After 50 years in banking, Oak Bank’s Gorsuch still has his eye on the future

Bob Gorsuch has already accomplished more than most of his contemporaries in the banking world, but that hasn’t stopped him from going the extra mile — or 100.

Gorsuch, who founded Fitchburg’s Oak Bank in 2000 and celebrated 50 years in banking last month, has helped make plenty of borrowers’ dreams come true, but he’s just as passionate about his efforts outside the industry.

“Reports that we used to do that maybe were one, two pages front and back on a piece of paper are now about an inch thick before you finish the report.” — Bob Gorsuch

For the past several years, he’s participated in the JDRF Ride to Cure Diabetes, a 100-mile bicycle trek that raises funds for type 1 diabetes research.

And while that might not seem terribly remarkable to your typical triathlete or Tour de France trekker, for most septuagenarians, it probably sounds like an invitation to a long-term stay in the infirmary.

But for the 72-year-old Gorsuch, whose oldest grandson was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was 8 years old, the ride is not just an important challenge but a tradition as well.

“Age is just a number,” said Gorsuch, who will participate in his seventh JDRF Ride to Cure Diabetes in La Crosse on Aug. 14. “If you’re blessed with good health, then all you’ve got to do is take care of yourself, but if you’ve got some bad genes, you’ve got more of a challenge.”

Gorsuch has seen his share of challenges in the banking world as well, but he says it’s been a richly rewarding career, particularly since he launched Oak Bank in 2000.

While Oak Bank has faced more than its share of obstacles for a startup financial institution — first it had to weather the post-9/11 recession in the early 2000s and then the Great Recession in 2008 — it’s provided Gorsuch with plenty of reasons to be proud, and a lot to learn from.

“Whether it’s a bank or whether it’s another business, very few people get to work for a place that they had a part in starting,” said Gorsuch. “Most people have never had the opportunity to be part of starting a new organization and seeing what the risks are and knowing that as it grew and hopefully became successful and profitable that you actually were a part of that.

“It’s a good feeling, and to go through that experience and understand the risk, I think it just makes you, from a bank’s viewpoint, a lot more empathetic with new businesses that want to start up, because you understand that you may lose a little money before you make money.”

A new regulatory environment

Gorsuch also knows what it’s like to make his own way as an entry-level employee. He started as a teller in Marquette, Mich., later moving to Madison in 1975 and serving as president of Park Bank for 24 years.

Over that time, he’s seen a lot of changes in the industry, ranging from paradigm-shifting technology to a sea change in the ocean of regulations banks are required to navigate.

“The regulatory environment has gotten tighter, and so the requirements to meet the myriad regulations are rather awesome,” said Gorsuch. “Reports that we used to do that maybe were one, two pages front and back on a piece of paper are now about an inch thick before you finish the report.”

Of course, the change in the regulatory environment that came post-Great Recession has been something of a hardship for local community banks, which according to Gorsuch were minor actors in the subprime mortgage crisis.

“For the most part, community banks had a very minor role, if any, in all those problems,” said Gorsuch, “and so now a lot of the new mortgage lending-related requirements are having an impact on our ability to be as flexible with those who want to buy their first home, as we used to be able to do. That’s a negative.”



Gorsuch says that post-recession reforms like the Dodd-Frank Act and the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau could lead to further consolidation in the banking industry as smaller banks seek to create economies of scale and get into compliance with regulations.

“Predictions are that the number of banks in the country will drop from about 8,000 to about 5,000 in the next 10 years, and while it hasn’t really begun yet, a lot of institutions are talking to each other, and there’ll be primarily mergers and acquisitions between the smaller institutions,” said Gorsuch. “It won’t be megabanks, if you will, that are going to be creating all this. It will be between banks of equal size. A couple of $300 million banks will get together, and a $500 million bank will acquire a $200 million bank, so I think that’s where most of it will come from. And a lot of that’s being driven by the increased burdens being placed upon banks to be able to comply.”

As for small business lending, Gorsuch says he still sees a certain amount of skittishness among borrowers.

“Even in this market, loan demand is fairly soft, and I think there’s still a certain amount of uncertainty that exists in business about whether they really want to invest in adding equipment, about whether they want to invest in adding people,” said Gorsuch. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty driven by health care cost concerns or driven by taxation issues, what those are all going to work out to be.”

Quality of life

While regulatory and technological changes have rocked the banking industry in the past several decades, Gorsuch says some things remain constant. For instance, personal service — even in an era when customers rarely see the inner walls of their friendly neighborhood bank — remains paramount.

“People have always expected personal service,” said Gorsuch. “It got away from us a little bit as banks got bigger and bigger, but there’s been a refocus, I think, on the level of service, and of course providing good service today with all the technology is a little different than it used to be when you could rely on people just coming into the branch.”

Ultimately, says Gorsuch, it’s that personal touch that helps one succeed in business, in one’s charitable pursuits or, more plainly, in life itself.

“I think the most important thing is caring for others and treating whoever walks through your doors the way you’d want to be treated,” said Gorsuch. “I think a lot of times that gets forgotten, and knowing that all your people share that caring attitude I think is the secret to any business’s success.

“Without that, I don’t care if you’re manufacturing something or providing a service or whatever. You need to really care about how you’re treating the people you’re dealing with — whether it’s your own associates or whether it’s your clients or customers — because life is short, and I’m a big believer that it’s not the quantity of your life, it’s the quality of the time that you’re here.”

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