Thinking back over the years, Roberta Robinson remembers when she started working at the Centinel Bank branch in Questa.
It was about the same time Rebeca Romero Rainey, the granddaughter of the founder of the local bank, jumped into the family business to handle the front desk and do the unglamorous task of stuffing thousands of bank statements into thousands of envelopes.
In the decades since, Robinson has seen Romero Rainey work her way up the ladder, not only in Taos, but in the country's community banking industry. It's a business that exists from coast to coast but still thrives in places like Northern New Mexico, those rural stretches of America where face-to-face conversations about loans, debts and our most ambitious dreams count for more than a banking app on our phones.
"There are certain people you can tell are going to succeed in life. They're hardworking, dedicated, compassionate. That's Rebeca," said Robinson, the bank's executive vice president. "She was always with us in the trenches."
In 1999, Romero Rainey took over as president of Centinel Bank. She was only 22 years old, becoming the youngest president of a bank in the country. And in the nearly two decades since then, she's risen through the ranks of the community banking industry.
In some ways, Romero Rainey has reached the top.
She is now the president and CEO of the Independent Community Bankers of America, a trade organization that represents about 5,700 community banks that are collectively worth more than $4.9 trillion in assets.
At its heart, a community bank lives and breathes by the sometimes cliched advice of "shop local," but on a bigger scale. With 49 employees, Centinel Bank's salaries largely stay in Taos.
About 90 percent of the bank's customers are based in Taos County, and the institution holds nearly $243 million in assets, according to Robinson. Marshaling those resources means the bank can invest in Taos County, such as purchasing bonds from the Taos Municipal School district that helped renovate Enos Garcia Elementary and Taos High School and offering loans so locals can buy their first homes, fix up their property or start a new business, life decisions that need money upfront.
While still loyal and working for her grandfather's bank, Romero Rainey steadily built her leadership and public profile in the national scene of community banking. She spent several years on the board of the Independent Community Bankers of America, "first as an at-large member, then as vice-chair, chairman-elect and then as chairman," she told The Taos News.
By the time she assumed her new role as the top boss, she already had "a good grasp of the workings of the association-- it's mission, its strategies, and its health."
These days, she oversees the day-to-day work of the national association that employs over 200 people, "as well as working with senior staff to determine the issues we need to address as an industry and develop strategies to affect positive change," she said.
Yet it's now a vastly different world from when her grandfather Eliu Romero started Centinel Bank 50 years ago.
"Due to oppressive regulatory requirements, in many ways, it is more difficult to found a bank these days," his granddaughter said.
About 30 years ago, community banks ran 52 percent of U.S. banking offices and held 41 percent of industry deposits, according to a report by the banking association Romero Rainey now leads. But by 2011, "the community bank share of offices had declined by more than one-quarter while their share of industry deposits had fallen by more than one-half."
The downward trend was more noticeable in metropolitan areas, where big banks assumed a remarkable dominance in the industry. But in places like Taos, rural areas with a stagnant or shrinking population, community banks held on a little better. Deposits in those institutions consistently exceed those in big cities, according to the report.
Aside from the raw data about customer preferences, Romero Rainey faces a thousand other mountains to summit in the realm of community banking, "whether it be adapting to rapidly changing new technology and services, or providing educational resources for the next wave of people wanting a career in banking, (or) working on Capitol Hill to ensure that regulation doesn't prevent community banks from helping their customers," she said.
But Romero Rainey is optimistic.
"I do think there will be a long-lasting demand for smaller, locally owned and motivated banks," she said. "I firmly believe communities deserve a local bank dedicated to serving the needs of that community, and am hopeful we will see a resurgence of community banks."
It's Romero Rainey's infectious leadership that got her noticed in the first place.
"While serving with Rebeca on (the Independent Community Bankers of America) executive committee, I have witnessed firsthand her effective and collaborative leadership style. She reaches conclusions and solves problems after considering multiple ideas from a wide variety of sources. She earns respect and inspires others," said Tim Zimmerman, the CEO of a bank in Pennsylvania and the chairman of the community banking association.
"I've also seen a deep inner strength behind that warm and approachable personality. She is tough when she needs to be and won't ever compromise her core values and commitment to community banks," he said. "There are quite a few very good business leaders out there, but there are only a few very special ones at a much higher level. Rebeca is one of those very special leaders."
Angel Reyes, president and CEO of Centinel Bank, said that while Romero Rainey works to tell the story of community banking on a national stage, her own story -- a Taoseña who went away to college but came back more dedicated to her local community than ever before -- speaks volumes for all those young people toying with the idea of a career in the industry.
"It doesn't matter where you're from. Do your best and you can get a greater platform than you ever thought," Reyes said.
While the daily operations of Centinel aren't likely to change that much, Romero Rainey's move to the national association "marks a new opportunity for other folks in the bank to participate at different levels," Reyes said.
"We have to fill those roles Rebeca held," he said.
In a couple months, Romero Rainey and her family will have been in D.C. for an entire year. As to be expected, the nation's capital moves a bit faster than her hometown. Even still, "the transition was remarkably smooth," she said.
"It is a very, very different place and lifestyle, but it has all been wonderful…We live only a few miles from the White House but have deer and fox in our neighborhood. There is lots of traffic, but we're figuring out the best times and best route to get where we need to go, much like going around Paseo traffic in the height of summer tourism," she said.
Despite the 24/7 nature of their new home, Romero Rainey and her family are making sure they don't lose each other in the flurry of it all. "We are still a family and family time is important," she said, recalling their outings to the monuments, museums, ocean, restaurants and professional sports games. They went to their very first professional hockey game, witnessing the Capitals "play on their way to their Stanley Cup Finals."
"We keep centered by remembering who we are," she said.