Making Business Personal

with Bob Atwell, Chairman & CEO, Nicolet Bank

Patrick Hopkins, president of Imaginasium, sat down for a candid conversation with Bob Atwell, Chairman and CEO of Nicolet Bank, a 23-branch community bank founded in 2000. Our video highlights Atwell’s take on leadership, the power of mentors, and customer relationships.


Pat: Bob, thanks for joining us today for Coffee & CEOs.
Bob: (VO) One of the things that I think we have to consciously unlearn is this very bad idea that business should be impersonal.
Pat: Can you tell us a little bit, just give us a background on Nicolet Bank? How you started and how big you guys are today.
Bob: Yeah, well Mike Daniels and I kind of made the leap together to found Nicolet. We left our previous employer together in March of 2000. Went through the process of raising the capital, getting the bank charter, which is permission from the government to operate a bank.
Pat: Right.
Bob: And we did all that. Hired the people, trained the people, got ready, built out the space … we opened in November of 2000.
Pat: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned over the last 15 years? Going out on your own and growing this thing, and obviously dealing with a lot of different types of business as customers, but also with growing staff.
Bob: You know, one of the things that happens, particularly if you’re a CEO is, as you grow and as you get perceived to be more powerful, people don’t always communicate with you the way they did when you were just another schlep.
Pat: Exactly.
Bob: So you get surrounded by sycophants who are telling you what they think they want you to hear rather than what you need to know. And frankly, you can start to believe your own … hooey. Right?
Pat: How do you keep your ear to the ground on that then? Or how do you get outside of that?
Bob: First of all I would have to recognize that I would want to. I mean frankly I think that humility, sincere humility, which isn’t denying the strengths that you have as an organization or as a person, but—makes you open to the input from people that can and should help you. I just try to have an attitude of hey, I’m 57 years old, but I actually think I know less today than when I was younger.
Pat: The world gets greyer. Yes.
Bob: And in that sense, I’m wiser, because this, sort of this virtue of humility, knowing who you are and who you’re not, that’s not some sort of silly sentiment or quasi-religious concept. It is reality. I don’t know what’s going on around me a lot of the time. So have the right attitude, be in those relationships with people, seek out people. You know I try to have a few mentors who will help me see myself, and maybe sometimes in the light I don’t want to see myself.
Pat: Sure.
Bob: You have to create a relationship with people where they know that’s what you want. You don’t just want your butt kissed, you want help.
Pat: Right. I really believe that the organization rises and falls on how engaged leadership is—in their own jobs, and with each other, and with their staff. But you know that ebbs and flows. How do you keep yourself engaged and positive?
Bob: I’m just very, I don’t know if “proud” is the right word. I am very proud of what the organization is, what it represents in the communities we serve. And that matters a tremendous amount to me. I love the customers. I can never get enough time to spend with customers, I don’t spend as much as I’d like. I think … not I think, I know that what we do and how we do it really matters far more than people know. And I take some satisfaction in knowing that our organization is a healthy contributor to the business climate and, frankly, the social climate in our community. I think the metric that matters most to me in what we do and I think carries into the market most effectively is the feeling that customers get when they come in our walls.
Pat: Yeah!
Bob: We really believe people were made to be in relationships with other people and to enjoy those relationships, and to be of mutual support and help to each other. And if we model that behavior inside our walls, that’s also what our customers want. They don’t want to be—I don’t want to be buying from somebody where I got to look over my shoulder to try to figure out if they’re going to screw me the next chance they get. I mean, I want to—all of us I think long to be in relationships that are warm, joyful, and mutually supportive.
Pat: Well, and it’s a perfect philosophy, not just for banking, but for anything: life, business relationships, personal, whatever, it’s great.
Bob: And one of the things that I think we have to consciously unlearn is this very bad idea that business should be impersonal. Don’t get your personal feelings involved with your business relationships. Don’t be friends with your customer, it might distort your judgment. I think that’s bunk. I mean, you don’t have to be friends with everybody, but it’s highly personal. When you’re dealing with somebody’s business, their livelihood, when you’re dealing with our bank’s money, which belongs to our shareholders and our depositors, you’re dealing with our professional reputation as bankers—this is intensely personal to us. And it doesn’t mean it has to be overly dramatic, but get rid of that idea that you have to depersonalize things, particularly when it’s tough. I mean respect the fact that to them, this is really important. It’s like personnel matters at work. And respect the fact that to me—and to our depositors and shareholders and the people who work at our organization—it’s really important too. So let’s … let’s get at it.

See more videos with Bob Atwell, Chairman & CEO, Nicolet Bank

Bob Atwell on Business Opportunities
Bob Atwell on Handling Mergers & Acquisitions
Bob Atwell on Hiring to Core Values
Bob Atwell on Serving Shareholders vs Serving Customers
Bob Atwell on Trusting the Expertise of Others
Bob Atwell on Working with Millennials

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Imaginasium helps manufacturing leaders drive profitable growth and change through inside-out marketing—building communication programs that drive culture, draw customers, and deliver a superior customer experience.