From Big Company to Small Town, John Steinmetz's Work Pays Off

From Big Company to Small Town, John Steinmetz's Work Pays Off

John Steinmetz’s road to becoming one of the most successful bank executives in Texas took so many twists and turns that he almost lost count.

Today, Steinmetz is the CEO of Vista Bank, once a small agriculturally based bank, headquartered in the rural West Texas town of Rawls, Texas. In his 11 years at Vista Bank, Steinmetz has done what many in the banking industry would consider nothing short of miraculous; he helped turn a rural $58 million West Texas, row crop bank into an $800 million behemoth with a growing national profile, deep roots in both Dallas and Fort Worth, and now more than 10 locations spread throughout the state.

He’s also done something considerably more legacy-based; after seven years at Vista Bank, in 2014 he became the first CEO from outside the founding family in the bank’s 102-year history. And then he proceeded to guide it to more towering heights than it had ever been to before.

But the decision to join Vista Bank in the first place? That was Steinmetz’s true run-toward-the-roar moment.

“We didn’t know a whole lot about what we were doing,” Steinmetz recalls about his first days at Vista Bank. “We thought we knew everything there was to know. At 29, I realized really quick how much we didn’t know.”

Sometimes the safest place to be is the one that feels the scariest. Lions — with their intimidating teeth and deafening roars — are designed to provoke fear. But the real danger lies with the smaller, quieter lionesses. In the animal kingdom, the lion’s job is to roar and send prey scattering away from the startling noise — right into the path of the waiting lionesses, the true hunters. If gazelles knew to run toward the frightening sound, they would have a better chance of survival. The roar doesn’t represent the real danger.

Likewise, humans sometimes have an instinctive desire to shy away from pursuits that look and sound scary. But often, running toward those challenges and conflicts is the best (or only) way to grow and meet our goals. In business, those who run from the deafening noise never reach their full potential, while those who turn and face the fear thrive.

Steinmetz, who grew up in Fort Worth, had every opportunity to shy away from the roar. Out of college, he’d lined up a plum job in New York City with Bear Stearns, which at the time in the early 2000s was one of the 10 biggest investment banks in the world. Instead, Steinmetz opted to take an unpaid internship with the White House in Washington, D.C. Quickly thereafter, in 2002, the White House was locked down in a hiring freeze, meaning Steinmetz’s job opportunities in the White House dwindled to zero. “That takes me to where I am today,” Steinmetz says.

Instead, Steinmetz landed at PlainsCapital Bank, one of the largest banks in Texas with nearly $10 billion in assets. It was there that he cut his teeth in the banking industry, crediting that five-year stay — and a formative two-year mentorship with company chairman and CEO Alan White — with laying the foundation for his next step. And that step took a whole lot of courage to take when a smaller, family-owned bank, headquartered in a town of less than 2,000 people, came calling.

As the suddenly 29-year-old president of Vista Bank, Steinmetz quickly realized how big the task was in front of him.

“To me, running to the roar was taking on what we often said was David vs. Goliath,” Steinmetz says. “We left this large, successful organization for all the right reasons, and we were trying to compete with them with a $950,000 legal lending limit. In our business, that’s very difficult to grow, so we had to find participating banks that would agree to essentially buy a portion of the credit from a 29-year-old president and a team of bankers that weren’t that far, plus or minus, from my age. We had to make sure that anything we put in front of people exceeded their expectations.”

And so it did. Steinmetz termed his early days at Vista Bank “Operation Blowfish” because the small company was constantly inflating itself to make sure it wasn’t getting eaten by the bigger banks. Because, as anyone in the banking world knows, you’re either on the way to being acquired or doing the acquiring.

Vista Bank’s growth since those “blowfish” days has been immense. It’s vacillated between 27 to 32 percent growth year after year as the bank’s profitability continued to shoot up. One of the turning points in Vista Bank’s success was when then-Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach opted to move his banking business to the bank.

Today, Vista Bank handles the banking needs of nearly 30 head coaches, both in college football and the NFL. It’s helped solidify the bank’s reputation and put them on the map in a lucrative niche.

“As we tell the coaches,” Steinmetz says, “‘You worry about X’s and O’s. We’ll worry about debits and credits.’”

Since those early days, what Steinmetz is most proud of isn’t necessarily the enormous growth in assets, but how Vista Bank has gone about it. In the 11 years since his group took over the bank, it’s lost fewer than five employees, and its placement on Texas Monthly’s Best Company’s to Work For in Texas list in 2017 and 2018 is a testament to the culture it’s built.

It’s even created an initiative called a “Love Committee,” a group that decides how a pool of money the company sets aside will be allocated for employees in need. When one employee’s mother was going through chemotherapy cross-country, the committee raised the funds to pay her travel costs. It all contributes to an atmosphere that upholds the bank’s idea that profit doesn’t just arrive. It’s generated through motivated and supported people first and foremost.

“There is a genuine belief, top to bottom, bottom to top, that everyone matters,” Steinmetz says.

Going forward, Vista Bank’s upward trajectory shows no signs of slowing down. Its banner 2018 year showed that the company is at a better place than at any time in more than a century. And yet Steinmetz can’t help but think back to those early days in charting the progression of how it got to this point in the first place.

“A family out of Rawls, Texas, that had a small, sleepy lifestyle bank reached out to me at 29 and said, ‘Hey, we’d like to give you a shot,’” Steinmetz says. “Quite frankly, the rest is history. It’s been a wonderful ride.”