Scott Ball / Rivard Report
From his 12th-floor office on Houston Street, San Antonio banker and philanthropist Tom C. Frost IV watches construction of the 23-story Frost Bank Tower, an emerging architectural landmark heralded as a cornerstone of downtown revitalization. But Frost's influence on San Antonio's growth and development extends far beyond the $142 million eponymous tower.
From the sprawling South Texas Medical Center on the Northside to the 2 million-square-foot Toyota Motor Manufacturing plant on the Southside, from the 19,000-seat AT&T Center on the Eastside to the world-class Tobin Center for the Performing Arts downtown, you can find Frost’s handprint – if not one of his banknotes – on major projects and notable buildings citywide.
A fourth-generation banker, Frost chaired the capital campaign that raised $50 million for the McNay Art Museum. He gave to help save the San Antonio Symphony. He helped raise millions for his alma mater, Texas Military Institute, and donated to the University of Texas at San Antonio. He supports and once chaired Project Quest, a job training program that has helped more than 6,000 people. And the bank he led for a generation has 2,300 employees in 27 San Antonio locations and boasts the largest customer base in the region.
Yet considerable struggle marked his path. Millions of dollars lost in oil and gas loans. Emergency fundraising. A bank "holdup" of sorts by angry community activists from whom he learned – and whom he taught – valuable lessons.
Frost, 90, continues to apply what he learned from those obstacles as well as from his achievements. Though he retired as Frost Bank's chief executive officer 20 years ago, Frost arrives at the office every morning to attend to civic responsibilities – meeting with power brokers, raising money, and lending counsel to philanthropic causes.
“I’ve tried to bring in things that we didn’t have,” Frost said. “We didn’t have a convention center. We didn’t have a medical center. We didn’t have a performing arts center. We didn’t have a basketball arena. It wasn’t just me. We had a community of people who wanted the same things.”
Despite his retirement, Frost has no plans to remove himself from public life.
“I love what I do,” said the great-grandson of bank founder Col. T.C. Frost, “and I’m gonna keep doing it.”
Frost's constant involvement in civic and business affairs has been transformative. He served as treasurer of Methodist Hospital, the first facility in the South Texas Medical Center, which gave rise to the city’s $37 billion health care and bioscience industry.
With a loan from his bank – and some crisis fundraising – Frost helped usher San Antonio into the modern era with HemisFair. The 1968 World’s Fair turned the River Walk into an international destination, brought the city a much-needed convention center and signature building, the 750-foot Tower of the Americas, and turned tourism into a $13 billion industry.
Five years later, Frost Bank provided the loan to bring the Spurs from Dallas to San Antonio – and the money to secure the team’s first superstar, George Gervin.
Billionaire businessman Red McCombs understands Frost's impact. When McCombs arrived in San Antonio from Corpus Christi in 1958 to open a car dealership, he asked Frost for a loan. They’ve been friends ever since.
“Tom’s legacy is bringing San Antonio into the big-city world,” said McCombs, 90. “We’ve done it on his watch. We’d be hard up without him. Tom is priceless.”
The view from Frost’s floor-to-ceiling office window stirs memories. Frost's journey has not been without challenges. Looking at the bustle of commerce on Houston Street, he recalls when Methodist Hospital, completed in 1963, did not have enough patients and ran into debt. He scrambled to organize a bond issue and extend lines of credit from the bank.
More distressing was the near-collapse of HemisFair. About one month after opening, the 1968 World's Fair ran out of money. Organizers had one week to raise $250,000 to meet payroll or shut down. With lower attendance than projected, HemisFair needed another $3 million to complete its scheduled six-month run. The anxiety brought a man of faith to his knees at Christ Episcopal Church in Monte Vista.
“I realized the only way you’re ever going to do anything is to have the Lord behind you,” Frost said. “That was kind of scary.”
Under duress, fair organizers devised a plan and leaned on Frost to execute it. His bank extended the $250,000 loan and Frost himself raised $3 million to keep the fair open.
His greatest challenge – and perhaps greatest success – occurred during the banking crisis of the late 1980s, when hundreds of Texas banks and savings and loans became insolvent and were closed by federal regulators or bought out by other banks. Cullen/Frost began the decade as the 10th-largest bank in Texas with $150 million in capital. It ended the decade No. 1 with $150 million in capital. Seven of the state's top 10 banks failed. The other two were bought out by out-of-state institutions or received government bailouts.
One difference between Cullen/Frost and other banks, which had heavy loan exposure in an energy business wracked by falling oil prices, Frost says, was its commitment to a foundational principle. “We’re not in the oil and cattle business,” he explained. “We do business with people who happen to be in the oil and cattle business.”
In the 1980s, though, many customers in the oil business went broke and Cullen/Frost charged off $400 million in bad loans. How did the bank survive?
“No. 1, he built a great team and we picked the better customers,” Frost Bank President Pat Frost said about his father. “That’s what it came down to. We had more customers pay us back than the other bankers.”
Tom Frost also executed several creative, if unconventional, moves. Two examples: “We sold this building and leased it back and there was about $20 million in that,” he said. “We sold our computer system and accounting system and had to lease it back – but we got cash out of that.”
As Texas banks collapsed during the late 1980s, Paul Volcker, then the Federal Reserve chairman, said one might have enough liquidity to survive: Cullen/Frost.
“So I’m telling you, we were a ‘maybe,’” Frost said. “There is no question we were close [to failing]. But I always felt we were going to make it because He was with me.”
Cullen/Frost Chairman and CEO Phil Green attributes the banking company’s emergence from the turbulent '80s to the proven stewardship of Frost and his predecessors.
“I believe the bank’s culture prior to the '80s allowed us to make it through,” said Green, who joined the bank in 1980. “It’s what you do before the crisis more than what you do during the crisis that matters. If you haven’t laid the right foundation, you won’t make it.”
Frost joined his father’s bank in 1950 as an assistant cashier. He rose to president in 1962. For more than 50 years, he held the same job, attended the same church, and lived in the same house with his wife, Patricia, who he married in 1951. In a concession to age, the couple bought a one-story home five blocks from their original a few years ago. “There wasn’t any point in having a two-story house,” he said.
Over the decades, Frost has done business with billionaires and world leaders. He was once the personal banker for President Lyndon Johnson. After leaving the White House, LBJ visited the Frost home for a dinner party. “For a 12-year-old,” said Pat Frost, "that was a moment I won’t forget.”
One moment Tom Frost won’t forget created an unexpected collaboration. On Feb. 5, 1975, a coalition of activists from Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) formed long lines at his bank to disrupt business. One by one, they asked tellers to exchange pennies for dollars, then dollars for pennies.
Angered by the city’s refusal to address downtown-area flooding, COPS wanted to get the attention of a powerful CEO with influence at City Hall. Although he disapproved of their action, Frost met with COPS leaders and eventually lent his support to a bond issue to relieve flooding.
Out of that meeting came an unlikely alliance between a banker and activists. While other power brokers rebuffed COPS, Frost became an advocate on education and job training issues for protesters who drew inspiration from Saul Alinsky’s influential book on grassroots organizing, Rules for Radicals.
“Our relationship started out confrontational and evolved into one of collaboration,” said Andy Sarabia, founding president of COPS. “When we were planning to do something, he would give us advice on how to go about it.”
Frost understood that forging community consensus is critical to building the city and raising its profile. When Toyota expressed interest in opening a plant in San Antonio, Frost met with COPS and its sister organization, Metro Alliance. He shared the groups' concerns with Toyota and, in the end, secured the support of COPS/Metro.
“It shows that when you bring everybody together,” Frost said, “there’s no telling what can get done.”