Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The largest business association in Texas, and one of the most powerful business groups in the United States, on Oct. 12 will honor International Bank of Commerce CEO Dennis Nixon with its Distinguished Business Leader of the Year award.
The recognition puts him in a league with the state’s most recognizable leaders: former vice presidents, presidential candidates, millionaire businessmen, and the founder of Southwest Airlines. Jeff Moseley, CEO of the Texas Association of Business (TAB), called Nixon a trailblazer who has revolutionized the way Texans look at community banking.
“Dennis has also led the charge and been a passionate advocate on the critical issues of immigration and NAFTA," he said. "Dennis is ready to lead the fight for a stronger, better, more competitive Texas.”
Nixon, who joined the Laredo-based IBC in 1975 and built it into one of the largest independent banks in Texas and Oklahoma, is recognized as one of the nation’s leading authorities in the banking industry.
Under his leadership, IBC grew from one location and 30 employees to about 190 branches, more than 3,000 employees, and about $12 billion in assets. The publicly traded company has five bank charters and 12 regional banking centers, including in San Antonio, where it operates 20 branches and employs more than 600 people.
San Antonio was the first city outside its hometown that IBC expanded to 30 years ago, where the bank's operations centers are based, and where the TAB will honor Nixon at its annual award luncheon.
But it is Nixon’s work in helping to bring the North American Free Trade Agreement to pass in 1993, and as a leading voice in its recently announced second iteration, the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement, that makes him known throughout the state and beyond the nation’s borders.
With negotiations complete, Nixon plans to continue to work in that arena, he said Wednesday in a conversation with the Rivard Report, using his influence ensure the legislatures of all three countries approve the trade deal. And he's not stopping there.
“I don't think there's going to be a lot of opposition politically in this country against it. But you never know,” he said. “Things go on in Washington today that all of us scratch our heads and wonder, ‘What are we doing?’ So I won't downplay the idea that somebody could get into some kind of turmoil. I don't know what that might be at this moment, but we'll be very much engaged.”
The stakes may be high, but Nixon is confident Congress will approve the new pact. “Texas obviously would be the No. 1 winner in the United States with the agreement because we're the No. 1 export partner of Mexico,” Nixon said. “If it went away, obviously, that would be a tragedy for us. But since it's going to stay in place, that'll be a big plus.”
As the son of a U.S Coast Guard, Nixon grew up moving around the country and attended the University of Texas at Austin. He began his banking career working for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which administers the federal banking system, before joining another bank in Laredo. He later joined IBC and rose through the ranks.
Though IBC has grown substantially in Nixon’s 43 years there, the banking industry as a whole stalled out during the Obama administration, Nixon said.
“We spent eight years doing nothing but fighting a few regulatory manuals that are as tall as a mountain and trying to digest and deal with it. And not really taking care of our business,” he said. “Our company had to completely retrench during that period of time. We'd never been in a period in our history where we went backward.”
For the rollback on what he called regulatory overreach, Nixon said he gives President Donald Trump “nearly an A,” even as he expresses disappointment with the U.S. House of Representatives for not passing similar legislative bills and displeasure with some of the president’s other actions.
“I think I am still having some differences with the president, but he's created a remarkable path to success here,” he said. “I have to give him credit that he's pretty well done all the things he intended to do. He's been pushing hard forward. I think the tax cut was a huge game changer.”
In fact, the company has continued to benefit from the 2017 tax law changes that lowered the corporate tax rate. International Bancshares Corp., the parent company of IBC, saw earnings rise 30 percent in the second quarter of 2018. Revenues increased by more than $20 million.
“Unemployment rates are down to near nothing. We have huge growth in jobs. I really don't see how many people can really criticize that,” Nixon said. “... People's paychecks are fatter, and they're getting more money and keeping more of their money. I just think ... over the long term, if we can keep the sustainability of that pace, that's going to show us some big results.”
So Nixon is also keeping a close eye on the midterm elections, concerned that a change in control of Congress will deadlock any legislative progress. “I think [Trump] has a chance of being transformative,” he said.
Nixon’s opinions on immigration and border security, however, diverge from the administration’s rhetoric. As a longtime border-city resident, he conducted his own research on the issues, talking to customs agents and immigration officials, the judiciary and demographers. The result was a booklet, “Common Sense Border Security Solutions,” that he wrote and frequently shares with visitors to his office.
In the eight-page booklet, he makes the case for a plan that fosters economic development and good-neighbor policies – and not a border wall – but cleanup of the natural barrier, the Rio Grande, as well as better use of technology and funding for the judicial system to reduce the backlog of cases.
In person, he voices empathy for those seeking asylum from the dangers in their countries and, as an employer, sees the need for a future workforce.
“The kind of immigration we want ... and legislation passed, [should be] focused on what our goals as a country are with immigrants,” he said. “People still want to argue and fight over the 11 or 12 million that are supposedly here. That game’s over. They're here. They've been here for decades. The idea that you're going to change that and erase that ... is foolish, but it also lacks reality because these people are here working.”
With those issues in the hands of the federal government, Nixon and his executive team want to focus on contributing to matters they consider important to their home state: education, infrastructure, and property tax reform.
Nixon said that issues faced by city governments in Texas worry him, “because they've all become frankly blue” politically. Businesses are being negatively affected by policies on minimum wage, union organizing, and other business regulations, he said.
A long history of that kind of involvement at the local level is what has helped IBC and its communities grow. In 2016, Nixon and his wife, Elma, received the Distinguished Community Service Award from the Chabad Center for Jewish Life and Learning in San Antonio.
The TAB award Nixon receives Friday is a recognition of all that activity, Nixon said.
“I've been in the trenches, so to speak, in the weeds of how all that works and the things that are going on in those various organizations – not only in my home city, but in the cities we work with,” Nixon said. “I understand probably many more than most how valuable [chambers of commerce] are to getting the message across in each community about what business is about, and what the business issues are, and how important they are to the success of the country and city and state that you're living in.”