Who made ICBA’s 2020 Top Lenders list?

There’s no doubt that 2019 looked very different than 2020 in all areas of life, and community banking was no exception. But our top lenders’ exceptional performance last year has set them up for success even in a time of turmoil. Read on to meet the year’s most successful loan producers in the agriculture, commercial and consumer/mortgage categories.

By Ed Avis


People-powered ag lending

Tony Gudajtes
Tony Gudajtes of Choice Bank grows sugar beets, soybeans and more on his farm in Warsaw, N.D. Photo: Ben Gumeringer

Choice Bank

Fargo, N.D.
Category: Agriculture ($1 billion or more)
Asset size: $2.4 billion
Consumer lender score: 78.6
Rank in category: 14

With 25 locations across North Dakota and Minnesota, Choice Bank in Fargo, N.D., is a major agricultural lender. It supplies credit to Midwestern farmers who are raising the entire spectrum of crops, from wheat to beets to cattle.


Using FDIC data for 2019, we calculated a lender score out of 100 for each community bank. The score combines the average of the bank’s percentile rank for lending concentration and for loan growth over the past year in each lending category. We then adjusted each score for loan charge-offs in each category at certain percentile thresholds.

Despite the $2.4 billion-asset community bank’s size and the breadth of its lending expertise, its top leaders know their strength comes from having the right people in local operations.

“We put a lot of emphasis on local decision-making ability,” says Tony Gudajtes, executive vice president and agricultural market president. “Our location presidents are given a lot of authority to make decisions. They’re not getting micromanaged from someone who’s out of the area telling them what should work in their market. When the local president is able to make quick decisions right in front of the customer, that really speeds up the process for the customer and gives the customer a strong feeling that they’re working with a decision-maker and that what they’re telling the banker is making an impact in the final decision.”

The trust leadership has in the location presidents is based on those individuals’ experience. Since the community bank favors promoting from within over recruiting new talent, those who percolate to top local positions know Choice Bank’s procedures, values and culture well. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t able to mold their positions to best fit their skill sets, Gudajtes says. A boomerang employee, he has climbed the ranks at Choice Bank each time he returned to work at the bank over the past 16 years. He’s been in his current position just over a year and has made it his own.

Jason Tryan and client
Choice Bank’s agricultural lending team works closely with the community bank’s insurance managers, such as Jason Tryan (right), pictured helping a client determine the best coverage for her operation’s needs.

“The person I replaced didn’t have the exact duties I have,” he says. “We maintain a level of flexibility of any position; we’re not rigid in titles and duties. We believe a lot in people power. We’re not trying to fit the round employee into a square job. We’re small enough and flexible enough that we can morph those duties to fit the person’s strength.”

“We maintain a level of flexibility of any position; we’re not rigid in titles and duties. We believe a lot in people power. We’re not trying to fit the round employee into a square job.”
—Tony Gudajtes, Choice Bank

One thing that many of the community bank’s employees have in common is deep agricultural experience. “We have a very strong underwriting team that has a great interest in agriculture, and we consider many of them to be experts,” says Gudajtes, who farms sugar beets, edible beans, soybeans, wheat and barley. “For instance, we have guys in the sugar beet and potato areas, and those guys know that industry inside and out. Likewise, we have employees who live more in the cattle ranching areas and own cattle themselves, and that helps them understand that industry inside and out.”

That deep ag knowledge means loan officers can examine loan applications from farmers and ranchers with a profound understanding of their business.

“We take a strong look at every credit that comes through,” Gudajtes says. “We look at each credit individually. We look at each farm on its own merits and try to find remedies that work for that particular operation. I’m proud to say that even in this stressed ag economy, we’ve renewed almost every customer this year, and we have grown our business picking up customers from other lenders.”

Less then 500 million

500 million to 999 million

1 billion or more


An entrepreneurial spirit fuels First National’s growth

First National Bank of Ottawa’s board of directors
First National Bank of Ottawa’s board of directors includes (front row, left to right) vice-chairwoman Lynn Dubajic; chairman William Walsh Jr.; director, president and CEO Steven Gonzalo; director and bank board chairman Daniel Miller; and director John Cantlin. Back row: director Bradley Armstrong; director Donald Harris; director and executive officer Joseph Chiariello; and director Brian Zabel.

First National Bank of Ottawa

Ottawa, Ill.
Category: Commercial (Less than $500 million)
Asset size: $565 million
Consumer lender score: 96.2
Rank in category: 5

Community bankers know relationships are the key to successful lending, but rarely is that concept proven as effectively as it was at First National Bank of Ottawa in 2019.

Since 2009, First National’s assets had hovered between $200 million and $250 million. “That all changed dramatically when Dan and Joe came on board,” says president and CEO Steven Gonzalo. Today, the Ottawa, Ill., community bank has more than doubled its assets to $565 million.

Dan Miller, board chairman, and Joe Chiariello, partner and executive officer, are veteran Chicago bankers who joined the board and invested in First National Bank in late 2018. Both came from American Chartered Bank, a commercial and industrial (C&I) powerhouse, in Chicago: Miller was a founder, and Chiariello was a division head at that bank. After American Chartered Bank merged with MB Financial in 2016, Miller and Chiariello realized they wanted to get involved in another bank to carry on their C&I lending.

“We felt First National Bank was small enough to be open to change, but big enough to be a platform for what we needed to do,” Miller says. “Most importantly, the board was open to what we wanted to do.”

Their objective was to transform First National from primarily an agricultural and commercial and residential real estate lender in its central Illinois community into a significant C&I lender in the western suburbs of Chicago, which is about 80 miles northeast of Ottawa. The vehicles for that change were their strong client relationships.

“The idea was that the middle market in Chicago for C&I loans had been underserviced,” Gonzalo says. “So, Dan and Joe started with us in November 2018, and beginning in 2019, a number of their former lenders and support staff from American Chartered joined us throughout the year.”

Among those who joined during 2019 were 22 commercial lenders from American Chartered and some other Chicago-area financial institutions. They all became equity partners. “They came from a variety of different banks, but all of them have the entrepreneurial spirit,” Gonzalo says. “And each of them had relationships with clients who wanted to follow their banker.”

In addition to adding the powerhouse lenders, First National created a new trade name, American Commercial Bank & Trust. Under that name, the community bank dived into the Chicago C&I market. It’s not a coincidence that the name is similar to Miller and Chiariello’s former institution, Gonzalo says.

To manage the new business volume, First National invested in upgraded technology. It added mobile deposit capture for business clients, as well as end-to-end integration of ACH and domestic and international wires. To support the technology and lending team, the community bank brought on experienced staff and opened branches in the Chicago suburbs of Lisle and Schaumburg, Ill.

The community bank’s efforts resulted in an increase of assets to $376 million by the end of 2019. The number has ballooned in part due to the strength of Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program lending.

“Our strategy is to continue to grow organically,” Gonzalo says. “Continuing to recruit high-caliber individuals is part of our strategy, and [so is] continuing to provide the level of service and entrepreneurial spirit to customers in Chicago who have grown tired of the lack of that service from out-of-state banks and the larger Chicago banks.”

Less than 500 million

500 million to 999 million


Consumer and mortgage

Keeping loans in the community bank family

West Gate Bank employees
West Gate Bank celebrated a milestone last year: The community bank’s mortgage team serviced $2 billion in mortgage loans in 2019.

West Gate Bank

Lincoln, Neb.
Category: Consumer ($500 million to $999 million)
Asset size: $738 million
Consumer lender score: 88.5
Rank in category: 5

The mortgage crisis of 2008–2009 spooked many banks out of that market, at least temporarily. But the leadership of West Gate Bank in Lincoln, Neb., sensed opportunity in that catastrophe.

“When we were coming out of the mortgage crisis, most banks were running away from the crisis, but we were running toward the flames,” says Carl Sjulin, the $738 million-asset community bank’s president. “It was the contrarian thing to do, but we felt strongly that this was a line that people would always need. And dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s is something we are very good at.”

In the years since, West Gate Bank has become a major aggregator of mortgages. Today, the bank services 15,000 loans worth $2.5 billion from more than 100 correspondent banks across the Midwest, Sjulin says. The bank employs 80 in its mortgage division, including those who underwrite, purchase, sell and service the loans.

The community bank’s success has steadily grown, but a typical client makes the transition to West Gate gradually.

“Onboarding to a new bank is a long runway,” Sjulin says. “They don’t make quick decisions. That’s the nature of banking, I think. But as our list of correspondents has grown, we have developed a reputation among community banks. They’re getting good service and pricing and execution, and that gets around.”

Sjulin attributes West Gate’s success largely to the fact that the bank, like its correspondent banks, is focused on community. “We are unique relative to many other mortgage aggregators in the sense that we are a small community bank,” he says. “Most of our correspondent banks are a lot like us. We are an $800 million bank with 10 branches, and we have an active retail mortgage division. A lot of banks like us like selling their mortgages to a local community bank like them, rather than a large aggregator.”

Sjulin explains that West Gate Bank sells the aggregated loans to Fannie Mae and Federal Home Loan Bank after holding them about 30 days, but it retains the servicing. This allows the bank to provide the level of attention to homebuyers that the correspondent banks want to see, such as calls returned promptly and issues handled expeditiously.

That level of personal service is supported behind the scenes by investments in technology.

“With mortgages, you’re dealing with a standardized product and process, and you can leverage your capacity with technology,” Sjulin says. “We employ much of the same technology very large banks do. For example, we offer a customized portal where the corresponding banks can lock in the loans and handle other details.”

To ensure that service never slips, West Gate Bank sometimes “self regulates,” Sjulin says. By that, he means that if the bank picks up a new client with a large number of mortgages, it slows down new business acquisition efforts until it effectively absorbs the new volume.

Nevertheless, West Gate Bank’s mortgage business is growing rapidly, despite COVID-19.

“Last year was a record year for us volume-wise, and this year we’ll beat that record in the first six months of the year,” Sjulin says. “We are very busy right now.”

“Last year was a record year for us volume-wise, and this year we’ll beat that record in the first six months of the year.”
—Carl Sjulin, West Gate Bank

Less than 500 million

500 million to 999 million

More than 1 billion

This article was updated on July 13, 2020. The Commercial: $1 billion or more table was corrected.

Ed Avis is a writer in Illinois.