By J.B. Pravda


Brian Happel, CEO of BBVA Compass, Ft. Worth, Texas, a prominent regional banking institution might be said to have figuratively ‘kicked down’ an unlikely door to his 33-year (and counting) banking career with what he first gleaned from a ‘how to’ book. “When I was a freshman in high school, I was involved in many football competitions and my grandfather asked me why I couldn’t kick the ball farther,” said Happel. “I told him that’s as far as I could kick the ball. So, he said, why don’t you learn how to kick soccer-style like those guys do on TV?”

The next week, Happel’s father found a book at a local bookstore about how to kick soccer-style. “Essentially, by reading a book between my father and I, I learned how to kick soccer-style and that led me to not only get a scholarship in college, but to play professionally for four years.” Happel recounts that if he could reach pro status from following instructions in a book, there isn’t anything he couldn’t do.

Among other life lessons, his journey through college and professional football—the latter, where he spent a symmetrical 4 years 4 months as ‘goalposts’ for the New York Jets, Baltimore Colts, Washington Redskins, Green Bay Packers, and San Antonio Gunslingers—laid a lasting foundation for his entire career.

In 1983 he found himself off one seemingly different field and onto another. Like his former challenge to learn the art of kicking—’field’, green, three-ringer playbook binder in hand—Happel had a short period of time in which to take over managing an entire team at the bank.  No pressure.  “My kicking experience had prepared me to keep an even temperament,” Happel confided.  His key asset, he allowed, was his ability to get to know his audience and empathize with their needs.

The Parent As Coach/Coach As Mentor

In referencing his parenting philosophy, Happel first emphasized the ancient wisdom of the Greek Epictitus:  It’s not what happens to you but how you handle it that matters.  “In addition, as an adult coach of one’s offspring, balance between authority and friendship is critical.” Another paramount ‘play’ in his personal playbook.

He believes in being a ‘Go-Giver’ or giving freely without an agenda. “This Go-Giver way, a kind of pay it forward attitude, when it’s consistent and without regard to the outcome for the giver sums up our philosophy.” He likened to a simple car-buying experience.  Rather than trying to sell you on something you don’t need or want, Happel has a different attitude. If, for instance, you go to a car dealership and they don’t have what you’re looking for here’s what they should say: “You know, I can’t help you, but I do know someone who could…” he role-plays, illustrating another approach than the stereotypical used car salesperson ‘what have you done for me lately’ attitude.

The Sportsman & His Brain Surgery

Happel has worked with Junior Achievement, the Sportsman’s Club, and other charities for years. He has a passion for mentoring children—especially children who may not have the ideal family setting. “I was a single parent,” he says. “I know how hard it can be.” One person can make such a difference in a child’s life.

One of Happel’s favorite memories is teaching children how to fish—something he does with several executives through the Sportsman’s Club. Many of the children they mentor have never been to a lake or out of an urban setting.

“When you’re teaching these kids how to put a worm on a hook, they look at you like you’re doing brain surgery,” he recounts. “The focus they have is so intense.” And then to actually participate in physically throwing the line out in the water—never having had that experience—and feeling a tug on the rod, pulling in the fish, seeing the fish come out of the water and knowing that they did it is something magical. “For that moment in time, they’ve forgotten about their personal situation. They’ve forgotten about their medical illness. They are only focused on the fact that they were successful at something.”

How I Spend The Summer of My Time:  Brian Happel’s Legacy

We asked Happel to summarize the ways and means of his hoped for legacy.  Here’s his checklist:

1) Make instead of take:  This can be as simple—and profound—as seeing the look on a delighted person’s face when he gives of his time as fisherman or banker.

2) Recognize others now:  Whether a loved one, friend or otherwise former stranger, throw a surprise party, prepare an elaborate—or simple—meal, invested with your most precious gift, your time, as a form of loving kindness.

3) Don’t look back:  No one leaves here, a.k.a. Planet Earth, without making mistakes and meeting adversity; there’s no point in getting stuck, you must keep moving forward. Thus, the proverbial moral of anyone’s story is just because someone errs it needn’t affect his/her heirs!

4) Music’s root word is ‘muse’:  “My stepson’s„ a Texas songwriter/musician… we’ll travel 3 hours to hear his stories set to music…’; enrich your story with art, music, love and good food.

5) Golf as deep sharing:  “Most anyone in most relationships with you will give you an hour—with golf, you’ll share 5 hours!” That’s why Happel plays—not to improve his score, but to get face time with people he admires. It’s also why he cooks with his children, to increase quality time with them.

6) ’If’:  Happel gets Kipling’s insightful poem: ‘ If you can meet with triumph and disaster And treat those two impostors just the same…’

Postscript: Brian asks that you please remember this, in light of his humbly offered playbook: Life can go pretty fast. “Do you have the ability to touch the break pedal, slow life down and appreciate what you have?”


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Mr. Brian Happel, CEO is CEO of BBVA Compass, Ft. Worth Texas, a leading U.S. banking franchise with operations throughout the Sunbelt region and it ranks among the top 25 largest U.S. commercial banks based on deposit market share. BBVA Compass operates 688 branches in Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico and Texas. It ranks among the largest banks in Alabama (2nd), Texas (4th) and Arizona (5th). In addition, BBVA Compass has been recognized as one of the nation’s leading Small Business Administration (SBA) lenders. Brian and his wife Stacey have six children between them.