Caris passes the baton to Gathman at CBI

Mike Gathman and Dave Caris on a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., in April.

If you ask what Dave Caris is going to enjoy about retirement, he’s quick to sing the praises of his recently acquired riding lawn mower. After almost a decade steering the ship at the Community Bankers of Iowa, he’s looking forward to guiding a slightly smaller vessel. Caris plans to slow down only a little, hoping to spend more time with grandchildren and renovating their farm an hour outside Des Moines which has been in his wife’s family since 1886.

As Caris looks back on his years at the CBI helm, he’s proud of the work he and his staff have done to improve conditions for his members. “Our industry of community banking has had to be very aggressive at trying to get exemptions from some of these extremely onerous regulations,” he said.

The highlight of his tenure, however, is tax parity with credit unions in the state. Caris and the rest of the CBI staff worked with state bankers and the Iowa Bankers Association to support passage of the legislation. While initial efforts to raise the CU tax rate to match what Iowa banks were paying were unsuccessful, a bill to cut bank rates to more closely match their competition paid off. While they still pay different kinds of taxes, “if you look at it statewide on an aggregate basis, now the banks and the credit unions pay about the same amount,” Caris said.

While it couldn’t completely erase the “competitive differential” of the Farm Credit System, it did give Iowa community banks a leg up, something Caris called a “special bonus.”

Replacing Caris at CBI’s helm is Mike Gathman, who brings more than a quarter century of industry experience, most recently as a senior regional director of client growth and retention at the Johnston, Iowa-based SHAZAM Network. The CBI board winnowed down more than 50 applications to a quartet of finalists. Gathman’s background and performance stood out to CBI Board President Tim Wolf. 

“He’s a problem-solver,” said Wolf, who is also president and CEO of the $222 million State Savings Bank in West Des Moines. “I don’t care what industry you’re in, when you’re a problem solver, people want to do business with you.”

A native of northwest Iowa, Gathman grew up in Everly before graduating with a finance degree from Iowa State University, Ames. His lengthy banking pedigree has brought many relationships and a great deal of respect from bankers across the state, Wolf said, qualities that also swayed the board.

Gathman welcomes the shift from the more technical and operational focus of his previous jobs to the larger questions of strategy and industry-wide issues. “I can be strategic with the banks and hear their pain points on the general level, and then work to find solutions and resources for them,” he said.

A former captain in the U.S. Air Force, Gathman brings a leadership and service mentality from his time in the armed service as well as an ability to roll with the punches. “You do what it takes, when there are things outside of the boundaries which you thought you were going to be working within,” he said. “The diversity in the tasks that I’ve had will help me be able to accommodate the diversity that comes at me with this job.”

While eager to get to work at the association, he plans to spend the first few months in the role introducing himself to CBI members and getting his arms around the scope of the issues. While he brings his background as a former banker and industry partner, he doesn’t want his voice or views to dominate the conversations.

On a late April lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., Wolf had a chance to observe Gathman at work. Caris brought three decades of lobbying experience to CBI from his time at an investor-owned gas electric utility, but banking was foreign to him eight years ago. Gathman comes from the opposite trajectory, having spent two decades at State Bank in Spencer, Iowa, in addition to his six years with SHAZAM. Full-time advocacy will require a bit of adaptation, but Wolf isn’t worried about the transition.

“You could tell from how he spoke with the representatives and senators in DC that Mike was comfortable having conversations about the banking issues,” Wolf said. “He understands our mission.”

The trip served as an unofficial handoff of leadership duties as Caris made his farewell tour and Gathman took up the advocacy mantle. It was all Wolf needed to confirm the board’s selection of Caris’ successor: “Once we got up to the Capitol, it became clear that we’d made the right choice.”

Caris himself is sanguine about the organization’s prospects, despite fears of continuing industry consolidation. “Community banking’s finest days are ahead,” he said. “I continue to read about the indiscretions of the mega banks. There is no replacement for that personal, local relationship banking, and community banks will always be able to offer that better than anybody.

“It was just a pleasure to represent community bankers,” Caris said. “They’re ethical, they’re community-minded, they’re pillars in all their communities. It’s a really enjoyable group to represent because it’s not hard to believe in their mission and see all the good that they’re doing.”

His one piece of homework isn’t exactly for Gathman, but for the bankers he will serve: More de novos in the state, although he acknowledges the difficult environment investors currently face. 

Gathman is ready to help make that happen.

“My goal being here in this role will be to continue to create an environment where relationship banking exists,” he said. “The best days are ahead because I think people will appreciate relationships more and more as this whole industry gets more complex.”