Try to imagine the local reaction had JPMorgan Chase & Co. sent a battalion of fast-talking New York executives to run the largest bank in Indiana—Bank One—after it bought the Chicago-based bank in 2004.
Think about that, and one can better appreciate Dennis “Denny” Bassett’s role as chairman of Chase’s Indiana operations.
Bassett, who retires at the end of this month, will tell you things might not have gone well for Chase without a Midwesterner in the front office over the years.
“That was priority No. 1—to maintain an Indiana face to a very large corporation,” said Bassett, 65.
The native of Danville, Ill., who started his banking career in Indianapolis in 1973, is “the typical Midwestern, hometown kind of guy” who can connect with people, observed Joe DeHaven, president of the Indiana Bankers Association.
It’s not yet clear who will replace Bassett. He’ll only say there’s plenty of executive talent within the Indiana unit, which has more than 2,200 employees locally.
Historically strong bank leadership in Indianapolis over the decades has helped businesses and not-for-profits advance a number of community causes.
Take, for example, 1970s-era Indiana National Bank Chairman Tom Binford. He helped establish and lead the city’s Urban League, was chief steward of the Indianapolis 500, and worked with countless community organizations over the years.
Bassett “has performed in the community that critically strong role bank leaders have traditionally played in central Indiana,” said David Johnson, president and CEO of Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, on whose board Bassett serves.
CICP has been the springboard for a number of community initiatives on everything from logistics to advanced manufacturing to the life sciences.
Cut teeth at local banks
Chase’s influence is exerted in part through Bassett’s serving on the boards of at least 10 organizations in the region. But it’s easy to forget he began his career here way back in the 1970s, in commercial lending.
In 1973, Bassett and his new bride rumbled into town in a 1970 Chevy Malibu. He’d recently earned a business degree from Eastern Illinois University and had filled out job applications at American Fletcher National Bank and at rival Indiana National Bank. INB hired him.
Starting in credit review, Bassett worked his way up into senior commercial lending roles.
“For the first 20 years of my career, banking was more predictable, static and fun,” he recalled.
In the 1980s, Indiana’s banking laws were changed to allow banks to branch into other counties. But the reforms came too late relative to other states such as Ohio, where banks grew large enough to swallow Indiana’s biggest banks in one bite. In 1986, then-Columbus, Ohio-based Bank One bought American Fletcher—one of Indianapolis’ big-three banks.
Six years later, Bassett’s own INB was snapped up by National Bank of Detroit, better known as NBD.
Despite the downsizing and buyouts resulting from the NBD deal and subsequent mergers, Bassett managed to move from one position to another in corporate lending, including senior credit officer for large corporate banking in Indiana, Kentucky and southwest Ohio. He had valuable knowledge of clients.
Mergers “ended up enhancing my career, enhancing my opportunities, really,” said Bassett, who has a tinge of folksiness that reminds one of the late Gov. Frank O’Bannon.
Some of that no doubt comes with the territory of traveling Indiana and nearby states in search of clients. “Building relationships was the most significant thing I learned in my early banking years.”
In fact, to this day, he’ll run across family members of a business he worked with over the decades. “Sometimes they say, ‘My father knew you,’ or, ‘My grandfather knew you.’”
He’d move up the ranks again when NBD merged with First Chicago, in the mid-1990s, and when Bank One took over in 1998.
In 2001, Bassett moved into the president’s job—this time down the street at Huntington Bank’s Indiana headquarters.
Two years later, he was back at Bank One—as CEO for Indiana. That lasted only about a year, until JPMorgan Chase acquired Bank One in a $58 billion deal.
Bassett wound up as middle-market-segment manager for Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky, until named to his current position as chairman of Chase Indiana in 2009.
Although Chase is a $2.6 trillion asset, global powerhouse, ultimately “you have to deliver the products locally,” Bassett said.
“The challenge with employees was to make them feel empowered, relevant and wanted at times of organizational rationalizations.”
Also, the challenge to give back resources to the community “was always a priority and became a focal point with each merger.”
Chase makes more than $3 million in charitable contributions each year in this market.
“Because of the heft [Chase] has, he’s had some wonderful opportunities” to influence giving, DeHaven said.
Among the 10 boards on which Bassett sits is that of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, where he has worked on financial committees and has taken a hands-on approach, said chamber President Kevin Brinegar.
That pace will slow after Bassett retires late this month. He’ll continue to serve on some boards such as that of the Sharon L. Bassett Foundation, which assists families affected by breast cancer and is named in honor of his late wife.
Bassett has remarried. His wife, Sally Brown, is perhaps best known for heading the Ambassadair travel club when it was owned by ATA Airlines. He expects to help her with a school she plans to build in Costa Rica.
The couple recently bought a horse farm. “On my first day of retirement,” Bassett said, “I will get up and feed the horses and smile.”•