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This article was prepared for the November 28, 2001 edition of
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Reining in the Bankers
With a trade association, equality rarely rules. Most
of them have several jumbo members (who often like to throw their
weight around) and lots of smaller members (who actually outnumber
the large ones), and their interests differ.
How does a director keep the peace, balancing the needs of large and
small, so the association stays on track? Alfred H. Griffith does
it by following the principles of two successful politicians —
George Washington and Machiavelli.
In 1977 Griffith gave up his jobs as a high school teacher and a
mayor to work for the New Jersey Bankers Association, and he is
now. Last month the NJBA moved its headquarters from a quiet enclave
in Princeton on Ewing Street to south of the Radisson Hotel on Route
1 South in Monmouth Junction. Princeton Charter School has bought
the former building, adjacent to its current campus, and the NJBA
was able to sublease the space it needed from Fleet Bank. The
numbers are different, but the extensions remain the same.
"Our primary job is to give all our banks the best tools
says Griffith, "to not only offer products to their customers,
but also stay prepared for the changes happening in the industry."
"A major challenge for us is to speak with one voice in Trenton
as we get a more diverse constituency," he says. Twenty years
ago, before banks could cross state lines, there was plenty of
but little diversity, and the NJBA had fewer fences to straddle.
function as president is to set the stage so that the decision makers
(the trustees) are from as diverse a membership as possible, and to
set the stage so that when they make a decision, they can arrive at
a consensus," he says.
"Our board is a true cross-section." The most serious
to consensus came in the early 1980s, when New Jersey law did not
allow for any one bank to have more than 20 percent of all the
of commercial and savings banks in the state. Midlantic and First
Fidelity were nearing that percentage mark.
"Those two banks wanted to be able to continue to grow, to fend
off eventual acquisition by an out of state bank, and they wanted
to go to Trenton to get the percentage increased. The next nine
banks took an opposite point of view. So we had a major dispute
our 11 largest banks." Supporting the nine might cause the two
largest to walk away with a considerable portion of the dues and many
of the political resources.
As Griffith says, with understatement, "We provided encouragement
that it might not be to their interest to involve the
The 11 banks did agree to fight their own battle in Trenton. "For
at least two years the bankers had to go down to Trenton and deal
with the legislators, and they didn’t enjoy it at all." Joseph
Semrod, now chairman of Fleet Bank New Jersey, is the only banker
still active who functioned as a combatant in those skirmishes.
"They developed a tremendous appreciation for the
says Griffith. "It made clear the importance of consensus, and
we have been lucky to keep the organization intact, with full
Ultimately the two big banks won, which changed the
state’s banking scene forever. Griffith attributes his frequent
to "setting the stage" to the Italian Renaissance political
philosopher. "I am a die hard fan of Machiavelli, and I try to
practice his principals in a softer way. Machiavelli always wanted
to set the stage in such a way that it didn’t appear his hand was
His other hero, George Washington, led the country at a time when
the basic governing policies were being hammered out to form the
"He was great at taking people with different points of view,
getting them at a table, and getting the best out of them. That’s
a skill that I admire. To take guys who hate each others’ guts and
get a common result. Here’s a document that has lasted through all
the time and trials and has hardly ever been amended."
Griffith’s political savvy, he says, comes from his mother. "My
mother has always had a very smart political way of doing things.
She was never involved with politics, but I have gotten tremendous
lessons on ways of getting things done." For instance, when he
didn’t make the cut to get into Kean College, she wrote a letter to
the president telling the story of her disadvantaged family and her
son’s experiences. "So they gave me a chance."
Griffith grew up in Hillside, where his mother was a housewife and
his father was a foreman in a foundry, "I always wanted to be
a teacher, but if I hadn’t gotten into a state school, I probably
would have been a stock car driver," he says. He worked as a
a supermarket butcher, and as a tourist guide at Doris Duke’s estate.
After graduating in 1962 from Kean College, he earned master’s degrees
from Rutgers in political science and secondary education and
Griffith had a brief career in politics (as Bridgewater’s mayor) and
taught social studies at Bridgewater Raritan High School. Griffith’s
wife also taught high school, and their daughter runs a florist
Teaching as it turns out, is an effective preparation for trade group
jobs. Teenagers have an attention span of 15 minutes and, in that
respect, they resemble busy bank presidents and legislators. Griffith
started out as an NJBA lobbyist. "My education background was
crucial; I had to explain as many banking principles as possible in
as short a time as possible."
One big win that he remembers was in the 1980s, when the NJBA
the legislator to deregulate restrictive interest rates on loans.
"To compete with the mutual funds we were paying 18 to 19 percent
on deposits, but loan rates were regulated at 12 percent across the
board." The state regulated this rate so that low-cost mortgage
loans would be available to the general public. "Yet there were
no limitations on the funds. We were not in a position to
Much of the NJBA’s mission involves presenting workshops. "Thirty
new banks have been established in New Jersey over the past three
years," says Griffith, "and we have a total of 84 banks. Many
of our banks are so small they don’t have time to get outside help,
and we can bring in speakers and consultants."
For instance, this month at Forsgate, he spoke at a morning conference
for new community bank leaders.
The training scene has changed in the last 10 years. "Formerly,
you didn’t have a session if it wasn’t a full day," he says.
if you can do it in a half day, at the right price, it works."
Smaller bankers are more likely to do a phone conference or a
than an actual meeting at Forsgate.
Asked to comment on possible problems with the ongoing terrorist
Griffith says, "Considering New Jersey and its location, I am
sure our members have been asked to work with law enforcement
I know my phone will ring off the hook if they are bothered by
"A potential issue that may wind up being a problem: the conflict
between the historical requirement to share information on
that exceed $10,000. There is some thought in Washington that maybe
the number has to be reduced, but there is also a growing sentiment
to protect the financial privacy of customers."
"I learned from Machiavelli to always think long term, and as
I think longer term — I hope I am wrong — we could find a
challenge between the right of financial privacy and the obligation
for disclosure. I can potentially see our banks being put in the
As for his own future plans: "I’ve taken a position that I will
retire when it is no longer fun."
— Barbara Fox
Box 573, Princeton 08542-0573. Alfred H. Griffith, president.
Gerard G. Brew, McCarter & English, followed by Q&A with Sharon Newett
and Meg Smith of the NJ Department of the Treasury, and Keven
Middlesex Surrogate. At Forsgate. $125.
preventing fraud," telephone seminar.
the New Economic Environment," David Berson, chief economist,
Federal National Mortgage Association. $225. Princeton Marriott.
and Security," Jeff Connor, Reed Smith LLP. $225. Forsgate.
Those who hope to solve some of the Route 1 traffic
congestion by building the Millstone Bypass are hoping that a 13-hour
public session on Tuesday, December 4, will accelerate the process.
Opponents of the bypass project argue that this meeting is premature.
They are urging Acting Governor Donald DiFrancesco and Department of
Transportation Commissioner James Weinstein to cancel it, and they
mention the possibility of legal action if it continues as planned.
The Environmental Scoping Forum and Open House, sponsored by the
Transportation Policy Institute of Rutgers, is scheduled for Tuesday,
December 4, from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. at the West Windsor Municipal
Building. Its purpose: to solicit comments from the public on the
scope of the upcoming environmental impact statement (EIS).
Anyone who wishes to speak at the December 4 meeting can pre-register
by contacting Helen Neuhaus & Associates at 212-532-4175, or
firstname.lastname@example.org. Requests for speaking time will be honored in the
order in which they are received and each speaker will be allotted
five minutes. Anyone who does not pre-register can sign up at the door
and will be allowed to speak in the order listed, as time slots become
Written statements may also be submitted either at the scoping forum
or by sending them to Helen Neuhaus & Associates at 432 Park Avenue
South, New York, 10016. They can also be E-mailed or faxed to
The latest chapter in the Millstone Bypass saga began last October
when then-Governor Christie Whitman threw out DOT’s environmental
study recommending construction of the bypass and settling on a route
for the road. Whitman mandated a lengthy environmental impact
statement (EIS) to be conducted to determine the necessity of the
project, its environmental effects, and possible alternatives.
The state retained the Transportation Policy Institute of Rutgers
University to conduct the EIS and help mediate a solution. To show
that alternatives to the bypass would be considered, the project was
renamed the Penns Neck Area EIS.
Several months into the process, Rutgers set up the Partners’
Roundtable (policy.rutgers.edu/tpi/pennsneckareaeis), consisting of
some 40 residents, government officials, environmentalists and
transportation experts who have been meeting twice a month since June.
(The Roundtable’s next meeting will be Wednesday, December 12, from 5
to 8 p.m. at the West Windsor Senior Center, 271 Clarksville Road.)
Fifteen of the Roundtable members want the Rutgers consultants to
postpone the December scoping meeting to next May or June. So far,
they say, only the EIS study area has been defined. They assert that
the next step, a Problem Statement, is being written by a committee
but is "far from complete and is nowhere near ready to be negotiated
with the rest of the Roundtable participants, never mind being
presented to the public."
"We are not pleased by a turn of events that seems to want to rush
through scoping a project that has not even been defined yet in any
manner at all," says their letter.
West Windsor needs to be more forceful in its advocacy, says
Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu. "They need to take their blinders off in
West Windsor and be more vocal" if they want to see the project
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