Small Company Executives of the Year: Banking tag team grows Settlers bank

Tom Spitz and Dave Fink strive to create an environment where everyone’s voice matters, and even though they are joined at the hip in managing Settlers bank, their voices haven’t always sung in harmony. On those rare occasions when they don’t see eye to eye, their shining light is organizational mission.

For the past decade, Spitz, CEO, and Fink, president, have grown the bank into a financial institution with $300 million in assets. They have worked in tandem with offices separated by only a shared conference room where they regularly meet with their leadership team to collaborate on major decisions and organizational growth strategies. They have separate areas of responsibility — Spitz with business operations and Fink with business development — but they trust each other.

As the business grows, this collaborative model has affected how departments are designed, develop, and grow. “When there are disagreements, what tends to happen is we start negotiating toward a better ‘yes,’” Fink explains, noting that it’s not just a flat yes, but a negotiated yes. “What I mean by that is that I might have an idea on a particular subject and Tom might have an idea on a particular subject, but they are not aligned at all. Getting together and aligning those two sides really produces some of our best decisions, frankly, whether it’s loan approvals, strategic decisions on the direction of the bank, or whatever the case might be.”

“It’s the core of why we’re here, what we’re doing, and how we serve our employees, our customers, and our shareholders,” adds Spitz. “We have consistently resolved any disagreement, if you will, in how those three stakeholders are served best, and it’s worked really well.”

Well enough to consistently achieve 15 percent annual growth. Spitz and Fink manage Settlers bank in a strategically opportunistic way, which led them to open a location in Appleton in August 2018. It is the third location for the bank and the second market; the Appleton market was chosen because the bank already had been doing business there for 10 years, and management recognized there were unmet business needs in the Fox Valley.

In addition, they found the right person to lead the Appleton market or, rather, Mike Waters found them. Staffing it properly began with the selection of a local leader, and in a judgment call that was part good fortune and part due diligence, they hired Waters, a Fox Valley banker who wanted to open his own financial institution. After meeting with him several times, Spitz and Fink offered him an opportunity to accomplish the same goal but under the Settlers bank name.

They not only met with Waters, but also spoke with many of his trusted advisors and former clients. Every one of them spoke highly of him, giving the Settlers bank management team confidence that he would be able to execute the plan to launch the bank. The Appleton location is off to a solid start, and it’s part of the reason Settlers reported yet another strong year of asset growth and now employs 44 people. “Tom and I were happy to meet with him [Waters] and help,” Fink notes, “but during our first meeting, it was apparent that Mike was the real deal and would fit in well with our existing culture.”

Their courting of Waters followed a similar pattern to one used when bringing in people to run the bank’s mortgage, private banking, and treasury management departments in Madison. There was a similar dynamic in getting to know candidates and their spouses, as well, because each career move is such a family decision. “We took a fair amount of time to get to know Mike,” Fink says, “and we gave him the same amount of time to get to know us, and we came to a conclusion together. Appleton is a wonderful market but finding the chemistry to work within our entire business group is important, as well.

“We really enjoyed the entrepreneurial experience that initially starting the bank represented,” Fink adds, “and it was incredibly gratifying and worthwhile to help Mike and his group go through that same process in setting up Appleton.”

Given the fast start the Appleton location is off to, Settlers bank might be tempted to replicate this talent acquisition model if it opens other locations, but they also know this was a unique set of circumstances. “We always consider every person who has come on board as having been our good fortune to meet him or her,” Spitz explains. “You can use the term lucky, if you will. The flip side to that is Dave and I spend a lot of time researching our industry and our competitors and the markets within it, and we won’t sit still.”

The two leaders have kept moving enough to increase their staff by 40 percent, from 32 to 44 employees (only four of whom are located in Appleton). Since opening in 2007, at the dawn of the Great Recession no less, annual profitability has averaged 14 percent. Asset growth of 20 percent, from $250 million to $300 million, the bulk of it from new clients, was achieved in 2018, and its book value growth in stocks rose from $14.62 in 2017 to $15.02 (as of Nov. 1, 2018) in a wildly fluctuating market.

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Ideas anyone?

Part of being a good leader is recognizing that you don’t have all the answers, and Spitz and Fink have created an ideas forum where employee input can be submitted anonymously. It has led to process, cultural, and philanthropic improvements, and it reinforces the belief that everybody has a voice in the operation of the bank and their voice matters. Examples include internal wellness challenges, including team competitions, which keep the staff engaged in a fun way, and management’s practice of taking a handful of employees out to lunch once a month, which helps staffers get to know each other.  

“Tom and I are quick to say that Settlers bank is made up of a group of entrepreneurs who are self-starters and really smart,” Fink states. “We think this [ideas] program exemplifies that.”

Don’t worry, Steve

Heading into 2019, business prospects remain strong — strong enough to reassure Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who recently created a stir as the stock market was taking its lumps and he called major bank CEOs to make sure they were in good shape in terms of liquidity. Not only did the big bank executives give Secretary Mnuchin some reassuring news, Settlers bank leaders would have delivered the same report had they fielded a call from Treasury.

Spitz notes the bank has been growing at 15 percent per year, and 2019 will bring similar results. He says the markets it serves offer exciting possibilities, customer-enabling technology continues to evolve, and the team is in place. “Our whole team is excited about 2019 and we continue to see good things ahead,” he states. “Remember, we launched in the worse recession to have hit during the career of anybody who is working now, so being that successful during that much adversity has our group feeling pretty comfortable with whatever might come along.”

As for Mnuchin, Spitz would remind him that banks are poised for growth, but more certainty would make their job easier. “The way to keep the business climate robust is to keep things as stable and predictable as you can to maintain business confidence,” he advises. “We, as businesses, will invest in more people, and we’ll invest in growth when we see an environment that’s predictable. As soon as things become volatile, then that becomes a challenge because it tends to give people pause.”

Making Overtures

This Settlers bank team and six other Executive of the Year winners will be honored at an awards reception on Tuesday, Feb. 19, at the Overture Center for the Arts. For more details about the Executive of the Year event and to purchase tickets, visit IBMadison.com/ExecutiveOfTheYear.

“It’s an extreme honor,” Spitz says. “I looked at the list of past winners and their companies, and to have Settlers bank included in that group is just tremendous. To me, the award means recognition for everybody at the bank, all the hard-working folks who are taking care of the clients that we serve and the markets that we serve, so I see this as something that we all share together.”

“It’s humbling to be selected by our peers in the business community to receive this honor,” adds Fink. “It means that what we do really does make a difference.”

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