Editor's Note: Cynthia Erdman, president of Partnership Bank, Tomah, Wis., is completing her year as the first female chair of the Wisconsin Bankers Association. She spoke with NorthWestern Financial Review writer Mara Gawarecki about reg and tax reform strategies, a WBA milestone, and her attempts to beef up industry appeal for Millennials.
Q. You just got back from a Washington, D.C., trip. What are your impressions of the legislative and regulatory environment?
Erdman: If I've learned anything about reg reform in my six years on the WBA board, it's that there are times when it's going to be more of an uphill battle. There is a renewed optimism in banking right now that we do have opportunity for reform. I remind bankers they need to do something, whether that's a comment letter or visiting Washington or going to their state legislators. More importantly, when you're speaking to regulators or elected officials, you need to tell a real live story of John Smith on the corner who couldn't get a mortgage because of this or couldn't expand his business because of that. If you want to evoke change and be heard, you have to create feeling and emotion. A story is the best way to do that.
Q. What other challenges and opportunities face Wisconsin bankers?
Erdman: Banking can be a hard sell to your friends and neighbors, let alone the entire community or legislators. Bank profits are starting to go up now, and yet here we are, asking for reg reform or tax relief. Part of my strategy for that is to emphasize that we're a small business, just like other community members. An opportunity we're working on at the state level - we're still in the exploratory stages - but we have talked to the governor's office and delegates about this idea that if a bank lends to a business under such a size or with a business loan fee below such an amount, the interest on that kind of lending be tax exempt for community banks. Could we get some tax incentives for that kind of lending that really goes back into the community and promotes growth? So far that has garnered some interest.
Q. What are some of the highlights of your year as chair?
Erdman: WBA just celebrated its 125th anniversary in February, and that is a lot of years to not only be around, but still be relevant. Now I have this excitement but also sense of urgency. We have this momentum - what do we do to keep it going? How do we not get discouraged when we work hard for something, but it still doesn't turn out the way we wanted? It's a train on the tracks - what's the next piece of coal we can shovel in that keeps it going?
One of my missions this year was making banking a little more sexy again, as silly as that sounds. We've reached out to the [University of Wisconsin] system about how to promote it to students as a viable career. What do professors hear from their students about what they want? What perks draw them in, whether it's lifestyle or career-oriented? What can we do to promote ourselves in such a way that we bring in those Millennials, both as employees and customers?
Our most recent Washington trip, for example, had 25 bankers, 11 of whom were first-time attendees, and of those 11, eight would be what I would call our future leaders. That is extremely encouraging and exciting - maybe banking is becoming an attractive career option again.
Q. How did you get into banking?
Erdman: Banking was not where I thought I'd land in life. I always had a love for numbers, but I was going to become a CPA - until I did a short internship at an accounting firm and thought, "There's no way I can do that. I need something that's more interactive with people." The love of interaction with people is what drew me to banking.
I grew up on a dairy farm in a small town. You tend to learn a little about a lot of things. People look at farmers and think, "Oh that's a labor job," but you've got to be an accountant, an electrician, a nutritionist, a little bit of everything. And it's that way in banking, too, a lot of the time. I started off as a teller, and I've pretty much done everything in the bank, even a short stint as the IT person.
My passion is still promoting the industry and working to help people realize their dreams, as sappy as that sounds. I do have an uncle who worked as a banker for 44 years before retiring. I would like to think that he's proud of me.
Read the interview from the Northwestern Financial Review.