1-2-3 kick BBVA Compass leader puts focus on basics

🕐 8 min read

BBVA Compass

Fort Worth market area

Employees: 273

Branches: 31

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BBVA Compass total assets: $86 billion

Tarrant County: No. 5 by deposits

Tarrant County deposits as of June 30, 2016: $2.8 billion

Brian Happel, BBVA Compass Fort Worth CEO, recently opened a new branch of the bank at Lake Worth with features closer to The Jetsons than any branch the bank might have opened 11 years ago when he first became market president.

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The new branch is all automated, something customers – particularly younger customers – have gotten used to in recent years.

“While somebody below the age of 35 can’t even imagine why they would go into a branch – and that obviously has pushed us to be a leader in digital technology and in banking – … at the same time, you still have to appreciate the fact that you need a branch system to support those customers that still want to transact business on a regular basis,” he said.

There’s a balance, Happel said. It’s something that’s embraced by BBVA Compass’ new CEO, Onur Genç, who replaced outgoing CEO Manolo Sánchez earlier this year.

“What he’s preaching internally as well as externally is, ‘Yes, you have to embrace digital technology, and we want to be a disruptor in that sector, but at the same time, you still have to recognize that you have customers that want to do traditional banking by having access to people, face-to-face customer service, cashing checks, making deposits.’ Where the balance is, is that we like to refer to it as productive [bank] branches versus just having branches,” said Happel.

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While BBVA Compass and Happel are embracing new technology, the local bank’s CEO believes “old school” banking is still important in the increasingly competitive Fort Worth market.

“What I mean by that is that I think many times, especially in a competitive market, bankers find themselves going out to a client and saying, ‘Hey we want to do your loan. We want to do your deposit?’ ” he said.

Happel’s goal is to start a relationship with the potential client to find a way to enhance their company or them personally with a service they don’t have today. “That requires a couple of things,” he said. “One is it requires patience because it’s going to be on the clients’ schedule and not your schedule.

“It also requires persistence, and that means that you have to take a genuine interest in that client. You have to listen to them about what they’re talking about.”

Going back to basics is nothing new for Happel.

As a place-kicker for the Washington Redskins, New York Jets and other National Football League teams, as well as the University of Texas at Arlington, Happel boiled his key specialty position down to basics.

Growing up in Pennsylvania, Happel never played soccer, and yet became a soccer style kicker.

“I read a book on how to kick soccer style,” he said. “If you think about it, it’s very simple, 1-2-3, kick.” The rest of it, the crowds, the other team, your own team are doing their own jobs, for the kicker it’s simple if he keeps his focus, Happel said. “The only thing that matters for a kicker is that next kick,” he said.

Happel rode that simple philosophy to a college scholarship and then to the NFL – and now applies it to banking. “It’s taking care of the customer, it’s being responsive and it’s putting in the right level of work ethic to complement what they need,” he said.

There are some areas where they are not similar. “The only difference is one had 90,000 people yelling at you, and here at least with banking, it’s a much smaller audience that’s out there, but the concept’s the same. You either succumb to the pressure or you embrace the pressure. I would say I’m good at embracing the pressure of saying, ‘Hey, you still can only do this a day at a time and a customer at a time, and unless you start today, the process doesn’t begin.’ ”

Eleven years down the road now, Happel is not just seeing success locally, he’s seen BBVA Compass begin to embrace Fort Worth.

“We had our annual meeting of all of our commercial bankers from around the country here in Fort Worth [about three years ago],” he said. “We kicked it off with Mayor Price and myself welcoming everyone to Fort Worth. Mayor Price and I both wore cowboy hats and our cowboy boots and then we presented a pair of cowboy boots to our then-Chairman Manolo Sánchez.”

Those hats and boots – and Fort Worth’s “Howdy!”-style welcome – made an impression.

“Every time we’ve ever had these events at other cities … I can’t tell you how many people have said, ‘You know what? I’d love to go have a beer with Mayor Price. She seems like a very genuine person and represents Fort Worth very, very well.’

“We have a nice mixture of the new and the old, and I think Fort Worth’s done an excellent job of not losing its heritage while still embracing the future. I think we can all look at other cities that have lost that culture that they were known for,” Happel said. “People still see that culture in Fort Worth and that made an impression.”

That solid impression has led BBVA Compass to bring some key people and events to the city, such as Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple and a Christie’s Auction House event which brought some exclusive paintings as well as rare wines to a group of Global Wealth and commercial clients.

While Happel is pleased to be serving that high end of the market, he said one project he’s most proud of is his work with Renaissance Square.

That collaboration between private and public partners is part of a master-planned community that the partnership hopes will transform Southeast Fort Worth. Formally called Columbia Renaissance Square I LP, the partnership includes Atlanta-based Columbia Residential, the city of Fort Worth, BBVA Compass Bank, RBC Capital Markets and Renaissance Heights United, led by Happy Baggett.

“What was unique about that project was that we not only provided the loan, but we also provided a portion of the investment dollars on it as well. We were the only bank that was able to do that,” he said.

For Happel, the project is in his top 5 in his 34 years as a banker, he said.

“To be able to go out there and see the uniqueness of that project,” he said. “Not only is there the opportunity to provide that family for affordable housing, but think about what a juggernaut that project is and what it can do for that community. “

There will likely be more BBVA Compass involvement in the area as well.

“You’ve got Texas Wesleyan in the north and you have Renaissance in the south,” he said. “If you take a drive between Texas Wesleyan and where the Renaissance project is, … you’ll see new houses being built. … [W]e’re working with a single family homebuilder right now that’s analyzing about buying some of those patchwork lots that are out there and starting to build homes on there. Again, to provide access for people to have affordable homes, and guess what? It’s a low to moderate income area, so those people would qualify for our 100 percent mortgage product.”

Happel says his 11 years as head of BBVA Compass in Fort Worth have “flown by very quickly.”

When Happel began, he was combining Compass, a real estate-focused bank with TexasBank, which also had a real estate focus.

Then, in early 2007, Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA (BBVA), Spain’s second-largest bank, purchased Compass Bancshares Inc. for $9.6 billion, turning Compass into a much larger international bank with a full array of services.

“It wasn’t just one of those snap of the fingers where he said, ‘Hey this is going to happen,’” he said. “This is probably a five or six year period of time because you have to be staffed to take care of your existing portfolio while at the same time attracting people and trying to get them to buy in, but you’re also a commercial bank as well. That just didn’t happen overnight.”

Happel credits some of that ability to focus, not just on his football background, but also to his parents.

“They didn’t know how to quit,” he said. “That wasn’t even a concept.”

Happel said the bank has had a good run in Fort Worth and Tarrant County. “A lot of it’s just been because people have been willing to believe in us and we’ve got a great staff that has worked very, very hard at taking care of clients,” he said.

Happel said a client recently told him one of BBVA Compass’ bankers made them feel as if they were their only client.

“When you sit there and hear somebody say that about the type of service that they feel and knowing that they are not the only client, which is the real key to it, that tells you you’re doing the right thing,” he said. “You’re giving the right impression to the client that they are not a number, that they are real people. There’s a real business behind it and they feel like they’re getting great customer service.”

Kind of like 1-2-3 kick.

Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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