Northwestern Bank: ‘Craft Banking’ Approach Caters to Small Businesses Across the Valley
If you’re looking for Northwestern Bank President Jerry Jacobson, you’re just as likely to find him in his office as you are to catch him at a nonprofit board meeting, handing out a giant check, or volunteering his time for a local charity. And while Northwestern Bank has been known as a pillar of the community in Chippewa Falls for more than a century, you’re just as likely to see Jacobson or his colleagues at work in Eau Claire, Altoona, or other parts of the Valley.
In fact, Jacobson spent several years as chairman of Eau Claire Confluence Arts Inc., the nonprofit organization that built and owns the Pablo Center at the Confluence in Eau Claire. Jacobson said his work helping bring the arts center to fruition was almost a full-time job.
So why put in those hours on a project that’s not in Chippewa Falls? For one thing, Jacobson said, Northwestern considers itself not just a Chippewa Falls bank, but a Chippewa Valley bank. Moreover, “It’s extremely gratifying to see these organizations grow and help our community, these nonprofits,” said Jacobson, who has spent 41 years at Northwestern Bank, the past 21 as president. “That is for me almost as much gratifying as seeing the businesses grow.”
Northwestern Bank has been helping communities and businesses flourish since 1904, when it opened at the corner of Bridge and Central streets in downtown Chippewa Falls. Today, Northwestern also has branches in Boyd, Cornell, Thorp, the Town of Lafayette, and Altoona, where it opened in the River Prairie development in late 2016.
Northwestern Bank focuses primarily on serving small and growing businesses. It’s a market segment often overlooked by bigger banks, explained Jerry Kuehl, the bank’s senior vice president for sales and marketing. “We’re one of the few places right now that you can come to and start a businesses,” he continued. “The larger banks want you to be established before you build. But if you have a new concept or you’re retired and you want to try something different – or you’ve been in business a number of years and want to split off into something else – there are very few folks who will have that conversation with you.”
Kuehl describes Northwestern Bank’s way of doing business as “craft banking.” Consider a craft beer or other artisanal product: Unlike a mass-produced, nationally marketed brand, craft products aren’t made by – or for – everyone. The same goes for craft banking: “You can’t just take a formula … where you type in three bits of information and they pull a credit report and boom, you’re done,” Kuehl said. “Business lending takes a different sort of review process, which is more labor-intensive. And so we’ve developed a staff that can do that.”
Kuehl began his career at a large bank in Milwaukee, where loans were made based solely on cash flows and collateral ratios. When he joined Northwestern Bank in 1993, he was initially surprised when loan committees made decisions based on personal relationships and knowledge of clients. “What I started to realize is they knew exactly what they were doing,” he said. “They went back to the roots of banking, so they knew this character piece. The numbers and things are just a way to place values on what people do in their real, day-to-day business life.”
Today, Northwestern serves business clients in a range of sectors, from medical providers to retailers, manufacturers, builders, and beyond. “I think we need to be making sure that people with ideas have an avenue to be able to get money to try and see if their ideas can work,” said Jacobson – who, like his bank, was born and raised in Chippewa Falls. “All of these companies in the Chippewa Valley were small companies at one time. Some of them started with just an idea.”
As he travels to and from his business and volunteer commitments throughout the Valley, Jacobson sees what these ideas have grown into. “It’s very gratifying to see that you’re a part of making someone’s life a little better,” he said. “It’s not just the business owner, it’s all those workers who have a better life.”