May 25: U.S. Bank CEO Richard Davis: 'Banker body, preacher soul'

  • Article by: ADAM BELZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 30, 2014 - 3:58 PM

The chief executive of U.S. Bank has become a powerful, persuasive force in the civic life of the Twin Cities.These days, if it’s a high-stakes moment for Minnesota, the chief executive of U.S. Bank is almost always in the middle of it.

He is a native of Southern California, a buttoned-down banker with no roots in Minnesota, and he looks like he could be directing a church choir. 

So what was Richard Davis doing in Atlanta last week, leading the all-out and ultimately successful campaign to persuade the NFL to stage a Super Bowl in Minneapolis during the deep freeze of February? 

These days, if it’s a high-stakes moment for Minnesota, the chief executive of U.S. Bank is almost always in the middle of it. 

In his time away from commanding a corporate empire with 60,000 employees that churned out $5.8 billion in profit last year, Davis has emerged as a force and occasional flash point in his determination to shape the civic life of his adopted state. 

He was in the thick of the long and bitter labor fight that consumed the Minnesota Orchestra. He was a key behind-the-scenes broker of the deal that led to the construction of the new billion-dollar Vikings stadium. He presides over local United Way fundraising drives, advocates for early childhood education, chairs the group that represents Minnesota’s CEOs and is a regular on the local early-evening speaking circuit.

“Banker body, preacher soul,” said Doug Baker, the CEO of Ecolab, a friend who has worked with Davis on many projects.

Davis, 56, frames his civic mission in simple terms: “People somehow think in for-profit business, the only job you have is to come in and make profit for the shareholders” he said. “We’re bankers, and it’s our role to get in the community and give, and give back.”

But big banks are hardly beloved, especially in the wake of the nation’s financial crisis and the toll it took on Main Street.

Under Davis’ direction, U.S. Bank avoided many of the missteps that plagued other large banks during the financial crisis, but the company drew criticism for its foreclosure practices. Protesters marched outside Davis’ house in Minneapolis in 2012.

He says he realizes that the only way to restore his industry’s reputation is one banker, one community at a time.

“It’ll be many years until banks as an industry are perceived as we wish they were and as they used to be, as the do-gooders making a difference in lives and helping America move forward,” Davis said. “We’re going to get there, if it’s the last thing I help with, but it’s going to take awhile.”

A painful lockout

Several of Minnesota’s largest companies are run by people who studiously avoid the spotlight and the controversies it can bring. Not Davis.

He makes a habit of stepping into the most contentious and complex issues in the state, such as the recent Minnesota Orchestra dispute. His role in that fight speaks to his civic priorities and his polite but unwavering style.

Davis was on the orchestra’s board at the time and presided over the contract talks with musicians that disintegrated into a 16-month lockout. The orchestra had been on a long hot streak, including a performance at Carnegie Hall in 2010 in which the New Yorker magazine’s music critic said the Minnesotans sounded like “the greatest orchestra in the world.”

When the board’s negotiating team proposed an average musician pay cut of 30 percent to balance the orchestra’s budget, talks imploded. Conductor Osmo Vänskä had threatened to resign in the fall of 2013, and Gov. Mark Dayton called board leaders to the governor’s mansion.

Dayton wanted the dispute settled — immediately.

The governor “laid into Richard,” said Doug Kelley, a board member who was present. As Dayton and Davis sat across a table from each other, the governor said he didn’t want to see any more inflammatory ads in the newspaper — from either side. He pointed his finger at Davis.

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