New WBA Board Chair Paul Kohler has always known he wanted to be a banker. In high school, he was the class Treasurer, and a friend’s father was the president of Dairy State Bank. “I really looked up to him,” Kohler recalled. “I liked the work he was doing in the community, and I wanted to do the same thing.”
Imagining himself in the role, Kohler used to venture into the president’s office, lounged in the leather chair, and put his feet up on the desk. Of course, he got caught.
"What are you doing?” the bank president asked.
“Checking out my chair,” Kohler ventured.
“Get a college degree first,” the bank president told him. So he did.
Kohler graduated from UW-Eau Claire with a degree in finance, including an internship his senior year with First Wisconsin Bank. He went through the management training program there, gaining exposure to every area of the bank. After graduation, he stayed with First Wisconsin Bank doing consumer lending. Within a year, he became a branch manager and commercial lender. He later obtained a Series 7 license so he could also sell securities.
After eight years, Kohler put all of those skills to work when he was hired at Charter Bank as a Jack-Of-All-Trades (his official title was Vice President). At the time, the bank was around $75M in assets and had one location. Today, 24 years later, Kohler is president and CEO of the $1B bank with three locations. He credits his staff with the growth of the bank. “We have a lot of great people here,” he said.
In his 30+ years in banking, Kohler has done a little bit of everything, his favorite is commercial lending. “You get to go out and meet with all different clients and businesses,” he explained. “One day you’re dealing with a manufacturer, then a veterinarian, then a jewelry store. It’s the spice that you get working with something different every day.”
If variety is the spice of banking, then Wisconsin bankers have had a spicy few months! With the deluge of Paycheck Protection Program loans, operational changes to promote social distancing, and dramatic shifts in customer behavior away from in-person banking, change has not been in short supply.
That’s why one of Kohler’s primary goals for his term as chair is to evolve and innovate in how the industry approaches professional development and how the association delivers the training that goes along with it. “We’ll have to be innovative moving forward,” Kohler said. “We’re going to need more training so we know how to handle the new challenges we face.”
Another key focus is advocacy. As a trade association, advocacy has always been a core WBA service. As the industry faces new challenges, it is even more important. “Advocacy is always a big part of what we do at WBA,” Kohler said. To that end, Kohler urges the entire WBA membership to rely on one another for mutual benefit. It will take the entire industry to make any headway in achieving a level playing field via tax parity with credit unions, for example. One way every bank can make an impact is by designating an Advocacy Officer. This volunteer role is the go-to person at their institution for all things advocacy. Find out more and designate someone from your bank at www.wisbank.com/advocacy/advocacy-officers.
Finally, community support will remain a key focus of the association and its membership during Kohler’s term. Through campaigns such as Power of Community, WBA will continue to amplify the efforts of member banks to support their local businesses and families. “The banks in our state are the lifelines for our communities,” Kohler said. “We’re the ones sponsoring parades and making donations to make our communities thrive. I take a lot of pride in that, and it’s what drew me to banking.”