Archie BrownPresident and Chief Executive Officer First Financial Bancorp Cincinnati, Ohio Appointed by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland Board of Directors Sector Representation: Banking Current term ends December 31, 2024
As a teenager, Archie Brown knew two things earlier than most people might: what he wanted to be (a banker) and who he wanted to marry (the young woman he met at a Cincinnati church).
First came marriage, even if Sharen didn’t exactly remember meeting him in what he still, 40-plus years later, says was for him “love at first sight.” Brown was 19 when they tied the knot, surrounded at that very church by flowers and the décor Sharen made, their friends and family enjoying finger sandwiches and cake. The date was June 28, 1980.
Together the newlyweds moved into his dad’s starter home in the small Georgia town of Washington where Brown was born, and they began working full-time while attending college. He studied finance by day and worked in a manufacturing facility by night.
“It was grueling,” Brown says. “I would work midnight to 8 am, and Sharen would pick me up from the factory. We’d go to school from 9 to 3, and then I’d get into bed after 3 and sleep to 11. That’s what we did for two-and-a-half years. But the benefit of that, at that age, was I’d already worked my way into a supervisory role, managing eight or nine people. I learned how to work. I learned how to juggle all that, so when I graduated college, I had a different maturity level than another 22-year-old might have. All of these things, they grew me up.”
The manufacturer that promoted him during his undergraduate years wanted to promote him again to manager when he graduated, and though the job prospects were slim for many at the time—the early 1980s—Brown declined. Instead, he pursued that banking career.
“I think a lot of people who get into banking get in accidentally,” he says. “They don’t know what they want to do and drop in. That wasn’t me. I liked everything about banking: that it combined matters of the economy with real-world, everyday things such as working with consumers and businesses. I liked the idea that the industry was deeply connected to supporting the overall economy and making a difference in the local community.”
Brown and his wife returned to Cincinnati, the city to which his father’s work had moved his family years earlier, and he became the banker his 19-year-old self had envisioned.
What do you do during disasters?
Banking has seen its ups and downs in the decades since Brown began his career. Now the president and chief executive officer of First Financial Bancorp, a Cincinnati-based midsize bank, he watched the sector work to rebuild its reputation after the Great Recession, from which banks emerged with a “black eye” for what he says are “all kinds of rational reasons.”
Banks stepped up, though, during the more recent economic downturn caused by the pandemic, Brown says. Many assisted small-business customers in securing emergency funding through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), and they helped those customers through the process of getting those loans forgiven. First Financial lent about $900 million in PPP funds. The institution, which does commercial and consumer banking in four states (Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois) and operates several specialty businesses with national reach, also approached one of its regulators, the Federal Reserve, with an idea: First Financial wanted to proactively offer 90-day loan deferrals, no questions asked. “Day one, we didn’t want to put customers through a lot of hoops,” he says. People had enough to worry about.
“The Fed said, ‘Absolutely,’” he recalls. “So our customers didn’t have to ask. For a bank to call its customers and say, ‘Hey, if you need a few months, we’ve got your back,’ it was a good example.”
Customers took First Financial up on its offer. By the end of the pandemic’s first six months, the bank counted about 22 percent of its loans outstanding, in dollars, under deferral, meaning customers didn’t have to repay them for a period of time. The bank also waived certain fees, including overdraft charges. “Really early in the process, the first week or so, we took the stance that this was a worldwide natural disaster, and what do you do during natural disasters?” Brown says. “You help people.”
The perception of banks improved as a result, he believes. More people today recognize that banks’ role extends beyond storing money and making loans; banks also exist to help customers improve their stations, businesses thrive, and communities strengthen.
Over the decades, banking has taught Brown to keep pushing.
“There’s going to be adversity, things that go differently than we expected, in all of our lives,” he says. “Nobody planned on COVID, but it happened, and we had to respond. Nobody planned the kind of inflation we’re having. You just keep moving, applying what you’ve learned. There are going to be better days.”
The uniqueness he notices
In January, Brown took the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland up on its request to join the Bank’s Cincinnati board of directors. The Cincinnati board is one of three boards that inform Cleveland Fed leaders, affording the Fed “a unique perspective on what’s happening in our country,” Brown says.
He’d noticed the Fed’s being uniquely informed long before he became a director. Brown used to fly into Washington DC to meet with banking regulators. “What was clear to me about the Fed is that the Fed understood what was happening in the country,” he says. It possesses that understanding from data and listening and learning, he asserts. “This board is more focused than other boards on hearing from us, getting our observations, learning what we’re seeing and thinking, and taking that in.”
As a business leader in Greater Cincinnati who works in the community, Brown says he brings an understanding of what’s happening locally, and as a bank CEO, he can share, too, what’s happening regionally and in the economy. “I have both of those perspectives, so I think I have something unique to offer,” he says, citing how his vantage point allows him to see when people and businesses are flush with cash and when they’re borrowing. “And the ability to sit down with other very successful, respected business leaders in the community to see if what they’re seeing matches up with what we’re seeing, that’s going to help me to be better, as well.”
“Curious by nature,” Brown is usually some of the way through reading two or three books. He prefers those about leadership and management, spirituality, and history.
He names two people: Abraham Lincoln and Hank Aaron. He’s well-read on Lincoln and used to browse Aaron’s stats in the sports section every day. “They were both humble, they both had a quiet strength about them, and they both had incredible achievements amid incredible adversity.”