“It may be easy to in general make statements overall about bankers, but I think we’re very, very well-liked by our customers.” illustration by Tony Healey

Breakfast with D CEO: Kathleen Gibson of Citibank

The commercial banking expert says confidence is what's lacking in restarting the economy.

Plan as best you can, but don’t panic when you must adjust once the curveballs start coming. That’s good advice for anyone in business—and good advice for one attempting to set up a breakfast with Kathleen Gibson in early February.

Twice my meeting with the president of commercial banking for Citibank’s Central U.S. division had to be postponed by the snow-pocalypse that also complicated the Super Bowl XLV festivities. When we are finally able to convene, many weeks later at Kathleen’s Sky Diner in University Park, the weather has warmed so that even at 7:30 in the morning, the restaurant has its garage-door-style glass wall rolled wide open. We take a table at the front to better enjoy the open air.

Because of the way the weather had hampered our prior plans, it seems fitting that the unpredictability of outside events is among the first subjects to come up. Instability abroad—the push to oust longtime despots in a host of Arab nations—is the reason Gibson claims to be only slightly optimistic about the remainder of 2011.

“The Middle East is a wild card. That could drive prices to a place where we start to see less growth than we started the year hoping to see,” she says. Citibank started the year hoping to see 4 percent.

I ask her if she’s dealing with the same mental balancing act as our government: rooting for the protesters while maintaining concern about what could sweep in during any power vacuum to follow. She is.

“I worry about the Middle East from an economic perspective. From a human perspective, it’s hard not to want people to really achieve what they aspire to achieve,” she says. “Look at Iran, and you see how long-lasting the consequences are. It could progress in really good ways, and it could progress in ways we really can’t expect.”

It’s serious subject matter, especially considering that we’ve not even had to a chance to break our fast yet. It appears that our waitress is extremely polite and has been hesitant to interrupt our conversation long enough to take our order. My stomach would prefer that she had butted in sooner.

Once I’ve had a chance to order a plate of French toast with a side of bacon and Gibson chooses two eggs over medium with a side of bacon and a cup of fruit (substituted for the usual potatoes), we get into her upbringing, which helps explain her interest in international affairs. She spent a chunk of her childhood in Argentina and the Dominican Republic, where her father worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

In fact, Citi’s global reach—one of its competitive advantages, Gibson says—was among the factors that helped convince her to take a job with the bank five years ago, after having spent the previous 25 with what’s now Bank of America.

Her purview is commercial lending in six markets in Texas, as well as Chicago. She’s seen stark differences between these territories—with our state doing far better—in terms of how well they’ve recovered from the Great Recession, and she credits strong local leadership in both the business sector and government. In her view, there’s plenty of capital available, and banks are willing to lend. The only thing holding back our economy now? “Confidence.” Until small businesses feel strong enough to once again build up inventory or take on staff, our ability to get back to pre-recession activity will lag, she says.

Our meal arrives, and I am surprised by the almost pancake-like appearance of the fluffy French toast. It’s a version that makes plain the part that eggs play in the dish. I eat every bite but just a bit of the super-crunchy and salty bacon. Gibson finishes her eggs and only nibbles at the bacon and fruit cup. Most days she breakfasts with her younger daughter, who’s a senior in high school and headed for Gibson’s alma mater, Texas A&M University, in the fall.

Although the recession—and the bailouts that followed—hasn’t exactly made bankers the most popular of people, Gibson has no regrets about her chosen profession.

“I have a friend who says it this way: It’s easy to, for example, dislike politicians in general. But rarely do you hear someone say, ‘I don’t like my congressman.’ And we feel a little bit that way these days,” she says. “It may be easy to in general make statements overall about bankers, but I think we’re very, very well-liked by our customers. They like their adviser, their individual adviser. That’s our goal, to make sure they know us as people.”

That sounds about right to me. Whatever opinions I might have about Wall Street fat cats with golden parachutes, after sharing a meal with Gibson, there’s at least one banker I like just fine.


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