Executive Profile: Tom Spitz

Tom Spitz, founder and CEO of Settlers Bank in DeForest, grew up in the Milwaukee area, lived a suburban lifestyle, and hung out with friends who had boats, so he spent much of his idle time boating or skiing. He went to college, got his MBA from Marquette, married Lisa, and they now have three kids, ages 14, 12, and 6. And he's forever and sincerely grateful for every turn his life has taken thus far. His is the kind of life one might expect from one who was born to a banker mother and land manager father. But never in his wildest dreams, he said, would he ever have expected to be the founder of a bank himself.

Yet looking back, Spitz realizes that every meaningful experience centered somehow around banks. His first job, in fact, was "rolling coin" at the bank his mother worked for. "But that went along with taking out the garbage," he laughed, "though coin-rolling sounded so much more glamorous!"

After building a 20-plus year banking career interspersed with running a small technology firm and even starting a television production company, Spitz was named to the banking review board under Governor Doyle in 2003 — the body that reviews applications for state-chartered banks. There, he said, he developed a better understanding of the process involved in starting a bank.

And that's when he got the itch.

In 2006, with an economy that was pumping along and investment money plentiful, the idea of starting his own bank churned in his mind like it never had before, but he was nervous. "I'd never raised $10 million before!" he said.

Settlers Bank opened in December of 2007, just as the economy started to fail. But by that time, Spitz and Settlers Bank President Dave Fink had already raised what they needed, "so we had a clean balance sheet," he said, adding that it's typical for a new bank to lose money in the first three years. Settlers, though, was profitable by year two. "We consider ourselves very fortunate for achieving profitability [so soon]," he said. "We are vigilant to make sure we stay ahead of any emerging problems we, or our customers, might be having."

Spitz tempers the extremes of this economy by remembering what once was. "I've been around long enough — and lived through the 1980s — to appreciate that things run in cycles," he said, "but I never would have imagined such a steep drop, so broad-based. I think there will continue to be bumps along the road."

Settlers Bank, he said, has been specifically impacted by the regulatory agencies that are continually monitoring banking activities. "We spend a lot of time proving that we are vigilant," he said. "We have to be extra careful when we look at loan opportunities to be sure that our prospective customer and their vendors have considered all the risks. Underwriting hasn't changed, but you put more time into the underwriting process."

Spitz said the bank is now bracing for a whole host of new regulations and changes to existing regulations as a result of financial reform which, he said, will cost money. On that issue, he remains cautious.

"I understand why it's come together as it has, but my experience is that previous financial reform has often had bad consequences for the population it's intended to help. My fear is that this won't be any different. But on a brighter note, I see pockets of relative prosperity — businesses that are growing, new technologies. I just wish there were more of them."

Fritz is thrilled to have found his niche. "We're collectively building an organizational philosophy here at Settlers Bank. I can't put into words how fun that is every day."

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