How Noah Wilcox fell in love with community banking

Noah Wilcox

Photo: Greg Thoen

Despite being born into a family of community bankers, it took time for Noah Wilcox of Grand Rapids State Bank and Minnesota Lakes Bank to embrace the industry. But after discovering the impact community banks can have on their customers’ lives, he was a convert. Today, ICBA’s incoming chairman is all in on the community bank business model.

By Colleen Morrison

If it had been up to a young Noah Wilcox, life may have looked a lot different than it does today.

“I’m a fourth-generation community banker, the oldest of five kids in my family and the oldest grandchild,” Wilcox says. “Naturally, with that being the case, there was a lot of pressure put on me to come work in the family business. I think that pressure and my personality just led me to say, ‘I’m not doing that.’”

So instead of joining Grand Rapids State Bank, Wilcox enrolled in college as a painting and photography major and did all of his high-level coursework in his first few semesters. But he still needed to complete all of his general degree requirements. “I loaded up with accounting and econ and statistics and found out I was pretty gifted with numbers, and that sort of forced me to reevaluate things,” he says.

Wilcox took some time off to consider changing his major, and he decided to do just that. He switched schools and began studying business management and finance. But he still resisted coming back to the family bank.

“I did get a job as a banker with a large regional bank, and I moved all over the country with them for six years or so,” he says. “I really enjoyed the industry but was totally disillusioned with the big bank business model. It didn’t fit my morals or my ethics. So, I quit and started a little consulting company.”

That company led him full circle, with his uncle asking him to consult on a project at Grand Rapids State Bank. Wilcox was adamant, however, that he wouldn’t end up joining the family business. But destiny took its course. “I wasn’t at the bank probably more than a week, and I just fell in love with how symbiotic the community bank business model is with the communities they operate in,” he says. “I’ve been here ever since.”

“I just fell in love with how symbiotic the community bank business model is with the communities they operate in. I’ve been here ever since.”
–Noah Wilcox

As circuitous as his route to community banking was, Wilcox says it helped create a deeper appreciation for just how special community banking is.

“It gave me the clarity to see the difference between the megabank business model and the community bank business model,” he says. “The community bank business model is about having relationships and the opportunity to do what’s morally right every day.”

Today, his family’s community bank, Grand Rapids State Bank in Grand Rapids, Minn., has three locations, assets of $227 million and a holding company, Wilcox Bancshares Inc. Beyond his role as president, CEO and chairman of Grand Rapids State Bank, Wilcox serves as the chairman and CEO of Delano, Minn.-based Minnesota Lakes Bank, a $100 million-asset community bank owned by Wilcox Bancshares.

Quick-fire Q&A: Noah Wilcox

Q: Who is your biggest role model?
A: My grandfather, Clair, was really a big role model for me, and I’m blessed I was able to work alongside him for nearly 20 years. He became much more than my grandfather; he was a very dear friend of mine. He had a work ethic that did not stop, and his moral compass could not have been truer. I learned a lot from him, and it wasn’t how to do my job; it was just about how to be a human being and how to run a business and how to treat your employees and how to treat your community and why we get out of bed every day.

Noah Wilcox watercolor portrait

Q: What are your favorite hobbies?
A: Travel is a big hobby. I just have this curious explorer, an I-just-have-to-get-out-to-see-the-world kind of thing, and I credit my dad with sparking that. I love to travel with my family. I’m also a fly-fishing junkie, and I love to downhill ski. We live on the lake, so I love spending time on our boat.

Q: What famous person would you most like to have dinner with and why?
A: I’m a huge music fan—I’m sort of an audiophile—and a huge Bob Dylan fan. He so masterfully maintained his anonymous mystery throughout his entire career. I remember one concert I went to I had backstage passes. Well, they don’t let you backstage until after he leaves. He exits by himself, goes to dinner by himself, and the rest of the band is left to do the backstage meet and greet. He’s so intensely private. That’s the reason I’d want to have dinner with him, because if I had 60 minutes to pick his brain or ask him questions about some of his songs, there are thousands of things I would want to ask him.

Harnessing technology

A key part of the community banks’ continued growth is their technology strategies, which Wilcox ensures support both internal efficiencies and external customer expectations. For example, his leadership led to the introduction of internet banking in 2000, e-statements in 2004 and remote deposit capture in 2007. As he looks to the near future, Wilcox sees technology continuing its vital role in community banking.

“The fintech space is changing, and it eventually will have implications for how banks interact with their core,” he says. “My goal before I retire is to see an open core platform where the core system basically becomes a glorified data warehouse and bankers can go pick best-of-breed solutions and just bolt them onto that data warehouse. I think that whole back-end to the business is going to change over time.”

New developments in payments may play a key role in this application programming interface (API)-supported, open banking environment. For example, technology is speeding up transactions, bolstered by the faster payments movement and the Federal Reserve’s planned FedNow Service for real-time payments. And as FedNow gains traction within the banking industry, new solutions will emerge to maximize its offerings for both community banks and their customers.

Wilcox presenting a donation

Wilcox presents a donation to Sue Estee of Second Harvest North Central Food Bank, a local nonprofit.

“Payments is rapidly evolving, and I don’t think it’s done,” Wilcox says. “We need to be actively engaged in shaping the future of payments so that we’re not squeezed out or disintermediated as an industry. You’ve got to have a strategy in payments or you’re going to put your business model in jeopardy.”

Beyond payments, Wilcox says the way customers interact with their bank will shift with ongoing technological advances.

“I think we’ll continue to see additional delivery channels,” he says. “I don’t know what comes next after mobile, but it will be something. In addition, how brick and mortar is used is changing. I just don’t need the same amount of space as different transactions migrate to different channels other than physical.”

Wilcox with Brandy Smallbrock and Julie WIlcox

From left: Wilcox; Brandy Smallbrock, ICBA member relationship officer for the Northwest region; and Julie Wilcox, his wife and senior vice president of marketing, brand management and communications at Grand Rapids State Bank.

Customer-centered solutions

Keeping pace with technology, personal relationships drive today’s customer expectations, and the high-tech, high-touch balance that’s quintessential to community banking is more important than ever. This is so much the case that, since becoming a leader at his institution, Wilcox has focused on creating a more responsive environment for customers. His recent work on a marketing campaign targeting millennial customers reiterated the importance of this approach.

“I went out with the video crew because I want to see firsthand what these young people are saying,” he says. “We had participants from 18 to early 30s, and the message was the same from all of them: When I need something, I appreciate that [my bank knows] who I am, that they care, that I’m not a number, that I get the help I need.

“As long as we can provide the tools [millennials] need to access the bank in their preferred way, they’re much more driven to have a local banking relationship than a megabank relationship.”

Volunteering at a local food bank

Noah, Julie and several Grand Rapids State Bank team members volunteered bagging cereal at a local food bank.

Maintaining a culture of family

The community banks’ people-first mentality extends beyond the customer to inside the branch. For Wilcox, his employees serve a critical role of setting the culture and creating a personal connection with customers.

“We really operate as one big family,” he says. “It’s not lost on me that the decisions I make day in and day out affect the lives of almost 100 families, and I take that responsibility very seriously.”

His family shares in that belief, seeing the bank as an extension of their own home. In fact, when Wilcox’s eldest daughter came home from college for the first time, her initial stop was the community bank, so she could visit the friends she made when she worked there as a teller before she went to school. It’s this same sense of connected community Wilcox hopes to inspire in his role as ICBA chairman.

“I really want to see more active engagement from community bankers across the country,” Wilcox says. “Active engagement in my mind is [where] they’re going to write their own letter or they are going to pick up the phone and make their own call. Make it custom, make it count. [With] even just a 5% increase in engagement, you’d really move the needle in ways I don’t think a lot of people stop to think about.”

For example, he sees these advocacy efforts yielding progress on creating a level regulatory playing field for community banks.

“I have no problem with competition in our industry whatsoever, as long as the rules are the same for everybody, and that’s just not the case right now,” Wilcox says. “I’ve never met a community banker who’s not willing to win it on the field, just as long as the rules are the same, so I’ll keep advocating for that.”

“I’ve never met a community banker who’s not willing to win it on the field, just as long as the rules are the same, so I’ll keep advocating for that.”
–Noah Wilcox

Wilcox family in Kenya

Noah, Julie and their three daughters took a break from their safari to visit a Maasai village during a recent trip to Kenya.

The future is bright

Despite the challenges community banks face, Wilcox believes they are well-positioned for the future.

“I don’t think the future has ever been brighter,” he says. “Every year I think that, and then I reflect on the current year, and I just go, ‘It couldn’t be better.’ So, look for the good and capitalize on it.”

That glass-half-full thinking jumpstarts Wilcox’s day, every day. “It’s true what they say,” he says. “If you do what you love, you never work a day in your life. I can’t wait to get into the office in the morning.”

And when it’s time to step back from his role a couple decades from now, the Wilcox family has a succession plan in place as they prepare his younger brother to take the reins. And what then for Wilcox? Perhaps not surprisingly, he’s already identified a way to continue doing what he loves by serving a new community. A recent trip to hike through Uganda inspired him.

“[When my family was in Uganda,] that first morning, we left at 4 a.m. and you’re out in the middle of the bush in the mountain, and there are little kids—like kindergarten and first grade-age—literally walking to school, and they’ll have a four-hour walk. My wife and I are now on this whole concept of how we can go back and do microbanking, provide some access, because so many are still on a barter system. How can we go back and get involved with a little bit of education and help a community figure it out for themselves? That’s my retirement plan—to go over there and do good.”

Noah and Julie in Norway

Noah and Julie visited the famous Stegastein Viewpoint in Norway.

The Wilcox wanderlust

With self-described wanderlust, Noah Wilcox and his family explore the world through unique adventures. Not ones to settle for simply sitting on the beach, the family travels the globe in search of new experiences. While they’ve toured Tahiti in French Polynesia and been on safari in Kenya, it was a recent Ugandan trip that captured their hearts.

“In February 2019, we did take our girls trekking for mountain gorillas,” Wilcox says. “When you hike nine hours and then you’re standing 20 or 30 feet from a silverback, it’s life changing. You immediately see that you share a majority of your DNA with each other. It’s just remarkable.”

With that spirit of discovery lighting a constant fire in his belly, Wilcox is ready for future pursuits, wherever they take him. “I don’t really have a favorite place,” he says. “I guess my favorite place is probably the next place, wherever I’m going next.”

Colleen Morrison is a writer in Maryland.