Community bankers’ best moments

Every community banker has a handful of memories that have fueled their passion for their work. In honor of Community Banking Month, here are some inspiring stories from around the industry.

By William Atkinson,
Illustrations by Robert Neubecker

Talk to most community bankers, and they will tell you about the “spark” that ignited their career in—and passion for—the industry. On occasion, new events serve as reminders of that original spark and as inspiration to continue sticking with it.
The community bankers we interviewed for this article recalled a wide variety of these moments. Some involved customers, some involved employees and some involved the community as a whole. Some pulled at their heartstrings, and all reinforced the wisdom of their decisions to enter and stay with their chosen industry. Read on and be inspired…

Customer inspiration
“One of the things I love about being in community banking is having the opportunity to help people fulfill their dreams,” says Tim Treml, president of $326 million-asset Bank of Luxemburg in Luxemburg, Wis. When Treml was a loan officer a number of years ago, two out-of-town pharmacists came to him and said they wanted to get out of the “corporate world” and were considering opening a pharmacy in Luxemburg, which didn’t have one at the time.

“They knew about pharmacy, of course, and they had a little bit of money, but they didn’t know anything about opening their own business,” Treml says. At first, he recalls, the two women didn’t fully believe in the new pharmacy’s potential for success as much as Treml and others in the bank did. “They believed it would be successful, but they were still very apprehensive about the idea,” he says. Since they weren’t from Luxemburg originally, they were unsure whether the community would support their business. “However, we at the bank, including the loan committee and the board, were very excited about the idea,” he says.

“We knew that people here in town were tired of having to drive to another town or city to get their prescriptions.”

The first thing Bank of Luxemburg did was emphasize to them that all bank employees were supportive of their idea. “We then walked them through the process and made it all work,” Treml says. “In fact, they were surprised at how quickly we were able to get everything done for them, from inception to loan approval.” Seven years later, the pharmacy is working on an addition that will double its size.

“One of the things I love about being in community banking is having the opportunity to help people fulfill their dreams.”
—Tim Treml, Bank of Luxemburg

Benjamin Nelson is another community banker who takes it to the next level. “One of my philosophies in banking has been that lending isn’t just sales. It also involves education,” says Nelson, senior vice president, residential mortgage lending, for $1.4 billion-asset D.L. Evans Bank in Burley, Idaho. If someone comes in for a loan and their credit isn’t where it needs to be, or they can’t get approved for another reason, Nelson still wants it to be a positive experience.

“A lot of banks show ‘Dead End’ signs to applicants who aren’t approved,” he says. “I prefer a ‘Detour’ sign.” Nelson takes an extra five or 10 minutes with these loan applicants to suggest steps they should take to improve their chances of being approved the next time. As a result, when they leave, they aren’t angry. Rather, they are motivated. “A month or so later, they can return, and they are where they need to be,” he says.

“[One of my customers] walked on stage and announced to everyone over the microphone just how much she appreciated me and all of the ways I had helped them over the years. That meant so much to me.”
—Benjamin Nelson, D.L. Evans Bank

Every time Nelson and his wife and children are out in the community, he says, they run into people he has helped. “They make it a point to come over to us and thank me for having taken the extra time with them,” he says. Nelson recalls one young couple that came in for a mortgage loan several years ago but couldn’t get approved because of debt and credit issues. He gave them some practical advice, and when they returned later, he was able to help them purchase their first home.

“They were so excited to begin living their dream,” he says. A few years later, he helped the same couple refinance at a lower rate. And, a few years after that, he helped them buy a larger home. “Recently, I was attending the bank’s Christmas party in another town, and it turned out that the lead singer in the band was the woman,” says Nelson. “She walked on stage and announced to everyone over the microphone just how much she appreciated me and all of the ways I had helped them over the years. That meant so much to me.”

“It is wonderful to hear [former students] talking about [the bank’s financial literacy classes] later on, especially when they get to college and happen to mention how learning about it in high school really helped them.”
—Darla Kauffman, First State Bank of Middlebury

Employee inspiration
The bank now donates to a growing number of nonprofits. Westwood chairs the committee that decides which nonprofits the bank will support. She likes how the program benefits many organizations that are devoted to causes that have personally affected bank employees. “A lot of them are ones that personally touch our employees, such as Alzheimer’s, because we have employees who have lost parents to that disease,” she says. “We also donate to the local food banks as well as temporary housing organizations.” Westwood recently received a request from an employee who asked if the bank could donate to a local organization for premature babies. “If we add this organization, we would donate the money we raise during the fifth Friday of a given month,” she says.

A recent thank-you note from one nonprofit beneficiary put the value of the Jeans Day program into perspective. It was from Ryan Manion, president of the nearby Travis Manion Foundation (TMF). It read, “Your commitment to TMF plays a critical role in empowering veterans and families of fallen heroes to thrive, while also ensuring that the next generation is imbued with the character these brave men and women embody. It started with one person and five simple words: ‘If not me, then who?’ My brother, Travis, spoke those words shortly before his last deployment to Iraq, where he was killed in 2007.”

Community inspiration
Mason City, Iowa–based First Citizens Bank had historically used the Columbus Day holiday as a team-building and training day. But when the $1.2 billion-asset bank discovered what the bank’s strengths were, it inspired a different agenda. They found their employees like to take care of their community and that they are known in the community for being active. “So, we decided that, instead of scheduling team-building or training activities, we would find some ways to volunteer in the communities where we have branches,” says Dan McGuire, senior vice president, human resources. The committee identified projects that needed assistance and worked with the nonprofits and schools that were involved. “We helped paint, rake leaves, work in community gardens, pull weeds, wash windows and more,” he says.

The work itself was rewarding, and bank employees also received many words of gratitude. They also strengthened their company culture in the process. “I think that just working side by side in a different environment with our employees, customers and other people in the community gave us a better sense of who they really were as people,” McGuire says.

Fuel for Darla Kauffman’s commitment to community banking is the financial literacy program her bank offers to local middle school and high school students. “Teachers often don’t have the opportunity to teach this in their classes, so having someone from the outside come in and provide this program to their students has been a real blessing to them,” says Kauffman, assistant vice president and marketing director for First State Bank of Middlebury, a $520 million-asset bank based in Middlebury, Ind. Bank employees cover topics such as checking accounts, savings accounts, credit cards and debit cards, and share insights on credit scores, auto loans and college loans with older students.

Making financial literacy fun for students can be challenging, and there are some students who just find no interest in it, Kauffman admits. “However, some of them really get very interested, and it is wonderful to hear them talking about it later on, especially when they get to college and happen to mention how learning about it in high school really helped them,” she says.

Kauffman once visited a classroom in which the students had some learning disabilities. The teacher had already established a great financial system for teaching how money works in the classroom, including debit cards and checkbook registers.

“Students had to rent their desks, and they got paid for coming to class, for completing assignments, etc.,” she says. “They also had to pay money if they were late. The teacher also had a little store set up that sold snacks and other items of interest, which students could purchase in the classroom. It was inspiring to me to see how hard some teachers work in this area.”

Jim Springer, senior vice president and commercial banker for Seacoast Bank, a $6 billion-asset community bank headquartered in Stuart, Fla., learned early in his career just how interconnected banks and community activities can be.

“I began working for a community bank when I was in my 20s, and we were encouraged to support nonprofit community organizations,” he says. “I wanted to work on my public speaking and presentation skills. One of the nonprofits we supported was Junior Achievement, which had an entrepreneurial course called Applied

Economics that brought business volunteers into the classroom each week to help students build and run a business.” Springer got involved by serving as a consultant to the classes, and in one particular class realized the students weren’t going to meet their goals in terms of the sales of the product they had developed and manufactured.

“My background was finance, not marketing,” he says. “However, there was a young woman in the class who came up with a way to repurpose the product to establish a new market, which resulted in the product selling out at an even higher price than had been initially planned.”

One year later, that young woman was working for Springer in the bank, helping to market banking products. “The first year that she was an employee, she brought her parents to our annual employee-family festival,” he says. “It turned out that her parents had been business clients of mine for a number of years, and I had never made that connection before. I realized what a small world it really is.”

William Atkinson
is a writer in Illinois.