El Paso Inc.'s El Pasoan of the Year for 2009 is banker, businessman and Texas Tech University Regent Rick Francis. It is his work on behalf of Texas Tech that has led to his selection as this year's honoree.

Francis was twice appointed to the Texas Tech Board of Regents by Gov. Rick Perry. His position has enabled him to bring a little Far West Texas perspective to the board, and he became an early champion of Tech’s establishment of medical and nursing schools in El Paso.

More recently he played a key role in getting Texas Tech Chancellor Kent Hance to recognize the need and opportunity that El Paso presented for a full-fledged, freestanding health sciences university.

While Francis minimizes his role in the effort, crediting Hance and others with developing the vision, insiders say Francis has been more than involved and that it would not have happened without him.

While there are many challenges to overcome, the first step was convincing the chancellor to buy into the vision. That happened Dec. 10, when Hance flew to El Paso and surprised everyone by announcing his vision for a stand-alone university here that also would include schools of dentistry, pharmacology and allied health. The chancellor indicated it would be one of his priorities.

While the time frame for realization of that vision is long, perhaps a decade, people in the know say a complete medical center could eventually be as large an economic driver for the region as anything that has ever happened here.

But if Francis gets accolades for Tech’s increased involvement here, it is only his most recent success.

Francis is the son of former Mayor Larry and Marilyn Francis. He attended Texas Tech, where at age 20 he met his wife, 19-year-old Ginger Gurss. Both are Texas Tech graduates, and both are heavily involved in civic and cultural organizations.

Francis, who is 53, did well in the 1990s with a two-way radio and car phone company called Francis Communications. When he sold that company, he invested in a local bank called State National Bank.

When that sold to Norwest, which later became Wells Fargo, he invested in Bank of the West, taking over as chair on the death of founder and former Mayor Jonathan Rogers.

Francis is an avid skier, albeit now with braces on both knees. He and Ginger also collect clocks. A lot of clocks. In his office at Bank of the West, Francis sat down among the clocks with El Paso Inc. to talk about what’s next for Texas Tech, the importance of hometown banks and his passion for El Paso.

Q: Are you always on time?

(Laughing and surveying the clocks) I’m punctual. I don’t like to waste people’s time.

Q: Let’s talk about Tech. How did you get involved in the expansion? 

It was a deep honor when the governor appointed me to the board of regents. I was one of many people who wanted to see a medical school. I was just one of the guys pulling on the oars to make that a reality. 

As that success began to take place, we began to look higher and looked at the possibilities of a nursing school, a dental school and pharmacy and all the areas where El Paso was behind the national and state averages.

We also were looking at the tremendous economic impact that the health care field is having on America today, and how it is transforming communities, where health care has become the major economic driver.

Recently, after the medical school began to ramp up, we began to look at the shortage of nurses. UTEP does a great job, but we need to bring as many resources into this community as we can. We’ve got that pipeline coming in from the University of Texas system, and we believed that we could open another pipeline through the Texas Tech system.

And a group of us went and began discussions with legislators and Texas Tech officials. The recent announcement of the chancellor’s vision, which I applaud, of creating a full health sciences center here will have an enormous economic impact.

Q: What was the argument you and others made to the chancellor? 

At Texas Tech, we have a vision of serving West Texas. Clearly the need in El Paso County and Hudspeth County is great, in terms of educating medical professionals and serving a population that is in great need of healthcare.

So, it was a combination of going and articulating that this could be the fourth component in the Texas Tech system. That aligns with the long-term vision of Texas Tech of having multiple components like the University of Texas system does.

I think the board of regents will make this a high priority as they did with the medical school.

Q: What needs to be done next? 

Our February meeting is a strategic planning retreat, and we will look at all the priorities around the state and prioritize those.

Q: What kind of response are you getting from other regents about the plans for a health sciences center in El Paso? 

It’s very positive.

Q: Are people in Lubbock having trouble letting go? 

At the board level, there is a strategic vision. These are people who have been appointed by Gov. Perry, who share that vision. 

He is a strong supporter of the medical school and of our getting a health sciences center. Rick Perry championed the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine and he has already said he supports a health sciences center.

Q: How do you know? 

He has said that to multiple people privately. He hasn’t had a public venue to say that in a speech yet. But maybe we need to make that happen.

Q: Does this mean we need to re-elect Gov. Perry? 

I’d like to take a pass on the politics. There are two great Republicans running. I’m supporting Rick Perry.

He’s been the best governor ever for El Paso. Just look at the appointments he’s made to boards and commissions. He’s made sure there’s an El Pasoan on the Texas Tech board and the UT board.

Q: What are the chances of Texas Tech expanding beyond the medical center? 

There are no plans to put any kind of academic program here that would compete with UTEP. We have an architecture program just because UTEP doesn’t have one. We look at UTEP as a strategic partner.

Q: Let’s talk about banking. How did you get into that? 

I really made my money in Francis Communication and Francis Security. Sold them in the 1990s and was able to redirect some of that money into the banking business. I was one of the original shareholders in State National Bank. 

Quite frankly, I was disappointed when the shareholders voted to sell it to Norwest. I believe strongly that El Paso needed a locally owned bank. When the bank sold, Jon Rogers called me up, and I took some of that money and put it in this bank and the rest is history, I guess.

Q: What’s so special about having a locally owned bank? 

These last two years highlight the importance of having a bank whose focus is on El Paso. Earlier this year, Wall Street abandoned Main Street. As they have had troubles, they have had to decrease the amount of money they lent to El Paso businesses.

Our whole focus is El Paso County and the counties surrounding El Paso County. We lend to El Paso businesses or businesses that want to invest in El Paso. As other bigger banks began to cut back as they repaired their balance sheets for Wall Street, we’ve been hitting records every month.

We continued to lend money in record amounts during some of the most challenging times that America has seen in a long time. We have a group of shareholders who are El Pasoans who made their money here and are now focused on investing in the growth of El Paso.

Q: But haven’t smaller banks been more prone to fail in the current banking crisis? 

Banks have not failed because of size. It was the result of their lending standards and management.

Q: How is Bank of the West doing? 

We’re at about $813 million in assets. It’s our expectation that in the next 18-24 months, we’ll exceed a billion dollars.

Q: Let’s turn to your civic activities. What drives you to become involved in so many? 

I was very fortunate that in my 30s I made a fair amount of money. I was able to work because I wanted to – not because I had to. Part of the partnership and the love affair I share with my wife is that we want to advance the ball on our watch. We want to give back. It’s one of our passions. We try to pick some organizations in which we can make a difference.

Q: How do you choose the organizations you work with? 

You have to pick an area you have a passion for. If you do you’ll love going to the meetings. If you don’t, it’s a grind. 

My wife was chair of the El Paso Museum of Art when the current building was built. I’ve been very interested in the Boy Scouts. Four generations – my grandfather, father, me and my son, have been Boy Scouts. 

Q: What’s next for Rick Francis?

To continue to grow the bank, be part of a great team at the bank. And to continue as part of the team committed to building the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center. This is one of the most dynamic times in El Paso history. 

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