First Person Singular: Hunt Burke

First Person Singular
(Matthew Girard)
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Sunday, July 19, 2009

At 13, I started working here part time. I would look at your check and make sure it wasn't post-dated, that it was endorsed and that copy and figure amount matched. I learned to work the switchboard, and I always got lunch for everybody at a place called the Snack Bar, where a guy named Tony Gee, who was not much older than me, ran the counter and would sing as he added up our soups and sandwiches. Today, he's on our advisory board.

After college, I wanted to work here long enough to put some money together and go to California and strike my fortune as anything but a banker. But one thing happened that changed things fast: At age 25, I had full-fledged adults coming in and asking my advice. I had to learn fast and learn from my father. He was president. He always held back his boys until we could be trusted to do things right. I remember going to a graduate school banking class, and the professor said, "Oh, I've heard of Burke & Herbert. You have a really great strategy." And I looked at him, dead serious, and said, "Oh, I didn't realize we had a strategy." The class got a big kick out of that, but I wasn't joking. Our strategy was to do whatever Dad told us to do. He had a good feeling, a gut sense for how it was supposed to work.

It's very simple, really. We want people to put their money in our bank. We want people to borrow money from our bank, and we'll charge them to do that. Somewhere in there, we make enough to keep the lights burning, take home a modest salary and keep our employees fed and happy and our customers happy. All that makes our stockholders happy.

Certainly, though, there were times when we had to question ourselves. In recent years, other banks were flying by us. I knew our model was strong, but still, our competitors were opening more branches, having higher deposits. All these loans were getting away from us, getting better rates. We were asking ourselves: How can these guys do this and still stay in business? We assumed they knew the answer. In the end, we weren't tempted to go running after something we didn't understand.

There is a lot of anger out there now. There are a few very large banks that have very large egos. But I'll tell you, most of the 8,500 community banks out there have more in common with the plumber than the fat cats on Wall Street, but we all are looking for someone to blame.

Interview by Amanda Long


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