2 simple success lessons I learnt from The Banker

The Banker is a 2020 film written by Niceole Levy and directed by George Nolfi. It is based on true events of the life of Bernard S. Garrett Sr (portrayed by Anthony Mackie), who when he was a kid shoe shiner near Mainland Bank in Willis Texas, taught himself the secret of success by eavesdropping in the conversations between the bank’s customers (investors) and the management. From these conversations he got to learn about secrets of success that he could not apply in Texas, so he moved to Los Angeles where he met Joe Morris (portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson), who became his business partner.

Before I get to the 2 simple success lessons I learnt from The Banker, allow me to rant. As mentioned up there, the movie is about the events around the life of Bernard S. Garrett Sr, a man whose activities has been described as contributing to the “breaking the color barriers in the real estate and banking industries, facilitating the integration of neighborhoods and enabling African-Americans to finance houses and businesses, opportunities that had been denied to them because of the prevailing racist banking practices.”

What that tells me is that Benerard S. Garrett Sr was someone whose work changed the lives of a people – someone who played a very great role in ensuring racial segregation is minimized. However, despite this great contribution, the Wikipedia page about his life is a stub of 229 words!

My rant is against the black community who benefited from the life of Bernard, a people who ought to have taken their time to write about a great man who made a great impact ensuring successful black people lived in the same exquisite neighborhood hitherto dominated by whites. It gets worse, the page by Bernard Garrett was created on May 9th, 3 days after the film was released. It is the same black people who yap around everywhere that there history is misrepresented. Who the hell do you think will write your history if you are too lazy to dig into it yourself and document it properly?

That said, the 2 simple success lessons I learnt from The Banker are:

  1. Understanding markets and numbers
  2. Rules are meant to be broken.
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Markets and numbers

The Banker starts by showing us a young Bernard Garrett shining the shoes of two white men. After they are gone Bernard takes a notebook and jots down, under a valuation formula, the words, “6m is too high”. Later it is revealed, when he shows the notebook to his father, that the 6m is too high for one person (Willis), but okay for another (Conroe Prop), a very important insight for him when he’ll later venture into acquiring customers for his real estate business.

The important lesson to get out of the notebook scenes is that Bernard took math formulas for investment and banking very seriously. This goes against the popular notion we tend to have in this country that math and related STEM courses are useless. In one of those questions that spread via WhatsApp updates, a friend answered “maths” as the subject she wasted time studying in high school.

The Banker however debanks this notion, and real life examples agree. Names we like associating success with, names such as Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and the other billionaires you’d like to point their dropping out of college, were math geniuses. Basically, a math genius is someone who works hard to understand the numbers that they must understand in order to appreciate the market they have to succeed in.

This point is driven home more succinctly in The Banker when Bernard and Joe are forced to hire a white boy, Matt Steiner, to be the face of their real estate empire. As Joe takes Matt through golf lessons meant to prepare Matt for a meeting with with the owner of the building that houses a bunch of bank headquarters, and the tallest building in downtown Los Angeles, Bernard horns in him the basics of arithmetics and algebra so that he can get to understand the underlying principles of business negotiations.

When Matt finally gets to meet Charles Renault, the owner of the bankers’ building, he demonstrates his math prowess not only by appearing to be able to do complex calculations off head, but also by demonstrating to Renault that he understands his business in and out. The lesson to be learnt from these scenes is that understanding your market in terms of numbers is very crucial.

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That is, if you want to be successful in any business, you need to understand the structure of that market – the size, the players, the value, the fluidity, and any other extraneous factors that may influence your growth trajectory in the market. The information will not only be useful to you when structuring your business plan, but will also come in handy when presenting the business plan to potential investors, or negotiating business deals.

If in this section I have done nothing but type a lot of words, all you need to take from it is the need to understand your numbers and figures the Bernard way, such that at the end of the day you let those numbers and figures inform you about the market you want to invest in. To quote Bernard Garrett when he was preparing Matt for the meeting with Renault, “”You give him the slightest reason to doubt your command of the numbers”, you’ll head nowhere.

Rules are meant to be broken

In the words of the renowned German film score composer Hans Zimmer in the introduction to his Masterclass sessions, “if someone tells you that there is a rule, break it”. Rules are meant to be broken is a saying that has been taken very seriously in the creative industry. In the film business that I am part, there are the 180 degrees rule of shooting a scene or the two third rule of framing a shot to the three acts story arc rule when writing a story – legendary storytellers have known instinctively how and when to break these rules.

In one of his interviews, the great screenwriter Aaron Sorkin narrated how he had to break away from the earlier standards of screenwriting, a breaking away that led the industry to adjust the rules to what is currently being practiced. Reading through the scripts of Quentin Tarantino however, one immediately realises that the award winning writer and director doesn’t abide by any of the known rules of screenwriting.

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Breaking the rules is what generally lead to what we know as industry disruptions.

In the movie The Banker, we are presented with two powerful scenes of rule breaking, the first one being direct. After Bernard has gone behind his back to talk to his banker, Mr. Barker calls Bernard to question him about normal business customs. “If I was following normal business customs, I’d still be a shoeshine boy in Texas, sir”, Bernard answers Barker. Barker presses Bernard to agree that going behind his back to talk to his banker is not a normal business custom and after Bernard affirms, he tells Bernard the most powerful lesson anyone can learn from The Banker.

“Normal business customs are in place to screw people like you”.

Who are “people like you”? In the context of The Banker these are the minority, the segregated, the discriminated. However, for the purposes of this article, “people like you” are just you and me – people who prefer comfort, tradition, the usual way. People who think within the box, follow the normal, unable to come up with imaginative ways to disrupt the traditional business practices.

I must however point out that not all out of the box thinking end up working. In The Banker, we have Bernard try to disrupt the banking practices in Texas. Although that ended up paying off for the greater good of the black community several years later, it led to Bernard and his partner Joe losing all their real estate investments as the government moved in to seize their properties. Lucky for them, they had secretly bought homes in the Bahamas.

The idea here is if you are going to break the rules – be smart while at it. And mastering those numbers within the scope of the normal business customs will help you a great deal.

Odipo Riaga
Managing Editor at KachTech Media
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