as one of the official spokesmen for community banking in the country.

The first meeting of the 2003-2004 council was held Oct. 19-21 at the historic Renaissance Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. Council members heard updates on important banking legislation pending in Congress, discussed innovative ways to reach out to the immigrant market and reviewed trends in financial fraud.

“We talked a lot about immigrant lending. It’s not so much an issue in Connecticut or in Wilton, but I’m not just representing Wilton, but all 50 states. There is a huge immigrant market in America that is wholly under-banked, so we had a very extensive presentation on how to develop products and give immigrants the confidence to have a banking and financial relationship. I found it very exciting, and a lot of banks from border states found this of great importance.”

While meeting for the better part of two days, the community bankers covered a wide range of topics. Talk turned to technology, and members were informed on the latest and newest products offered, and what to look out for in the future. A new group was formed to deal with tax reform issues, taking particular interest in subsidized credit unions, which enjoy tax-free status.

“I’d love it if I didn’t have to pay taxes. I would be running a very profitable bank if that were the case,” said Brown, noting that a panel discussion was held on credit unions. “Credit unions have grown into huge financial services that go well beyond their originally intended field of membership. We’re not talking about small credit unions that serve their niche, but there are some that have spiraled across whole states. They don’t make contributions back to the community, their officers don’t contribute time and energy to nonprofits and they’re able to make a lot of money because they don’t pay taxes.”

She noted that the council is working on tax reform recommendations to change the way credit unions are looked at by the IRS.

“We spent a lot of time on corporate governance and Sarbanes-Oxley, which basically has small banks with limited numbers of employees having to do the same administrative work that General Motors would have to do,” said Brown. “I have no problem with being held to the same standard, and banks historically have had high standards, but the issue is the minutiae – the cost and labor needed to implement the legislation. It doesn’t change how we work, just how much we spend, and it takes our focus away from what we should be working on.”

Brown’s focus is clearly on community banking.

“One of the agendas of every community banker is how can you remain effective, and that’s really the whole purpose of the council; that’s the umbrella under which the whole council operates,” said Brown. “We are firmly committed that this would be a bad world without community banks.”

She added, “We’re spoiled on the East Coast with so many banks. There are 10 or 12 banks in Wilton alone, so there’s an inherent competition. However, once you get out into the heartland, with lots of space between towns, you’ll get one community bank for each town, and they’re the heart and soul of the community.”

Brown brings to her leadership post more 30 years of experience in banking. She has been with The Wilton Bank – a state-chartered commercial bank with over $100 million in assets – as president, CEO and treasurer for 18 years.

A graduate of the University of Connecticut and of the New England School of Banking at Williams College and its Management School, she has served as a member of the Williams adjunct faculty and a member of the college’s board of trustees. She also was appointed to the Appraisal Foundation’s board of trustees in Washington, D.C., where she also serves as treasurer.

Brown, a Wilton resident, received the Distinguished Citizen Award presented by the Wilton Family YMCA in 2000 and was named Business Person of the Year by the Wilton Chamber of Commerce this year.