Miami-Dade County

Longtime Miami banker, civic leader, mentor Bill Allen Jr. dies at 79

Bill Allen Jr. stands in front of a photo of Iwo Jima that was hanging in his office in 2006. He served in the U.S. Marines Corps.
Bill Allen Jr. stands in front of a photo of Iwo Jima that was hanging in his office in 2006. He served in the U.S. Marines Corps. Miami Herald File

Bill Morrison remembers the first day he met Bill Allen.

Allen had just joined Pan American Bank as chairman and chief executive, coming over from Southeast Bank. Allen was Morrison’s new boss.

“We had a very interesting first meeting,’’ recalled Morrison, then a senior lending officer. “Bill sat down with me and said, ‘Let’s get a few things straight: Get a haircut. Clean off your desk when you leave at night. And start coming in at 6:30 in the morning. If you don’t think you can do that, you’re fired.’’’

That was 1981. The two worked together ever since, key players in South Florida’s banking community and in shaping South Florida’s civic footprint. Allen, vice chairman of Northern Trust of Florida, died Tuesday at age 79 after a six-month battle with leukemia. Morrison, president of Northern Trust Corp., had become Allen’s boss.

Allen died in his Bay Point home in Miami, surrounded by family, friends and his two beloved golden retrievers, Mason and Dixon.

To those who knew him, Allen was more than a banker — he was a man committed to his wife of 56 years, Beverly, their five children and his community.

“He had an ability to connect with all people ... from the valet who parked his car, to the waiter who served his food to the CEO ...,’’ said Karen Gilmore, regional executive for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

Allen mentored Gilmore when she was at Pan American. She witnessed Allen’s core belief that your life is not defined by what you get, but what you give.

Shortly after Hurricane Andrew devastated South Miami-Dade on Aug. 24, 1992, Allen got a call from R. Kirk Landon, whose company, American Bankers Insurance in Southwest Miami-Dade, took a big hit from Andrew. Employees lost their homes, the headquarters was roiled by the storm surge, and the company needed cash. Immediately.

Allen was chairman and chief executive of Intercontinental Bank at the time.

“I remember Bill and I going over to the old CenTrust bank ... and making arrangements to give cash to employees, helping them resettle and get their lives back,’’ Gilmore said. “I still remember the two of us with an open checkbook for the company to get started again.’’

That doesn’t surprise Allen’s daughter, Melissa, who says her father, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, lived by certain rules: “If you loved your job, you never worked a day in your life. We are all highly flawed. You make a living by what you give, not by what you get.’’

Mike Maroone, retired president and chief operating officer of AutoNation, attributed Allen’s sense of community to his upstate New York roots. He grew up in Gowanda, N.Y., a small town (pop. 2,000) outside Buffalo.

It’s the kind of place where “folks live in the same homes for 40 to 50 years, and they have deep relationships,’’ said Maroone, who grew up in nearby Clarence, N.Y.

Maroone met Allen when he was just out of college and his father sent him to Liberty City to run a bankrupt car dealership, Bill Austen Ford.

“Bill became our banker, our friend and my mentor,’’ said Maroone, whose friendship with Allen spanned 40 years. “He was always trying to help people who needed help, whether it was in the inner city or his office.’’

Allen learned that lesson from his father, who was president of First National Bank of Fort Lauderdale. (Health issues had led Allen’s parents to South Florida.) Despite his banker dad, it took awhile for Allen to find his niche. He majored in history at Colgate University, graduating in 1957, and has a degree from Harvard Business School.

“I was a bouncer at Porky’s nightclub in Fort Lauderdale and a construction worker by day,’’ Allen said in a 2007 profile in the Miami Herald.

One day, his father took him to a recruiting station for the Marines at Opa-locka Airport. He enlisted him.

After the Marines — he loved to show off his Marine tattoo — Allen showed up in uniform at the office of Harry Hood Bassett at First National Bank of Miami, which would become Southeast Bank. Bassett offered him $4,300 a year, or $300 more than a rival bank, thus launching Allen’s 50-plus year banking career.

Joe Robbie, founding owner of the Miami Dolphins, was one of Allen’s early customers. Allen helped him buy out his partners, including entertainer Danny Thomas and Burger King founder Jim McLamore.

“He had the personality to become one of the family,” former Dolphins coach Don Shula said in 2007. “He was invited to go on the trips, and I would consider him part of the team.’’

The softball team, that is. The Dolphins recruited Allen, who had played semi-pro softball, to pitch for them at their annual fast-pitch softball game between the Dolphins and Little League coaches.

Allen also loved to play golf with his one-time neighbor, Alvah Chapman, the former head of Knight-Ridder, the former newspaper chain that once owned The Miami Herald.

“He was one of Alvah’s favorite golf partners,’’ said Betty Chapman, the widow of Alvah, who died in 2008. Allen, she said, told her: “I feel like Alvah’s my father.’’

Chapman got Allen involved in the community. He was a trustee of United Way of Miami-Dade, the Don Shula Foundation, and the Community Partnership for the Homeless (now Chapman Partnership), among other organizations.

“If there was anything that he could help you with, he always would,’’ said Adolfo Henriques, chairman and CEO at Gibralter Private Bank & Trust, who worked with Allen for many years, beginning at Nation’s Bank.

David Lawrence Jr., an early childhood education advocate and former Miami Herald publisher, recalled Allen’s warm ways: “When I came to Miami 26 years ago, no one greeted me more warmly or helped me more to understand this place than Bill Allen. He was ... a prince of a man who loved people and loved his, our community.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, Allen is survived by his children Jennifer Garrity, Mary Christine Birr, Stacey Allen and William H. Allen III; 15 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren; and sister, Judy Vinroot.

A memorial service will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at Miami Shores Presbyterian Church, 602 NE 96th St. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the U.S. Marine Corps Scholarship Fund and the Chapman Partnership.