The following is a brief interview between WBA President and CEO Rose Oswald Poels and AbbyBank, Abbotsford President and CEO Craig Stuedemann.
Rose: How did you first get into the banking industry?
Craig: I started my career in banking in 1990 at the Bank of Mauston as their credit card manager. Some of us may remember the old Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA) Direct Visa Card program they offered community banks. Let’s just say it was a crash course in the art of collections. As often happens, a new position soon opened purchasing dealer paper from a couple local mobile home dealers meaning even more collection training.
In 1998, I moved to AbbyBank and became the first branch manager in a new Wausau location. Over the last 25 years, I have had the opportunity to start AbbyBank’s Freddie Mac mortgage program, move into commercial lending, become the senior lender, and now run the bank as president and CEO.
What is your favorite aspect of your role at your bank?
Every banker talks about how much they enjoy working with their customers. I do as well, but I particularly enjoy learning about the different ways entrepreneurs make money. It is fascinating to hear how people reclaim waste products or turn biproducts into something useable. Every industry seems to have a place for their cast offs and community bankers have helped develop many successful businesses that turn nothing into something.
What do you wish the general public understood about the banking industry?
Community banking is still a highly desirable, rewarding place to build a career. Banking is such a unique business model and young people can be exposed to so many different career options — finance, credit, underwriting, customer service, IT, accounting, and marketing are just a few.
Like many of us, I also take so much pride in seeing our customers improve their financial lives — ranging from the consumer who buys their first home to our commercial and farm customers who want to improve their operations. People should know that main street bankers are the best at serving these customers fairly and efficiently.
This year especially, I think the message is bigger is not always better. We have to change public and media perception that your money is only safe in a super-regional or national bank. Community banks are well-diversified, well-run, and very stable.
Where do you believe the industry’s greatest challenges are in the next three to five years?
Our industry is under pressure on so many fronts. Digital disrupters, credit unions, insurance companies, fraudsters, and increasing regulations all seem to want a piece of community banks or our customers. Finding qualified staff is one of our biggest challenges — we need to continue to develop talent to professionally serve our customers. The baby boomer retirement trend is hitting our industry hard and replacing that talent and experience is a huge challenge. It’s up to us to bring the next generation along, teach them how to problem solve, and understand the complexities of the banking business.
Consolidation is another concern. I’ve heard it said that the U.S. has more banking institutions than any other developed country in the world. However, we have seen a huge reduction in the number of community banks over the last 10–15 years. Some want to nationalize banking or reduce our numbers to just a handful of massive institutions. Although regulation, efficiency, and succession often play a role in these decisions, I am concerned about the future for community banks. The consumer has less choices and often, rural communities are abandoned. Our country was built on free enterprise and independence — it’s up to us to keep community banking relevant.
Please describe your current role at your bank and share with us one of your more rewarding experiences.
As CEO, I enjoy both the compliments and the challenge to improve. As community bankers, sometimes we take for granted the impact we have on our customers. There is nothing more gratifying than helping someone recover money they lost to a fraudster or approving a debt consolidation loan that improves their payment situation. We sometime view that line of credit or small business loan as just another sale. But when I hear a customer thank us — often to the point of tears — for giving them their first start, I don’t think there’s a better feeling.
I was fortunate to have a father who was a community banker in Wausau for many years. When I moved back home to help AbbyBank, I often crossed paths with people who said, “your dad gave me my first home loan.” Seeing that pride in their face is something that I do not take for granted. That’s what continues to drive me and the message I send to our bankers. Take pride in what you do for your customers and your community — there is nothing else like it!