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A big mission for New York's first financial services head

Benjamin Lawsky has quite a large task ahead of him. As the first superintendent of the New York State Department of Financial Services, he is charged with regulating banking and insurance in the financial capital of the world.

The veteran attorney and prosecutor has worked for both the state and federal governments over the past 17 years, in the judicial, legislative and executive branches. He has worked for judges, the U.S. Justice Department, then-state Sen. Charles E. Schumer, and Andrew M. Cuomo in both the attorney general's office and then as the governor's chief of staff.

Six months into his latest job, he is integrating two regulatory departments -- banking and insurance -- and working to bring a more thorough and modern level of oversight to the two industries that are increasingly interrelated.

The new agency oversees nearly 1,700 insurers with nearly $4 trillion in assets, nearly 300 state-chartered banks with $2.1 trillion in assets, and more than 1,600 other licensed entities, including mortgage lenders. Besides the banking and insurance divisions, it also has units handling criminal probes and consumer education, real estate finance and Wall Street.

He has launched a statewide effort to stem foreclosures, protect benefits of soldiers and veterans, probed out-of-network medical costs and rising health insurance premiums, and publicly released rate hike request documents that have long been kept secret. At the same time, he has taken steps to fight insurance fraud, advocate for state bank charters and streamline industry regulation.

>Q: What is the mission of the new department?

A: It's really threefold. One is to be the sort of financial services regulator that works closely with the industries we regulate to really help them thrive and create jobs in New York State. That's mission No. 1.

Mission No. 2 is to protect consumers and do it better than anyone ever has before. And mission No. 3 is as we merge the two departments, to really do that in a smart, efficient way and be a model of modern, smart, thoughtful government.

Some people point out, well, isn't your first goal -- to be a regulator who helps these industries thrive and thus create jobs -- in tension with your second goal of protecting consumers? And I don't think they are. I think those two goals are not mutually exclusive. You can protect consumers and do it in a way that creates even greater consumer confidence in the industries we regulate and help those industries thrive as well.

>Q: The combined department has been unusually active in your first six months? Why?

A: I come from the Andrew Cuomo school of government. And that school is very clear that government is not supposed to be a waste of time. I'm getting paid to do my job with all the energy I can muster. And I have been able to find a great team to work at the department with me, and with that great team and a lot of energy and hard work, we're trying to move the governor's agenda forward.

>Q: Are there significant problems that need to be addressed?

A: It wouldn't surprise me if we are, on a fairly regular basis, identifying issues that need to be fixed. But I don't think that's necessarily a reflection of wrongdoing by anyone. It's more of a reflection of rapidly changing circumstances, and the need for the industries we regulate to adapt to them and the need for the department as a regulator to adapt to them.

>Q: How are firms reacting?

A: We have had very positive interactions with the industries. Obviously, as a regulator, our people spend a lot of time talking to the industry. Our examiners are inside the banks. Our examiners are inside the insurance companies.

I spend a lot of time talking to the CEOs on both the banking and insurance sides of the house. We have good relationships there. Are they always happy with everything I do? No. But that's OK. We have a relationship of respect and dialogue, and when they think I've made a mistake, I listen to them, and if I agree that I've made a mistake, I'm not afraid to course-correct.

I also meet on a regular basis with groups who advocate for consumers. When I first got to the department, I did feel as if we had very strong ties with the industries we regulate, as we should as a regulator, but we were not spending much time hearing the perspectives from the consumer advocates. So I've set up a regular meeting to sit with the consumer advocates.

>Q: What experience and skills do you bring to this job?

A: I've seen a lot of government in my roughly 17 years since law school, and I think I have a perspective on how to make government better. And I think [Cuomo] knew I would work my tail off in this job and try to do the very best I could, and most importantly, that I would surround myself with a team that is highly effective, true professionals, and most importantly, you want a team around you that fills in the gaps that I have.

I know I don't have an extensive banking background, for example. Well, I have people working for me who do. And I rely on them and I spend a lot of time with them and I work hard to understand all the intricacies of banking rules and issues that come up. But I also do need that strong team around me and I'm not afraid to admit it, and I'm lucky to have them.

>Q: What message should consumers and companies get?

A: My message to businesses is we are willing to think outside the box and work with those businesses. We want to be a modern financial regulator who really is there to help them thrive.

For the consumers, I guess my message is you have a governor and a Department of Financial Services that is always watching out for you, and we will continue to do that.

We will be there as a leader in this state and this country to protect consumers from whatever is out there that may cause them issues. That's exactly what the governor wants us doing, being a national leader, looking at these issues first and with real thoughtfulness.

And to both businesses and consumers, I would say together, we believe that protecting consumers is actually good for business, because the more consumers believe in the businesses they utilize, have faith in them, have trust in them, the more they'll do business.

>Q: Will you focus on upstate?

A: Absolutely, I spend a lot of time talking with the businesses in upstate. You have a wonderful bank up in Buffalo, M&T, who is one of my largest state-chartered banks. But you also have many community banks all around upstate.

I'm very cognizant that it is too easy to get stuck in the New York City bubble, especially as a financial services regulator, but I'm not going to let that happen. Wall Street is obviously incredibly important, but so is the rest of the state.

>Q: What do you hope to leave as your legacy?

A: Ech, I'm not thinking about legacies. I'm just getting started. It's too depressing to think about legacies. I hope to do this job for a long time and do it effectively, and I hope the governor will let me do it for a long time. I just feel blessed to have the job.

Frankly, if there's one thing I've learned from the governor, the one legacy I know that I want to have is that I worked my hardest, and that I know I'm going to do.