In this script for a wonderful life, Greg Levenson plays both hero brother who went off on great adventures and hero brother who stayed home to bank on a community.
These days, you’ll find Levenson in his office at Southwest Capital Bank, a family-owned bank that sits on the doorstep of Albuquerque’s Country Club neighborhood and within earshot of Downtown.
On the site of the old Huning Castle apartments on Central Avenue, the bank is just steps away from lawns where children play on swings and run through sprinklers. Inside, it’s more like family den than Wall Street wonder.
That’s because for Levenson, after serving as an F-16 fighter pilot in Iraq, coming home to run a bank that was his grandfather’s dream feels like where he belongs.
“The two things I’ve wanted to be in life – ever – since I was a little kid,” says the president and CEO of Southwest Capital, “I wanted to be a banker like my father, and I wanted to be a fighter pilot.”
Community banking is what differentiates Southwest Capital’s position in the market. And community is what has defined and somewhat determined the successes of Levenson’s life.
But much like George Bailey, there came the matter of which pull was stronger: build a community or fly a fighter jet.
That’s why Levenson says early and often that his bank is on a generational timeline. Like any good banker, he monitors performance on monthly and quarterly reports.
But, “I’m far more interested in seeing it decade by decade,” he says. “I want to make sure I preserve this, to have her take this,” he says, thinking of his 6-year-old daughter and her younger brother.
A dream deferred
Step in the vestibule of Southwest Capital and “meet” the grandfather, S.D. “Sam” Levenson, on a bronzed plaque. He was a Lubbock businessman who bought the Bank of Las Vegas in 1969 when he was 59 years old. “He probably could have retired,” says his grandson now. “But he didn’t want to retire.”
Instead, the elder Levenson dreamed of building a network of community banks under one brand – Southwest National Bank – but it was a long undertaking that hadn’t quite solidified when health problems came along. “It was a terrible loss,” Greg Levenson says.
The dream was deferred, but the banking gene passed on to Sam’s son – Greg’s father – who ran the Bank of Las Vegas for many years.
The military gene was there, too. Greg Levenson’s grandfather served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, but he says “the luminary female” in family history was his mother’s mother, who served in the Navy WAVES, the first regiment of women in the Navy. “It was a bold choice for a 19- or 20-year-old woman,” he says. “She had to have her mother sign because her father wouldn’t.”
Despite that, his family discouraged him from the military life, saying the post-Communist era was different. “That’s not really service,” he heard. “There’s no need.”
Called to duty
Then came 9/11, not long after Levenson graduated from the University of Texas at Austin (he also has a master’s of business administration from Georgetown University).
He was 23 and working as a self-styled “kid banker,” living in an apartment over the Bank of Las Vegas. That day he felt worlds removed from New York. Now, there was a need.
So Levenson signed up for the National Guard. He liked the citizen soldier ideal, the idea that you “serve until you are called to duty, the minuteman basis of our nation.”
He was ready in 2007, when the wing deployed.
Flying an F-16 across the Atlantic, he remembers he felt exhilarated to be following the route of Charles Lindbergh. “It was one of these stellar moments,” he says.
Soon, they crossed the blue waters of the Nile River valley, which quickly turned to sandy desert. Shortly after flying over a fertile river valley, they got the “fence in” call, the signal to adjust cockpit switches for a combat zone. “This is it,” he remembers thinking.
The New Mexico Air National Guard’s 150th Wing, better known as the Tacos, provided support to American and other friendly forces.
In the Guard, you deploy with New Mexico soldiers, he says, “so it’s really that sense of community. Everybody’s from New Mexico, so when you get to that place and they can’t pronounce everybody’s last name because they’re not used to the surnames of New Mexico, and we’re all together laughing about it.”
Lessons to learn
Growing up, Levenson remembers the portraits that lined the walls of the Bank of Las Vegas from all the bank presidents going back to the founding in 1890. “The president of the bank during the Depression was a mean-looking guy,” he says.
Which is to say that Levenson has respect for the hard lessons of banking. The initiative to revive his grandfather’s dream of a network of community banks, years in the making, came together and launched in January 2008.
“Bad timing,” he says.
They decided to slow it down and build the infrastructure more methodically, investing in information technology and banking training. “That kind of saved us,” he says.
As smaller banks faded from the market, the mission to be a community bank solidified – to just be that. “The big banks have taught people, there’s only one way to do banking, and it’s our way,” he says. “But there are other forms of banking. There are times when a relationship matters. That’s when the ‘history moments’ teach.”
‘Just be that’
At Southwest Capital, halls are lined with Native pottery and books on New Mexico history, plus Levenson’s longtime passion, U.S. presidents, which he’s reading in chronological order. “I got stuck on the American Revolution for three years, and now I’m in a wasteland of time,” he says.
An F-16 model sits on his bookshelf and on the walls are Wilson Hurley and Arturo Chavez paintings of Levenson’s “happy place,” the mountains of northern New Mexico.
He mentions he’s climbed Mount Kilamanjaro recently, another “wonderful life” dream. “As you climb the mountain, it becomes more and more quiet, the sounds of nature (and then only) the sound of wind.”
It recaptured for him what flying the F-16 was like. “You had to leave everything at the door and just be that.”