5 Questions with Giant Partners' Sam Combs
BY ROD WALTON World Staff Writer
Friday, October 26, 2012
10/26/12 at 5:39 AM
Longtime Tulsan Sam Combs leads the energy practice for Edmond-based consulting firm Giant Partners and is a member of First Fidelity Bank's board of directors. He previously spent much of his career with ONEOK Inc. and retired as president of its distribution subsidiary in 2009. Combs also has served as president of the Tulsa Community Foundation and helped lead other philanthropic organizations.
1. You retired from the energy sector only a few years ago. What made you decide to join the First Fidelity Bank board, and what makes that institution stand out among its competitors?
Actually, I joined the First Fidelity Bank board in 2000. When I first met with the bank's Chief Executive Officer Lee Symcox, they had grown to about $500 million in assets. I was impressed with their culture, values and vision - how they had expanded to get to that point and their plans for future growth. We agreed that my operational and leadership skills were a good fit for the board, considering their stage of growth. It appeared to be an excellent opportunity for me to learn and be a part of building a sound system of governance for a business in transition.
First Fidelity has since grown to a $1.1 billion asset institution with operations in Oklahoma and Arizona. Lee and his team have done this through a strong focus on customer service and sensible growth. By some measures, it is still considered a small community bank, but I believe it has a bright future.
2. Do you think the nation's biggest banks should have to separate their commercial and investment sides to protect taxpayers from another financial crisis? Why or why not?
This decision is obviously in the hands of the policy-makers. The large multi-national investor-owned banks have had a different business model in the past, and I believe changes are necessary. This financial crisis pushed our economic system to the edge, and restoring consumer confidence and greater transparency are key issues.
The financial crisis created the perfect storm for community banks like First Fidelity who in many respects got "caught in the net." This recent financial crisis has led to higher capital requirements for banks and stricter lending standards that affect customers coupled with unprecedented levels of liquidity in a low-interest-rate environment. This combination has made it extremely tough for the community banks to profitably provide credit for their primary customer base, which is households and small businesses. In my opinion, this has had the effect of measurably slowing the economic recovery.
3. You helped lead ONEOK's distribution segment for many years. Can consumers depend on these low natural gas prices for a long time due to drilling innovations?
Natural gas is an indigenous, clean-burning fuel, and there is no doubt that technology has dramatically improved our ability to add reserves for the long term. Crude oil has traditionally been priced at about a 9-to-1 ratio relative to natural gas. Recently, that price ratio has averaged, and at times exceeded 30-to-1 on a relative basis. Natural gas is priced at a historical bargain compared to crude oil-based energy options.
Although I am not as close to it as in the past, it does appear a good time for the policy stakeholders to evaluate longer-termed purchase options and take advantage of these historically low relative prices. Natural gas prices have traditionally been extremely volatile, and there may be "game-changers" on the horizon that could cause prices to increase suddenly.
4. What impresses you most about Tulsa's downtown revitalization efforts so far? Where do we need to step up more and why?
About seven years ago, I was honored to co-chair a community revitalization initiative called "Step Up Tulsa." The widespread community input, surveys and recommendations that resulted from that work have been almost prophetic in relation to the development in Tulsa's downtown core. The thing that has impressed me is the cooperative nature of the effort. It is refreshing and encouraging for our philanthropic, government and business communities to align and work cooperatively for Tulsa. This cooperative relationship among the three stakeholder groups was the "Step Up Tulsa" foundation and vision for revitalization.
For healthy economic development, it is important for all geographic segments of the community to benefit from a strong, vibrant and branded downtown area. When we include the surrounding communities and north Tulsa in "win-win" partnerships, it enhances our opportunity for sustained success, and we all win.
5. You're a managing partner of the Tulsa Shock. It's been a rough ride thus far, but what are your thoughts on the franchise's future here?
Ha, ha... you are right! It has been a little bumpy at times with the usual challenges of a new product and start-up operation, but fun! The role of managing partner is a "new hat" for me. Our team President Steve Swetoha and his staff are great people who are very capable and skilled sports professionals. Many of them relocated from around the country to make Tulsa their home. The ownership group, staff, coaches and players are committed to building a winning team and top-quality family entertainment franchise in the Tulsa community. We are a team. The Shock franchise has a winning tradition that dates back to its time in Detroit where they won three WNBA championships in 2003, 2006 and 2008.
TOM GILBERT/Tulsa World