Mark W. Olson, ABA President-Elect, Embodies Washington Expertise and Farm Bank Savvy: Sees Working against the Odds as Normal and Necessary to Achieve Legislative Objectives

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NEW ORLEANS -- In the early 1970s, a staffer on Capitol Hill for a newly elected Minnesota congressman was startled by Congress's lack of understanding of the banking industry.

He was equally amazed at how poorly bankers approached Congress in their attempts to make their interests known.

"It was quite an education," the former legislative aide to Rep. Bill Frenzel says today, nothing that he believes there is improved understanding now by both the Hill and the bankers.

That aide went on to become president of a $28 million-deposit community bank in his Minnesota hometown.

Next year, in October, he also becomes president of the American Bankers Association.

Mark W. Olson celebrates 20 years in banking in January. He is a rare breed of banker who, at 42, already has bridged the reality gap between running a small-town bank and knowning firsthand the intricacies of Washington politics.

He will need both skills when he succeeds Donald T. Senterfitt, the current ABA president and vice chairman of Florida's Sun Trust Banks Inc., and begins his 1986-87 reign.

As he begins his year as president-elect, Mr. Olson retains a Teflon exterior that has deflected the common stains of partisan politics with the ABA. And he has won early points from many banking sectors.

Mr. Olson's nomination to the ABA presidency is the first under new rules for selecting the association's leader. Last spring, an ABA nominating committee led by Robert Brenton, a former ABA president and Iowa banker, selected Mr. Olson from a group of interested candidates.

This relatively calm process is in sharp contrast with such past election races as the one waged by Mr. Senterfitt. In a highly publicized election struggle, Mr. Senterfitt successfully challenged William Rodgers, Chairman and chief executive officer of Security Bank & Trust Co. in Blackwell, Okla.

"In the ABA, there was a recognition that we needed to streamline the decision-making process and the way we were self-governed," Mr. Olson said in an interview.

"I like the process," he said, jesting. "It was that process that got me elected.

Firsthand View of Farm Crisis

About 180 miles northwest of Minneapolis, in Fergus Falls, Mr. Olson runs Security State Bank. In a rural, agricultural area, Security State is Fortunate in having a diversified loan protfolio that has withstood the common agricultural lending problems of many other small banks.

"We tried 25 years to be greater presence in the ag market," Mr. Olson mused. "I guess it's better to be lucky than smart."

Yet Mr. Olson has a firsthand view of the country's farm crisis and will spend much of this year as president-elect seeking bankers' input and working on solutions.

Mr. Olson, stocky man with an easy manner, speaks deliberately. "I'm a person who likes to deal with people in a straighforward manner," he says. "I will call people I disagree with and tell them my thoughts. Bankers can have conflicting views as long as they are legitimate positions.

There may be plenty of opportunity to exercise that trait in the coming years. Washington experts say the probability is shrinking in the near term for Congress to pass legislation permitting banks to expand into new service areas.

"I agree that it will be an even tougher uphill battle before Congress," Mr. Olson says. But bankers should realize that banks start virtually all their Washington battles with the odds against them. …