All-American Banker

13_Hairston - profile photoBy Brian Nixon

John Hairston believes in the powerful economic role banks provide in serving their customers and communities. He saw it firsthand watching his father, who left high school before graduating to enter military service in the U.S. Navy following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The president and CEO of Gulfport, Miss.-based Hancock Holding Company describes his father, Mitchell Hairston, as “a great man—very intelligent, very articulate—but he didn’t have a few documents that were very important. He didn’t have a high school diploma. He didn’t have a college degree. And he didn’t have those things that get you in a door really quickly. But he instilled in all of my family a great sense of personal responsibility and accountability towards service, whatever that may be.”

Following the war, Mitchell Hairston managed several businesses throughout his lifetime that put food on the table for his wife and four children. “He was able to do that because bankers looked past his education and loaned money based on the character of the man and the fact that in good times and bad times, he always paid them back,” says Hairston. “Those sorts of people constituted the fabric of our nation. Banks were the facilitators for them to create jobs and offer educational opportunities for their own kids.”

Hairston worries that those days may be slipping away. “Banks today are looked at as just engines to make a profit, but they’re so much bigger than that,” he says. “I saw that in my own dad. I’m proud to be a banker and it causes me personal pain and anxiety to see us painted as bad guys when in reality what we do all day, every day—and most nights!—is help people like Mitchell Hairston with literally an eighth-grade education operate a shrimp boat and be a management member of an insurance agency and open
a boat store.”

That experience shapes Hairston’s view of his role as a banker today. And coincidentally, Hancock was one of the banks that made loans to his father so many years ago.

Today, Hancock Holding Company is a $23 billion financial services company that operates a single bank with two brands—Hancock Bank, founded in 1899, and Whitney Bank, founded in 1883. Hancock serves Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Tennessee; Whitney serves Louisiana and Texas.

Together, the two “operate like a very old, genteel organization whose values are rooted in the need to create opportunities for people and for businesses and communities,” Hairston says. “We put the two banks together in 2011 at what probably was the worst possible time from a regulatory perspective. While we were basically doing a doubling of the size of the company, we had the burden of all the regulatory changes that had occurred under Dodd-Frank.”

Much of the successful pairing of the two brands can be attributed to sticking to the fundamentals of good banking. “We’ve enjoyed extremely good loan and deposit growth, the last five quarters have been among the best core revenue growth periods in our long history,” Hairston says.

The bank brands are also very engaged in community affairs. “I can think of no bank that better exemplifies community involvement than Hancock Bank, and no banker who does this better than John Hairston,” says Mac Deaver, president of the Mississippi Bankers Association. “He is outspoken on important issues and he does more than just talk—he acts. His enthusiasm is contagious.”

Hairston describes his bank’s community commitment and economic development philosophy as “selling the value of the markets we operate in to people who would like to locate there. We’re a bank that understands that our long-term ability to be successful is completely intertwined with the ability of the markets we operate in to be successful.”

This means that over the course of wars and depressions, hurricanes and industrial events, “we have always stood with our customers and stood with our markets,” Hairston says. There’s a famous story about Hancock after Hurricane Katrina made a direct hit on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Even with its headquarters a total loss and most of its branches damaged or destroyed, in the days after the storm the bank gave out $42 million in cash so that locals could start rebuilding. No account information was necessary; Hancock gave out tens of millions of dollars to people who had no proven connection to the bank with only hand-scrawled IOUs for documentation. The loyalty was repaid; of that money, only $200,000 didn’t come back, and market share soared. The same commitment to clients is evidenced today in the bank’s Whitney markets, where the company continues to stand with long-term energy services clients during a challenging phase of the energy cycle.

“Though we may take a few hits along the way during those difficult times, we are always rewarded for standing with our clients and standing with our markets when the sun begins to shine again,” Hairston says. “That philosophy has served us very well through the years.”

This patient approach—Hairston is a chemical engineer by college education—no doubt serves him well as chairman of ABA’s American Bankers Council. The ABC is a banker-driven peer group for midsize bank chief executives, which helps drive policy and advocacy efforts for banks in the roughly $5 billion to $100 billion size range.

Hairston, who has also served on ABA’s Board of Directors, sees bankers’ engagement as a crucial means to change perceptions among policymakers and to move the industry—and the American economy—forward.

Effective engagement by bankers representing all sizes of banks and charter types with Congress, regulators, citizens and business leaders is necessary to accomplish two things, Hairston says. “First is making sure that all those parties understand the ability, willingness and desire of America’s banking institutions to create economic growth, to create jobs, to grow businesses, to create homeownership, to teach financial literacy and to make our country as great as it can possibly be in terms of economic prosperity,” he says.

Second, Washington needs to know about unintended consequences. “In many cases the very people legislation and regulation are intended to help or protect can be unintentionally harmed,” he points out. “We are the people on the ground, across the table or on the phone line from customers in real life who may be on the suffering side of those unexpected consequences. We need to ensure that Congress, the administration and the regulatory communities all understand those unexpected consequences and take remedial action. I hope regulatory agencies and congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle are beginning to realize we are able and eager to bring value and practical knowledge to crafting regulatory solutions.”

Advocacy is not just about getting a better deal for bankers and their customers, Hairston notes. “The U.S. economy cannot flourish without an extremely effective and extremely efficient banking system,” he says. “Our job, our mission, our obligation as corporate citizens is to do all we can to assist in those two endeavors.”

That’s why Hairston serves as chairman of ABA’s ABC, and the reason he served on ABA’s Board: “to take personal and corporate responsibility to do my part and our company’s part towards those two endeavors. It is a worthwhile use of time and a worthwhile use of funds.”

It’s also why he encourages all bankers to become more engaged in industry advocacy. “If all 6,000 American banks would just take a couple of weeks a year and days here and there to focus on and support those two missions, then the parts of Dodd-Frank that were necessary and valuable will be maximized and the parts of Dodd-Frank that had unexpected or negative consequences can be remedied.”

As Hairston sees it, “This is not a political assignment. It’s not a partisan assignment. It’s an American assignment.”