Larry Willard: Profile of a Power Elitist
C. Wright Mills wrote The Power Elite in 1956. It described the intertwining of state, military, and corporate power, and those who hold it. He stated of the Power Elite:
“The power elite is composed of men whose positions enable them to transcend the ordinary environments of ordinary men and women; they are in positions to make decisions having major consequences. Whether they do or do not make such decisions is less important than the fact that they do occupy such pivotal positions: their failure to act, their failure to make decisions, is itself an act that is often of greater consequence than the decisions they do make. For they are in command of the major hierarchies and organizations of modern society. They rule the big corporations. They run the machinery of the state and claim its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment. They occupy the strategic command posts of the social structure, in which are now centered the effective means of the power and the wealth and the celebrity which they enjoy.” (1)
In my years in New Mexico I attempted to find out the power elite of the state. This blog is the result of the research I did while out there. One person who would undoubtedly qualify would be Larry Willard. I researched Larry Willard while a student at UNM, at the time he was president of the Board of Regents. Digging deeper exposed the power and influence of this one man in the affairs of New Mexico.
Who is Larry Willard? He is many things. He was known as a successful banker, being the regional president of Wells Fargo, which was previously Norwest Bank, where he also served as president. He also served on many corporate and non-profit boards, the Board of Regents of UNM being only one of them, although the more influential. He was a grand political player, a Republican activist who also was influential with a Democrat governor. He also served on boards of organizations, both government and private, that swayed economic development policies. Through all these roles he helped spread his ideology, that of serving business and the military.
In this multi-part article I will attempt to document the history of Larry Willard, how he came to hold power and influence in New Mexico, and the economic ideology he helped spread.
Willard’s Rise in Banking
Larry Willard began his career in banking back in 1962. While a student at Eastern New Mexico University (ENMU), a rather less than well off student according to Willard, working nights attend school, he found a job with the Bank of Portales. He graduated in 1968 with a degree in accounting and finance, and soon became manager of the campus branch of the bank. (2) In 1971 he moved to Big Springs, TX and became known in the next few years as a banking expert. He went on to obtain more advanced degrees in banking schools at the University of Colorado in 1973 and the University of Oklahoma in 1975.
After his graduation he held several banking positions in the next few years. He was executive vice president of First National Bank in Big Springs (3), then later became president of the same bank while in Post, TX at the age of 33. He also became chairman and CEO of Coleman Bank in Coleman TX. Around this time he also began working with the Ford Group. (4)
Larry Willard served as president and director of several banks while involved with The Ford Group. The Ford Group, named after Gerald Ford, (the banker, not the president) was a conglomerate that began buying out (or “merging” as the bankers like to call it) other smaller banks in order to make them large enough in assets to be attractive to, and then to sell to, larger banks for big profits. They operated in an era that made local banks regional, regional banks national, national banks global. These institutions had more capital and more ways of earning it through interest payments and more creative endeavors they came up with…well, now in 2012 how do you think that ended up? Well, I digress.
Through their many acquisitions they acquired, in 1985, what would become United New Mexico Financial Corporation. Larry Willard became the Executive Vice President and Chief Credit Officer of the new institution. (5) James Clark, president and CEO of UNMFC, said of his appointment, “Willard’s extensive banking background brings strength and leadership to this very important function within the company.” Willard was becoming a rising star in banking.
Willard continued this banking expansion. By 1991 UNMFC acquired First Interstate banks of Albuquerque, Lea City and Roswell, and that year he was president of the institution. But there was no stopping for Larry Willard. He would become head of an even larger institution.
In 1992 the First United Bank Group was formed, through the merger of Ford Bank Group of Lubbock, and of UNMFC in Albuquerque. (6) This new institution would control assets of $3.3 billion and operate 80 offices in New Mexico and West Texas, and new ones in Arizona and Colorado. In one later transaction after the merger, they bid on First City Group in Texas for $1.8 billion in assets. Based in Albuquerque, Willard would become Vice Chairman of the new company. Tom Nichols, then current president and Chief Operating Officer of Ford Bank Group, became president of First United.
Then the next year, 1993, Norwest Corporation would buy out First United, and Willard became regional president. It went on to purchase other smaller banks in the region. Then in 1998 Norwest was acquired by Wells Fargo, and Willard became the regional president of that new bank too. As well as profited handsomely.
Willard once said of these bank mergers, “We’re like a rancher… We don’t want all the ranches — just those that adjoin us.” (7)
So, Larry Willard became a success because of gobbling up other banks and forming superbanks. Oh yeah, the term now is “financial institutions,” since they do lots more than just banking. His power was secure in controlling one of the largest financial institutions in the state. Yet it was not enough. His influence would spread beyond just the world of business.
(end of part 1) (go to part 2==>)
1. Mills, C. Wright. The Power Elite. Oxford Press. 1956
2. Woods, Pat. “El Jefe.” New Mexico Business Journal. January 1991. Pg. 65.
3. Klinkerman, Steve. “Regional Empire in West Planned; Ford Bank Group, United New Mexico to Merge.” The American Banker. October 13, 1992. Pg. 2.
4. Ward, John. “Motivated by Possibilities.” Accent (Albuquerque, New Mexico). April 2005. Vol. 2, No. 4. Pg. 12.
5. Business Editors. “UTD-NEW-MEXICO-FINCL; Larry Willard Named Executive Vice President.” Business Wire. January 30,1985.
6. Klinkerman, op. cit.
7. Quest for excellence: Larry Willard – United New Mexico Financial Corp.’s president and CEO, Larry Willard – El Jefe – Cover Story
by R. Michelle Breyer . New Mexico Business Journal / March, 1993