Wisconsin's bankers are the definition of "community advocates" in all that you do every day to improve your local economy through your bank's products and services, as well as through your generous philanthropy of time and money. This column shares and celebrates the diverse backgrounds, experiences, perspectives, and innovation of some of the extraordinary bankers in this state.

Kathy Rankin profileThe following is a brief interview between WBA President and CEO Rose Oswald Poels and Tomahawk Community Bank CEO Kathy Rankin.

Rose: How did you first get into the banking industry?
Kathy: Mine is not likely the ordinary story. I was a good student in high school and focused in on the business classes. I had a strong interest in bookkeeping, computers, general business administration, and, at that time, shorthand. My first job (other than odd jobs cleaning and kitchen work at local establishments during high school), was a secretary for an attorney. The firm had a main office in Wausau, Wis., a town 45 miles away, and had established a satellite office in our town of Tomahawk about 2-3 years prior. I loved the work. I took dictation, transcribed court records onto the computer, met with clients, and did routine office filing and administration. About six months after I started there, they decided to close the satellite office. I was invited to join their operations at the Main Office in Wausau, however, I wasn't sure I wanted to commute or move and was still contemplating what my college studies would consist of. My dad recommended to me that I stop down at the Savings and Loan downtown and see if they needed any help to get some more experience as I decided what I wanted to go to college for. That was the end of my job and college search! I have been at the bank ever since.

What is your favorite aspect of your role at your bank?
I started as a teller… my first day was December 27 so for the first two months I actually didn't do much other than stuff envelopes… It was month end, quarter end, year-end… there were a LOT of statements to be sent out before January 31! There were no online services at that time. 

The beauty of starting with a smaller institution is that you were exposed to and allowed to wear a lot of hats. You were given opportunities to help out everywhere, which transferred into a very broad educational and knowledge base. In addition, any type of education anyone was interested in was offered and most importantly, supported. The bank president who hired me was a great role model and mentor. He was truly a "working president," not just a figurehead like I had expected, and I admired that. I attended many classes offered through the Institute of Financial Education, both in person and correspondent. It equated into a lot of night classes and commitments, however, the bank picked up the tuition tab. I couldn't learn enough… it all was so intriguing to me. 

I love being instrumental in a happy, satisfied customer experience. 
I love being instrumental in providing a rewarding employee experience.

What do you wish the general public understood about the banking industry?
The banking industry is made up of many different types of services. From large corporate organizations to modest community banks all the way to check cashing services and credit unions. Objectives vary greatly. I find that a community bank is in the best position to benefit its customers, employees, and society in general. It is imperative to its future success for the focus of a community bank to center on its customers and the communities they serve. 

There are even various different types of community banks. My bank is a mutually owned bank, which means it is owned by its depositors, not corporate stock investors. There is no pressure from shareholders to meet dividend requirements… so profits are available to further benefit our customers and to funnel back into the community. That is our sole mission. 

That is a win-win in my book.

Where do you believe the industry's greatest challenges are in the next three to five years?
The way I see it, there are many challenges ahead. 

I can't have an opportunity and not take it, to point out what I feel is the grossly unfair tax advantage provided to credit unions along with what that will eventually do to hurt our towns, states, and federal government's ability to provide needed services. While banks and credit unions provide virtually the same banking type services, tax-paying banks support local, state, and national governments with their payment of income taxes to provide services like roads, schools, and government programs. Credit Unions do not pay income taxes. They are not required to pay income taxes to help pay for local, state, and national services and instead have been known to funnel profits into elaborate corporate headquarters and sports arena naming rights. As credit unions continue to morph into giant corporate entities, even buying up some community banks, the tax revenues needed to provide those services to the general public will eventually dry up. This will place an even bigger tax burden on tax-paying businesses and the general public. 

We can all embrace the need for tax reform for various reasons. I feel the credit union industry's unfair tax exemption/advantage is a very critical aspect to investigate and change. 

Another challenge I see is the new generation's need for instant gratification and high-tech/low-touch lifestyles, compromising our ability to communicate effectively with each other and share empathy and understanding of differences and situations. We need to try to keep the human touch in all aspects of our lives, even in our banking services. 

Another challenge is the extreme increase in fraud and cyber crimes. It has become extremely difficult to try to stay a step ahead of the criminals. We encounter those situations every day and do our best to attempt to protect our customers from them. The best defense is a personal interaction with our customers and sometimes even what some may consider a little "snooping" to uncover many fraud attempts. I feel like high-touch service is the best defense.

What are some of the most rewarding aspects of your work as a banker?
I am extremely lucky to be the CEO at a mutual community bank in small-town America. I can't imagine a more rewarding career. 

I was born into a family dedicated to community service. I always used the story that my mom didn't just drop me off at cheerleading practice, she made the cheerleading uniforms! My dad didn't just drop my brothers off at baseball practice, he started the little league program in our town then coached and managed the league for many years! 

I have learned that communities are only as strong as their members' support… and that is truly the beauty of working with a community bank… especially a mutual community bank. Profits from a well-run mutual community bank do not benefit investors and shareholders; they benefit the communities they serve. Community banks are dedicated to encouraging and supporting their employees to be volunteers in their communities. We enjoy the freedom and support of our employer to be actively involved in any, and as many, community organizations as we desire. 

In addition, over the years I have had the pleasure to work with customers at the worst and best times in their lives. I specifically remember working with one customer for several years to pull themselves out of foreclosure and bankruptcy, to one day having the pleasure of helping them to build a new dream home for their family. 

Together our caring commitment, volunteerism, and community involvement help make our communities thrive. That is the most rewarding part of community banking for me.

Do you know a banker who should be recognized as a Community Advocate for the work that they do? Nominate them today by emailing Rose