Fifty Years and Counting: Reflections on a Lifetime Career in Banking

Dedicating decades of knowledge and experience to the industry is viewed differently depending not only what the worker gives to the role, but what the role provides the worker in return — to put it in the words of Mark Twain, “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” The WBA-member bankers who have been honored in the 50-Year Club have a perspective on this that can only be had as a result of over half a century in banking. We spoke with some to gather their insights on the industry, their expectations for the future, and how their career may have looked different if they had not followed the path they did.  

Fifty Years and Counting 

For Bill Censky, co-founder and former president of Investors Community Bank, Manitowoc, a lot has changed in recent decades. From an evolution in technology to an increase in mergers and acquisitions, he noted he feels as though he has seen it all since his start in 1969. 

“A major part of an any line of work is about changing as you see things change in your industry,” said Censky. “The economy, business operations, and any other situational things have to change. Banking is no exception.”  

Censky retired from his role as president of Investors Community bank in 2016 and as board chair last year, but his involvement at the bank and in his community has certainly not taken a rest. As of now, he is still a board member at the bank and treasurer of a men’s homeless shelter. All of this, he says, ties back to the reason he got involved in banking in the first place. 

“I don’t particularly like doing the mundane jobs,” he said. “I like actively working toward making a difference.” 

Mark Schowalter, former EVP/COO of Port Washington State Bank (PWSB), enjoys making a difference in many of the same ways and has always been drawn to building customer relations. When he started his career back in 1970, he recalled Friday nights, pre-Automated Clearing House, before direct deposit and electronic banking. He described what he said felt like each and every customer in the bank lobby. The lines were hectic, the driving lanes were always backed up, and it was one of his favorite experiences.   

“You got to meet everyone, see everybody, and catch up with them,” Schowalter said, “and it was a good way to build relationships with customers. It’s quite a bit different now, the way banking is conducted. But back then, it was very much face to face.”  

When I spoke with Schowalter, he was preparing for a board meeting later that afternoon. Although he has also retired, remaining part of the industry is something he could not imagine otherwise. He is still the director and vice chair of PWSB, and serves on the bank’s board of directors.  

“I’ve volunteered for many organizations over the years, civic and nonprofit, to help support the quality of life in our communities,” he continued. “So, my working at the bank has really fueled that. I continue to do this today, and you really appreciate how everything works in our markets and how so many things depend on each other. My present involvement with our communities has just been continuing to help where I can.” 

While many bankers who have dedicated over 50 years to the industry continue to offer their knowledge and skills however they can, not all of them have entered retirement. Rita Derks still serves as the assistant vice president at the Thorp branch for Northwestern Bank, where she has worked since 1989. She said she has probably worked in the banking industry for another “15-or-so years” on top of that, but time just flies when you enjoy your job and the people around you. When asked what her favorite part of her position is, it isn’t hard to see why. 

“The best part is being able to help people,” said Derks. “You gain so many friends and customers, people you know and people you don’t know. This is an industry where you get to be there for people when they need you, and that’s been one of the greatest parts of my career.” 

Expectations for the Future of Banking 

After spending over 50 years in banking, there are many industry achievements these individuals are proud of. Looking ahead, there are a few things they expect to see accomplished at some point in the next 50 years, too. Schowalter’s hope is short, simple, and shared with countless others: keep the community bank relevant. 

“Anything that would ensure that community banks continue to be relevant and valued is what I’d like to see,” said Schowalter. “We are the financial engines of the communities. Things like regulations, how the public perceives what we do, our access to different resources, they all play a part in being successful and keeping the community bank relevant.” 

Fairness was another theme that came up regarding future objectives. As Censky put it, it’s not only something he wants to see in the next few decades — it’s something he believes should have happened decades in the past. 

“A level regulatory playing field has been near the top of all banking lists since deregulation of the 1980s,” Censky said. “This will become even more important if tax rates go up…The level playing field is not just about credit union or Farm Credit System taxation — the need for banks to have regulations dropped that are out of date are stopping us from competing with fintech companies, who have little interest in communities.” 

For others, the answer is not a simple one. Derks began her response by stating this would be a question she was unable to speak on. Still, her follow-up emphasized how a lot of people feel about the industry’s expectations. With so many recent advancements, the rapid pace at which they’ve come, and a global pandemic that has pushed everything even further, expecting anything right now can feel strange.  

“What do we need to do in the future?” Derks asked. “I don’t know. I don’t know what’s coming, but if it’s anything like the change we’ve seen in the past few decades, it’s a completely different world. Life happens quickly, and there’s not an industry that exists where you can just sit back for the ride; you have to keep up with the pace. Good or bad, it seems that’s just how it goes.” 

If Not Banking – What Else? 

Imagining 50 years in any position can seem daunting, but I was assured the accomplishment is worth each moment once that time and energy has been dedicated to a community you truly care for. To place their lifetime in banking into a new perspective, I was curious to know — if not banking — what other career would they have considered spending their 50 years in. Unsurprisingly enough, none of the answers strayed too far from the significant roles they have played the industry.  

“I have always loved technology,” Censky said. “I enjoyed my IT-related classes in school and the IT-related projects at the bank, whether it was learning how to use the bank’s first computer, an Apple II+ in the early 80s, or selecting and purchasing new banking terminals or networks or selecting a new core system or managing a conversion or using MCIF to extract data to drive sales. I love being efficient and getting rid of the unproductive and mundane parts of our work.” 

In many ways, some bankers have spent more than their own lifetime in their career — family-owned and closely held banks have multiple generations of a family establishing and building the bank. It can be challenging to envision another role outside of the family business. 

“It’s a hard question,” Schowalter admitted. “I’m a fourth-generation banker along with my brother Steve. He and I grew up in the business. I can say that along the way, I never really considered anything else. All the years I worked with the bank, I volunteered with nonprofits, and you come to appreciate the work they do. I think the nonprofit sector would have really appealed to me as something I would have liked to be more involved in.” 

Derks had a rough idea of what else she would have liked to do, but raised an excellent point in the process: if the jobs that have become so widespread today were available decades ago, would you be performing a completely different task right now?  

“Probably something in the accounting or investment areas, because that’s what I’m used to doing,” said Derks. “It’s strange because there is so much more to offer in terms of a career nowadays, and so many of the major jobs today weren’t even prevalent back when I was starting out. If some of these jobs today had been around back then, I probably would have been interested so long as it had numbers involved.”  

Even with hypotheticals, each banker said they are more than happy with the time they have spent with the banking industry and couldn’t imagine a career spent anywhere else. Although the trend of staying in one position for an extensive period has declined, they have high hopes for the future of banking and the lifetimes that will be dedicated to the achievements and changes of Wisconsin’s financial services. 

“It’s a little different today,” said Schowalter. “I don’t know if we’ll see as much [tenure] as we used to. People don’t seem to stay in one place or one career for that long, but bankers are part of great communities and the chance to grow with them is rewarding. I’d like to think longevity speaks to the strengths of the industry, and I hope that continues another 50 years from now.”  

By, Alex Paniagua