TELLER TO THE
1958: Born in Los Angeles.
1976: Hired in first banking job, as a teller, a Bank of America branch in Los Angeles.
1983: Graduates from California State University at Fullerton with a degree in economics.
1993: Appointed to direct consumer banking for Cincinnati-based Star Banc, a U.S. Bancorp predecessor.
1997: Minneapolis-based First Bank System and Oregon-based U.S. Bancorp merge.
2004: Davis named president and COO of U.S. Bancorp.
2006: Named CEO of U.S. Bancorp.
2004: Appointed CEO: adds chairmanship to his duties two years later.
2008: U.S. Bancorp acquires two California-based banks, the first of several acquisitions the holding company will make over the next couple of years during the financial crisis.
Richard Davis makes no apologies for his mantra’s lack of sexiness: “Consistent. Predictable. Repeatable.” You don’t get much more quintessentially “banker” than that. But as the massive financial crisis revealed, many banks chose the unpredictable. Still, while other CEOs and other very large banks wandered far afield from all three qualities, Davis and Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp “stayed simple,” as he puts it.
Davis has served as U.S. Bancorp’s chairman, CEO, and president for the past five years. During that time, the company’s assets have grown from $219 billion to $340 billion, and the number of branches has expanded from 2,472 to 3,085 (both as of the end of 2011). U.S. Bancorp is the parent company of U.S. Bank, its largest holding, which is the fifth-largest commercial bank in the United States—and one remarkably untainted by the recklessness that brought down numerous banks large and small. In short, Davis’ mantra has served him and his company well.
Davis’s upbringing was modest—he grew up a latch-key kid in southern California. He believes he now runs U.S. Bancorp because he began as a curious, even annoying teller, in a Bank of America branch, constantly pestering other employees about how things worked and how exactly banks make money. Had one supervisor not convinced him to take training on “all the jobs here,” in addition to going to night school four days a week, Davis might have continued on an even less sexy path to becoming a math professor.
“Banking is the ultimate accidental occupation,” Davis says. “Very few of us started out to be bankers. But what you discover is that it’s a true service business where you can really make something happen.”
When young people ask him for career advice, “I tell them not to set goals and to be open to any possibility that comes along,” Davis says. “If you set too many goals trying to get from point A to point B it’s likely you’ll miss the 17 other point Bs along the way. Broad goals are fine. Just don’t get too specific.”
Also: “Be willing to be the guy who steps in to fix something, because you’ll learn more fixing something than almost any other way. And always do more than you’re asked.”
From his beginnings as a teller, Davis steadily climbed up the career ladder in the California banking industry. In 1993, bank-turnaround expert Jerry Grundhofer, who’d known Davis since 1987, asked him to direct consumer banking for a Cincinnati bank that Grundhofer had taken over. In time, the two men would be working together at what would become U.S. Bancorp.
Davis saw opportunities in the three great transitions the banking industry has experienced since he began his career. Deregulation in the late ’80s required him to adapt to managing a vast array of new financial products. The 1990s boom meant acquiring and honing talents for mergers and acquisitions, and the recession of the 2000s left him no option but to learn quickly how to protect his company and his customers from a prairie fire of mismanagement and adjust to banking on a global scale.
Davis moved into the corner office at U.S. Bank in December 2006, just as the first alarm bells were ringing over exceedingly shaky subprime lending and a bonus-driven casino ethos on Wall Street. As president and COO under Grundhofer, Davis and the rest of the management team had resisted the siren call of eye-popping but likely not “repeatable” profits. While their balance sheets never registered the gaudy numbers of some of their larger rivals, neither were they burned when the casino (and the world economy) went down in flames.
In fact, based primarily on U.S. Bank’s demonstrable stability, the eyes of the markets, the industry and Congress swung toward Minneapolis and Richard Davis as credible exemplars of a competent, trustworthy financial organization. Davis, who concedes he runs number games through his head, “even in meetings about HR,” calculated the buying opportunities presented by the recession and drove U.S. Bank to an aggressive expansion, as more than a few former competitors shredded their old letterhead and scheduled moving trucks.
“There’s an advantage to being comfortable with numbers,” he says. “Math is logical. I like logic.”
Banking can be a highly complicated business, of course. But Davis emphasizes that “U.S. Bank is a retail bank. What we do is simple. Even today we are not a sophisticated global bank. But in the past five years there was a lot of schooling in what the global markets can do to a bank that seems to have no serious exposure. Most of what I’ve learned about global interconnectivity I’ve learned in the last five years. I had to. There was no other choice.”
Few people carry the authority and gravitas of a very large banking corporation as effortlessly as Davis. There’s no hint of swagger, and his thoughts arrive with a fluid precision. Along with his fellow 2012 Hall of Fame inductee Doug Baker of Ecolab, Davis was a natural choice to rally the local business community behind the push for a new Vikings stadium.
Another fellow inductee, Bahram Akradi, is effusive in his praise for U.S. Bank’s support for the 26 years he’s been building Life Time Fitness. “I don’t need to blow their trumpet. But they are truly a partner bank, a phenomenal partner. They have been with me through thick and thin.”
Davis’ personal qualities and his remarkable professional accomplishment guiding U.S. Bank around the crash and into a period of low-risk, coordinated, predictable growth explains his prominence as chairman of the industry’s Financial Services Roundtable, charged with, among other tasks, restoring public confidence to a sector battered by its bad behavior.
“Until you’re CEO there’s no way to describe the chasm between almost running a company and really running it,” Davis says. “Quickly you realize that your job is knowing where you need to be in the future.
“I’m not a reactor anymore,” he adds. “In this job I have to be a proactor. I have had to learn to be way more strategic. And I have had to become a better listener. CEOs should ask a lot of open-ended questions.”
During the darkest days of late 2008, Davis and his team met hourly to track gyrations in the market. Today he has resumed a travel schedule that keeps him on the road, “in the real world,” meeting regional managers and customers—and asking questions—three days of every week.
“I believe a generation of loyalty has been created in this recession,” Davis says. “We have proven ourselves as trusted partners to our customers. We were there for them when it was tough. This has been a moment in time that you cannot replicate.”