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 a brief interview between WBA President and CEO Rose Oswald Poels and President Willard Ogren, Security Sate Bank, Iron River.

Rose: How did you first get into the banking industry?
Willard: It all started in June 1952 when Security State Bank in Port Wing, Wis. needed a teller and file clerk. The wages were $ 0.60 per hour. I thought that was pretty good for a summer job. However, in three months, college started again. I could see many changes and improvements in the bank's operation while I was working there so I decided to continue working there for the year. In January 1955 I went to work in Security State Bank's branch office in Iron River, and within a couple years, I was promoted to the manager of that office.

My grandfather was one of eleven local businessmen who started the bank in Port Wing in 1911. He was succeeded on the board by my father. Neither had ever worked in the bank, and they only owned 15% of the stock. Shortly after starting work in the bank, I had lunch with an elderly correspondent banker. He told me that if he were young and wanted to work in a bank, he would either join a holding company or would buy the bank. I did not want to move out of town because I was dating Jeri, my future wife, so my choice was to start buying stock in the bank. 

Over time, I approached each bank stockholder and bought stock at their asking price. The highest price of the shares I purchased was from my dad to complete 100% purchase of all the shares of Security State Bank

In 1986, I worked with the Erickson family to purchase the Bank of New Auburn, Wis. I personally formed a holding company with the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank at that time. Later, I purchased the Farmers' State Bank of Ridgeland, Wis. from Roger Heironimus, the former commissioner of banking. 

What is your favorite aspect of your role at your bank?
What I have enjoyed the most at the bank has been to help customers who are starting a business or who have an existing business with three or four employees and helping them grow. I have worked with many startup businesses, some that ended up with over 200 employees. It is very gratifying to be in a position where you see your customers' businesses grow and prosper. Many of them would say that I have been a partner in their business by working closely with them to help them succeed. 

What do you wish the general public understood about the banking industry?
I wish the public understood the extensive federal regulations we are under. It is difficult for elderly, long-term customers to understand that they must submit two forms of identification for various services, when we have known them all their lives. With the passing of the Patriot Act, the long-time customer who had home mortgages with us in the past that were made with a handshake now must provide copious documentation. It is not the same type of banking that they were accustomed to in the last 40-50 years.

Where do you believe the industry's greatest challenges are in the next three to five years?
One of the challenges now and in future years is that if interest rates stay low, depositors will seek out higher yields by investing their money in unregulated institutions that have no allegiance to their communities. Banks will lose their core deposits which will drive community banks to use brokered deposits to support loan demands.

Another challenge to the banking industry is to compete with financial institutions that operate without paying federal or state taxes. Many of those financial institutions have no office or personal presence in smaller communities and therefore do not support the schools, fire departments, and local committees. The purchase of commercial banks by credit unions should also be of major concern to the state and federal government since 100% of tax revenue is lost.

I believe many of the challenges facing us will diminish. Over my 67 years in banking, I have heard much rhetoric regarding the demise of community banks. I recall when they said small banks could not exist when we had to microfilm all checks before sending them out. Then again when computers came out, they said the cost would be too great and that we could not afford to exist without them. As we navigate the era, our greatest challenge in a small-town bank is to keep up with the cost of regulation. 

What are some of the most rewarding aspects of your work as a banker?
My career in community banking has allowed me to really give back to our communities both through the bank and personally in many meaningful ways. I have enjoyed many rewarding experiences through my extensive volunteer efforts with countless organizations including Lions Club, Salvation Army, Port Wing Fish Boil, and Toys for Tots to Teens. Further, I have supported the South Shore School District for decades and have supported the South Shore Education Foundation since its inception. Among other donations, we provided money for the weight room and two upgrades to the high school athletic facilities which resulted in it being named the Willard Ogren Athletic Center. We also set up an endowment with the Foundation to pay for computers for all students in grades K-12.

When I turned 70½, I cashed in my IRAs from my younger years and gifted the proceeds to the four local community fire departments, two ambulance and EMTs and area churches. We also set up a scholarship program at the University of Minnesota-Duluth as three of our children graduated from UMD. More recently, Jeri and I established a Community Charitable Trust in which all funds from the trust are to be given to 501c(3) charitable organizations that are in our banking area. 

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