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.

The following is an interview between WBA President and CEO Rose Oswald Poels and Farmers & Merchants Union Bank (Columbus) President & CEO Randy Bobholz‚Äč.

Rose: How did you first get into the banking industry?
Randy: I entered the banking industry a little by accident! When I was younger and trying to figure out what I wanted to do in life, I worked for my fiancé's father's plumbing business. The idea was to help him get caught up and for me to learn a trade. This is where I first learned that "you-know-what" only runs downhill – I have never forgotten this! 

While working for him, I helped him get caught up in a shorter-than-anticipated time so there wasn't a lot for me to do. (Well, I can believe him getting caught up was due to me!)

One day, my mother was talking to the local Friesland branch manager about my situation. He recommended that I apply for a banking job at the main office in Columbus, and I did. I interviewed for a bookkeeping job. I was hired and started on Jan. 7, 1980. After spending one day in the bookkeeping area, hand-filing checks (yes, by hand), the bank president asked if I would be willing to learn the teller position. I said "yes" and the next day I was on the teller line. Since that time, I have worked in every department of the bank: teller line, bookkeeping, IT, loans, and management. I have been the bank president since the year 2000. By the way, I still fix a toilet if needed during the day!. 

What is your favorite aspect of your role at your bank?
This is a tough question. I have many favorites throughout my 40 years at Farmers & Merchants Union Bank. I could say my favorite aspect is recovering unexpected funds from a loan I made that was charged off, but that is more surprise and joy than my favorite aspect. 

When it comes down to it, my favorite aspect of my career is not just a moment in time. Rather, it spans my 40-year career. For example, I recall opening a new checking account for a young customer. When I transitioned to the loan area, I helped this same customer buy a home and start a business. Today, the same customer I met on the teller line 40 years ago is very successful and has their home and business paid off. To this day, they remain a customer of the bank.

My favorite aspect of my role in the bank is customer relationships from start to finish! I enjoy seeing a customer grow financially and enhance their long-term relationship with the bank.

What do you wish the general public understood about the banking industry?
I will answer this question as it pertains to the community banking industry. With all the competition for financial services such as credit unions, regional banks, fintechs, credit card banks and others, the public should understand that community banks are integral parts of the communities they live and work in. Community bankers and community members see each other on the street, in church, in the store, at the gas station, at school events, and many other places. Community bankers really are part of the community! We care about our customers and their overall financial success. Yes, banks need to make a profit like any other business to stay viable. However, if you have a financial question, concern or just want to talk, community bankers are here for our customers. 

There are many times a community banker will spend time with a customer and never talk banking or financials. Rather, they simply talk about what is happening in their life or about something that is bothering them. We are a sounding board to our customers for life in general.  We care about people and are part of their communities and lives.  

We may not always be the lowest interest on loans or the highest interest on deposits, but there is more value to a community bank than the rates. Community banks provide unmatched service and meaningful relationships with customers. If a community is successful, the bank and other businesses in that community will also be successful. We are no longer tellers or lenders; we are Relationship Bankers!

Where do you believe the industry's greatest challenges are in the next three to five years?
Viability and survival! As stated earlier, banking is difficult with all the competition from "other financial entities" who state they can do it better, faster, and cheaper. I question if this is a true statement, or an unfair statement from a competitor who does not need to follow the same tax situation or regulations as a community bank. 

Along with fierce competition, securing and keeping young talented employees is a challenge. There are many opportunities today for a bright, young individual in careers that sound more interesting than banking. The regulatory world also keeps getting tougher, with more being required of banks. 

With all the competition, limited talent pool, and increasing regulatory requirements, survival is becoming very difficult for the community banking industry. Is this the cause of all the mergers and acquisitions? It's hard to really know, but in my opinion it plays a major role.

What are some of the most rewarding aspects of your work as a banker?
My current role at Farmers & Merchants Union Bank is President & CEO and Chief Loan Officer. My most rewarding experience? This is difficult to answer because there have been many!

In the community I served for more than 35 years as a Volunteer Fireman (Fire Chief for the majority of the years) and organized a Medical First Responder group to assist EMS. I have since retired from both organizations. There were many stressful times, but also very rewarding times. I spent 24 years on a local school board, which I feel has given more back to me than I gave to the school. I gained so much knowledge on how school districts worked and have a much better understanding of public service. I am currently serving on the local hospital board as the Treasurer.

Of utmost importance, providing employment for our staff, who are part of us and the communities we serve, is very rewarding. They are our immediate family. Without great staff, we have nothing!

As far as customers go, it seems that every day something happens that is rewarding: helping a customer finance a business request, purchase a home, or just sit down and talk. Throughout my years, I have come to know a lot of customers, their financial situation, their family situation, and them as people. What I realize is that when a customer has something happen in their life, be it a "scam," marital issue, financial issue, illness or a death, they often come in just to talk! They are not looking for funding or a handout. They are just looking for someone they trust to talk through their situation and look for "non-banking" guidance. Being there for our customers above and beyond banking is very rewarding to me. Relationships are definitely the reward!

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