Growing up on a 126-acre farm in north-central Indiana, it might have been fate that Stephen Wilson ended up working as an attorney focused on the agricultural aspect of life.
After all, he credits the livestock feeding, hay bailing, barn cleaning, field mowing, and corn hauling with having a tremendous impact on shaping his eventual career choice and giving him even more experience in the legal role he now holds.
The longtime lawyer works as general counsel and compliance officer for First Farmers Bank & Trust Converse, building on a 23-year career as a banking attorney by going back to his agricultural roots. Now, he's stationed at a financial institution that's remained successful, but busy despite the national banking crisis hitting many of the country's banks during the past 18 months.
"The fact is that we're very different in what we do from what the bigger banks do," he said. "But what's happening now is going to have a significant impact on our bank and smaller community banks. ... We're all reaping the benefits of what we've done in the past as a financial industry."
Wilson said his farming experience - plus the fact that he's also raised hogs - and the initial years of his legal career paved his way to First Farmers.
After attending Purdue University and studying economics in the 1970s, Wilson decided that he wanted to study that topic and politics more closely. So he went to the London School of Economics for political theory.
Earning his law degree from Indiana University School of Law - Indianapolis and an LL.M. in taxation from New York University School of Law, Wilson started as an associate at the Valparaiso firm of Hoeppner Wagner & Evans before making the switch to banking law. He's held positions with First National Bank & Trust in both Logansport and Kokomo for a combined 20 years, and Merchants/National City for 13 years.
Eventually, he found his way to First Farmers in 2007. The community bank has branches in more than a dozen Indiana communities and has assets totaling about three-quarters of a billion dollars with about 60 percent of its loans being related to agriculture, Wilson said.
As general counsel and compliance officer, Wilson is responsible for any and all of First Farmers' legal matters except for personnel or mergers and acquisitions. Mostly he's seen work involving loan documentation, foreclosure, bankruptcies, and collections. He also oversees a three-person compliance department that monitors the bank's obedience with state and federal laws, as well as providing assistance in implementing changes that result from new laws and regulations.
Working at larger banks in the past, Wilson said that and his agricultural background prepared him for what's involved in his current position and he's able to more fully appreciate the changes that have happened in the industry during the past couple decades and that are under way now. For example, bankers at smaller institutions are able to issue loans more carefully based on familiarity with someone's character and their personal history with the bank instead of simply relying on what a paper banking record or credit history shows.
"What you see with larger banks is that, although they may hold themselves out as community-minded and having interest in the community and local customers, the bigger they are the harder it is to provide that local aid and comfort," he said. "You don't know customers as well and you're not able to evaluate the intangibles."
At First Farmers, it's different because customers may not be able to pay immediately until a crop comes in or livestock is produced at different times of the year, Wilson said. Customers may have unique collateral like livestock and farm equipment that other banks wouldn't understand how to value or take security interest on, he said.
While those differences have kept the bank safer than many mainstream institutions statewide and nationally, Wilson expects significant changes in 2010. Congressional legislation would require community banks - including First Farmers - to escrow insurance taxes and offer private mortgage insurance, which would have a huge impact. He also pointed to laws and regulations that have taken effect already, such as new settlement procedures for Housing and Urban Development loans, and overdraft policies on all loans.
He knows the flood of changes will continue, and even though he does hope it will slow eventually, he doesn't anticipate the pace changing anytime soon.
Amber R. Van Til, the vice president of government relations for the Indiana Bankers Association, said what Wilson and First Farmers is seeing is being echoed in all of the state's smaller community banks.
"Being a corporate counsel for any bank these days is a job that has lot of weight on their shoulders," she said. "Changes are coming so fast and furiously that it's tough to keep up with these new regulations and how they complement what's been in place in the past. The banking world we know today is no longer the banking world we grew up with or knew 30 years ago."
She credits those like Wilson who serve in both the general counsel and compliance officer roles because finding those compliance officers can be a tough task for community banks. Those people aren't required to be attorneys, but many are turning to lawyers because of the amount of legal work involved.
"There's so much more legalese involved and a lot to understand, especially when there's so much legislation out there," she said
"As a corporate attorney and one-person legal department, you have to be a generalist and field multiple questions in different areas every day," Wilson said. "If you don't want to be continually learning or you're not used to a fast-paced life, being a corporate attorney isn't for you."