The 49-year-old LaVaughn Henry arrived near the end of 2009 to manage the Tristate’s most guarded institution. Along with his 130 Fed employees in Cincinnati, the economist is responsible for safeguarding new bills delivered from the United States Treasury, as well as circulated bills trucked to the seven-story downtown building by regional banks that can no longer stuff the wads of cash inside their comparatively meager safes. “We’ve got a big vault. I can’t even tell you how much money is in it right this moment, but it’s a big amount.”
And the Fed also processes checks, though not so much these days as it once did, reflecting the change in how Americans pay for purchases. “We used to process 60 million checks per night nationally,” he told listeners. “Now, it’s 300,000 per night.” Debit cards have become the new currency of choice.
Henry has a busy and ever-changing schedule, to be sure. “Sometimes, this job is like sucking on the end of a fire hose.” He vaulted into his role of guarding Cincinnati’s largest safe with a flair normally unseen in reserved banker circles. “I’m a basic country guy at the end of the day. I say ‘howdy’ quite a lot,” the Harvard PhD says.
Certainly Henry is the outsider’s outsider. He’s never even worked for the Fed before, nor ever expected he would. “This [job] came out of the blue. At the interview, I didn’t even know I wouldn’t be a federal employee.”
The Fed is an odd agency, quasi-governmental and yet private. “The Federal Reserve is a very unique institution; it has a public side and a private side. We are private-sector employees. We are operated by the banks. We are paid by the financial institutions for the services we provide.” And, he stressed to his Cintas audience, the Fed runs a profit. “We return billions of dollars every year.”
Yes, Henry wants it known that the institution isn’t whittling away your family’s take-home pay. “Truth be told, we are not a drain on taxpayers. We actually send money at the end of each year, our excess income, back to the Treasury. There is a very intense focus on the bottom line here. And we have a huge portfolio of securities that earn interest.”
Beyond serving as a gigantic cash register, the Cincinnati branch of the Fed serves a number of other critical roles. “We supervise certain banks and companies that provide financial services, regulating loans; we help formulate economic policy back in Washington, D.C., and we do local research that flows back into the formulation of that policy. Cincinnati is so centrally located to much of the population of the United States, and this branch is responsible for a territory stretching from Lima down to the Tennessee border.”
Henry’s short list of priorities includes expanding the Fed’s outreach and community actions, most especially focused on the increasing number of foreclosures. “With the housing market crisis and teetering financial systems, we have a vital role to play in [providing] information.” He’s been involved in setting up a “phone-a-thon” and home ownership center, has met with regional chambers and banks, and has even sent Federal Reserve workers into grade schools to educate youngsters on better managing their money.
Henry is here to feel your pain. Really. He’s been downsized twice in his life—once he was out of work for 17 months. That’s taught him some things—largely empathy, sincere empathy. “Anyone can be impacted by the economy,” he says. “It changes people when they see the things they cherish, their homes, their credit, their children’s education fund, just go away. The person who gets downsized is not the same person again, even when he’s re-employed later.”
Henry points to his parents and their “straight-shooting” Midwest values as his inspiration. A self-described “flatlander by heart,” Henry is proud that he’s spent most of his 49 years in the Midwest (“and South, I guess, if you call Kentucky South”).
The family trade was home construction, in a sense. “My family were stonemasons in Frankfurt, Kentucky.” An aging red brick still sits on Henry’s desk, a reminder of his family’s original Bluegrass roots.
Henry’s mother, now 72 and still living in Kansas City, was a registered nurse. She went to college as an adult and retired twice – from TWA and J.C. Penney. Young Henry attended Catholic schools from first grade through college at her insistence.
Henry’s nearly apocryphal Jesuit college tale, often repeated to reporters, is that he took his first economics class at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., because the late-morning start suited his fraternity life. When a professor tried explaining the theory of diminishing returns using the example of a person stranded in a desert who is given a beer (“Nothing will ever be as satisfying as the first one”), Henry claims his fascination with economics first took off. “Give a frat guy a beer …”
Today, his family also includes his wife, Carmen, who runs a home business designing women’s hats (her fashions have been pictured in “Ebony” and “Women’s Wear Daily,” and adorn many a Kentucky Derby Day socialite). Henry’s oldest son, John Henry, is a TV news reporter in Knoxville, Tennessee. His younger son, Cameron, is a senior at Stanford University, studying biology with plans for medical school.