The commemoration of Investors Community Bank 24th year in business last month is a particularly timely one. Across the United States, bankers are seeking an uptick in the number of people taking the entrepreneurial path and establishing their own businesses.
You could say that’s a road well-traveled here at ICB.
That’s because 25 years ago, the three other co-founders and I left behind the known for the unknown of a startup, driven by the belief that people wanted to bank with people, not banks. Through the ensuing years we faced our share of peaks and valleys alike – as any entrepreneur does – but persevered. ICB is in the top 10 banks in the state of Wisconsin and has $1.5 billion in assets; equally important, we have remained true to the “why” that started this journey in the first place. That is what prompted me to write this blog: I wanted to share the first-hand experiences we earned (and learned) since ICB was just a dream:
- Lesson 1: Follow your passion. ICB’s four co-founders held a strong belief that the business of banking was evolving, and we wanted to evolve with it. We went so far with our mindset (which is focused on our investors – these same people who believed in us and made our dream fiscally possible) that we featured them prominently in our bank’s name. Another area of priority in that equation: Community is our middle name, a nod to our desire to passionately, thoroughly and authentically serve community members. It’s these passions that fueled us when energy flagged or life’s inevitable trials and tribulations hit, and something no entrepreneur can be without. Know your why and remind yourself of it every day.
- Lesson 2: Do what you know, and know your niche intimately. I grew up with my father and his four brothers running a large dairy farm in Hilbert. I know full well what it’s like to “walk in their shoes” – barn shoes, that is – and the relentless drive it takes to run a farming business. I suspect some of my entrepreneurial focus came from them, as this was no small outfit. I witnessed the challenges producers in our country have faced. I started my career in agricultural banking to serve the producers and farmers who needed a financial ally, committed to understanding them and helping them endure the inevitable cycles in this business. The other co-founders and I didn’t choose the agricultural and dairy space as much as it chose us, and it’s propelled a lot of our success.
- Lesson 3: Have a well-vetted business plan. You know the old adage: fail to plan and plan to fail. Entrepreneurs can have grandeur plans and passion galore, but it needs the context of a proper business plan, as any customer of ours knows from working with us. It was no different for ICB. When we started, the bank, one of the requirements to be both FDIC chartered and state chartered was to obtain approval from the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions and the FDIC. That required us to put thoughtfulness into the creation of a 10-year business plan to reach $120 million in assets. Mind you, we achieved 10 years’ worth of goals in three years, but part of doing that was being willing to set and focus on those goals within the context of the business plan.
- Lesson 4: Tap into startup/entrepreneur-focused resources. Programs to assist small businesses and entrepreneurs abound; whether it’s Small Business Administration offerings, Wisconsin Economic Development Corporate programming at a state level, a community’s revolving loan funds or the local bank’s efforts to provide a creative financial program to help jump start a business. This is where community bankers can shine; most community banks are situated to help relatively early-stage entrepreneurs better than anyone because we’re more directly involved in the community and are typically more nimble and flexible.
- Lesson 5: Take calculated risks. You hear this a lot, and it’s one of those lessons I’ve learned during our 24 years of existence: you can’t be afraid to take calculated risks. Bankers are traditionally pretty conservative, and we’re a highly regulated industry, but if COVID-19 has shown us anything, it is that the speed of change is coming at us even faster than before March 2020. We all now have more competitors than we ever have, living in a highly online and global economy, and that requires us to compete in new ways in this new environment.
- Lesson 6: Be a servant leader, and remember nothing is beneath you. I’m of the mindset that if there’s a job to do, there’s no such thing as being “too high up the chain to do it.” Early in the company’s history I was an ag banker but also wore about six or seven different hats when we were located in the former Schuette Brothers Store in downtown Manitowoc. I did loan payments, I was a commercial banker, I was a teller. As you get larger, it’s not unusual for you – and others – to become more specific and narrow in terms of your job responsibilities and duties. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do something because of it. I often get to the office first in the morning and if the sidewalk isn’t shoveled yet, I do it. If the copy machine needs more paper, I haul the case of copy paper to it instead of asking someone else to do so. Lead by example.
- Lesson 7: Hire competent and qualified staff and trust them to do their jobs. To dovetail on Lesson 6, it’s important to entrust your team members with work vital to the business. As a business grows, people’s roles tend to become more specific and narrow in focus. It can be very difficult for entrepreneurs to let go of certain activities, to delegate and allow their staff to handle them. But if you have a strong mission and your employees are competent and share in the vision, you have to let it go.
- Lesson 8: Infuse your culture and employees with your passion, vision and mission. If you recall, Lesson 1 was Follow Your Passion, and this is a matter of taking that and extending it to every employee -- each of whom is an ambassador for your business – in the organization. I wholeheartedly believe that when team members understand and buy into your passion, mission and vision, they will then drive your success going forward. If we take care of our employees, they will take care of the customers the way we would, and success will follow.
- Lesson 9: Welcome mentors and build a collaborative work environment. One thing I promote quite a bit is to have a mentor. When we started, we had to be sensitive to the fact that we were employed by another financial institution, so we couldn’t tap those closest to us for their insights and advice. However, you can find mentors outside your industry, which is what we did. I continue to be involved in several banking peer groups because there’s such value in that. In addition, it’s important to maintain that sense of collaboration in the business. I’m a huge believer in collaboration and seek feedback from others in the organization on many of the big decisions. It can sometimes slow the process down, but it also adds value, and we can always learn from others around us.
- Lesson 10: Never stop learning. During the Great Recession of 2008/2009 all banks suffered; we weren’t immune. But we learned a lot of lessons of what we needed to do differently – everyone did. The ag cycle has only begun to rebound in the past few years. You have to learn how to take the bad with the good. The same can be said for how COVID-19 has turned things upside down. What’s important is to be willing to learn from times like that and to maintain a mind open to learning. When you think you’ve reached the pinnacle, it’s probably time to retire because we should never quit learning and striving to be better.
Embracing these lessons has created a level of success for ICB surpassing any of the founders’ dreams. The beauty of the lessons is that they transcend business age, size and industry, and just as we walk in our customers’ shoes, hopefully other entrepreneurs can walk in ours as well.
By Tim Schneider, CEO and Co-Founder
Investors Community Bank