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Cover Story

Norm Bagwell: The Comeback Kid

After a medical scare and an exit from a high-profile job, the longtime Dallas banker bounces back, stronger than ever.
photography by Elizabeth Lavin

What happens when the most likely to succeed doesn’t?

Norm Bagwell was valedictorian of his high school class, a state golfing champ, chairman of the Dallas chamber of commerce and, at the age of 35, president of the second-largest bank in North Texas. Less than a decade later, he was suffering from kidney failure and would soon lose his executive suite. For the first time since he was 14, scooping up golf balls in Louisiana, he wouldn’t have a job.

“That’s a lot of real life to deal with,” says Bagwell, who was also raising two children with his wife, Robin.

Fortunately, Robin was a good biological match and a great partner, so she donated one of her kidneys. Turns out that banking was good
for the long haul, too. After some traveling and checking out hedge funds and investment firms, Bagwell jumped back into the banking business when his noncompete agreement expired.

The meaning of life, it turned out, was the life he was living.

Anyone who has faced a health scare or career trial knows that regrets and second-guesses are part of the process. But they can also be
a passage, even a validation, and when Bagwell came through on the other side, he chose to do it all over again.

“At 44, not many people get a chance to step up and look at the world with fresh eyes,” Bagwell says. “It was a gift in some ways, because I got a heavy dose of new perspective. I wanted to make a difference every day, and it became apparent where my highest and best use was­—and probably my love.

“Being a banker in Dallas, Texas, was the right fit for me.”

Plentiful Opportunities
Bagwell turned 49 in December, and he has been CEO of Bank of Texas since 2008. At mid-life, he’s in the prime of his career, thinner and healthier than a decade ago, with the equivalent of a lifetime of banking experience behind him and open field ahead. He’s a big fish in a smaller pond, re-energized by another run.

Bank of Texas has a market share of 1.59 percent in Dallas-Fort Worth. And his former employer, JPMorgan Chase, is 14 times larger in the state, with $75 billion more in assets. But Bagwell has big plans. Total loans at Bank of Texas are almost back to their pre-recession peak, while deposits, now topping $4 billion, have been stronger for three straight years.

The bottom line has been improving, too. The bank’s strongest sector, commercial banking, grew pretax profit by 15 percent in the year ended last June. Other sectors, such as brokerage, trust, and private banking, are starting to show their potential. Bagwell is even keen on real estate, having made some timely loans on multifamily projects in early 2010. Today, he says he can’t find enough new hires for an expanding mortgage unit.

He has been through similar growth cycles before, when the economic outlook seemed grim but the opportunities were plentiful.

“That’s about as much fun as there is in banking,” he says.

Bagwell has good things to say about his time at JPMorgan Chase in Dallas, and his collaboration with Elaine Agather. When Chase and Bank One merged in 2004, Chase’s Agather got the CEO post and Bank One’s Bagwell was named president.

Both were in their 40s and had long been high-profile bankers and civic players in North Texas. They worked together for three years, and then, he says, it was time to go. No public drama, no conflicts, and Bagwell insists that he had the option to remain. But he’s happy to be on top again, even at a much smaller place.

“When you’re running something, you’re building teams and building a culture,” he says. “Chase didn’t really need a builder; it needed an operator.”

Bagwell looks younger than his age, so it’s easy to forget that he  has spent a quarter century in banking, primarily in senior management. For almost as long, he’s been a fixture in community affairs, serving on boards of directors, finance committees, and advisory panels for more than a dozen nonprofit groups.

For 15 consecutive years, he was on the Dallas chamber’s executive committee, often focusing on economic development and corporate relocations. He only stepped off in 2011 because of what he called term limits. Who knew anyone could hit the wall at the chamber of commerce?

Bagwell says he puts in at least 60 hours a week on the job, and then goes to an average of three outside events. This is old-school banking, in which bankers try to become part of the fabric of a community. It’s hard to separate Bagwell’s professional interests (Mortgage Bankers Association and the State Fair of Texas) from his personal (Baylor Healthcare, which handled his kidney transplant, and Southern Methodist University, his alma mater).

In this business, it doesn’t really matter, because every contact is a potential relationship and potential client. Customers don’t just come into the Bank of Texas, he says; bank employees have to go out into the marketplace and get them. That personal connection is a big part of his pitch.

“You will not get lost in our company,” Bagwell says. “It feels like a bank should feel, with people doing business with people they trust.”

‘The Whole Package’
Can someone be born to be a banker? Initially, Bagwell planned to be an accountant and tax lawyer. At SMU, he earned a business administration degree, specializing in accounting and finance. But he also got a degree in history, because it seemed so dynamic, and took several English classes.

Those liberal arts helped him as a thinker, writer, and speaker. He learned how to analyze facts and figures, and connect them to larger themes. He occasionally speaks to students about careers, and he emphasizes the soft skills—writing and speaking, and having high energy and a positive attitude.

He believes that those traits separate the best leaders, even while acknowledging that banks like his want more and more accounting courses.

“In a lot of ways, Norm’s the whole package,” says Ron Steinhart, a local banking legend who helped revive the industry in Texas in the early 1990s.

As former president and COO of Bank One Texas and chairman of the parent company’s commercial group, Steinhart was one of Bagwell’s key mentors. He says that Bagwell has the analytical skills and business judgment for balance-sheet decisions. But he also has the devotion to community that’s essential to building lasting relationships. And he keeps his ego in check.

“A lot of people ask me for advice,” Steinhart says. “Norm actually follows it.”

Bagwell says that he was dealt a good hand, a nod to his parents and family upbringing in Monroe, La., about 100 miles east of Shreveport. His father, Stan, was an entrepreneur who developed an auto finance business and bought dealerships for BMW, Volvo, and Fiat. He died in 2000.

His mother, Pat, was one of the first women to earn an MBA at the University of Alabama. She got a job as a secretary, a reflection of business mores a half century ago. But she ultimately capitalized on her research into mechanized farming.

At 85, she’s still farming about 3,000 acres in Louisiana. Bagwell loves to explain how she used science—laser-leveling the land and digging water wells for irrigation—to double and triple the yields on cotton, soybeans, corn, and more.

He grew up around that work ethic and attended a parochial school that pretty much ensured he went to church six days a week. In high school he was senior class president, captain of the basketball and golf teams, and voted most likely to succeed. He downplays all that, saying that he attended a small school with about 45 seniors, the equivalent of a 2A school in North Texas.

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