Adams Banks On Experience

May 8, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS – Steven Adams, president of Irwin Union Bank, is what you’d call a modest guy. He’s eager to point out that the new bank he directs at 4250 Chicago Drive SW has doubled the level of business that it planned at this point.

But he’s just as eager to credit the success of the 14-month-old business not to himself, but to a group of experienced loan officers whom he recruited and brought into the firm. To date, he said, the firm has $10 million-plus in deposits, and $110 million in loans on the books – roughly double the point at which the company expected to be at the opening of 2001.

Too, he said, much of the credit goes to Irwin Union Financial Corporation itself, a firm headquartered in Indiana – and which he never heard of before 1999.

And finally, he said credit also must go to the dynamics of giant bank mergers, which are creating a niche for small start-up banks like his.

What typically has happened in mergers in the last five years, he said, is that the price has gotten so high, that to digest that acquisition, banks must change how they do business to make it pay.

“What’s happened,” Adams said, “is that they have really streamlined internally how they deliver service to the customer. And what that means is they cannot deliver that one-on-one, face-to-face service with an experienced person all over the country and make it viable economically.”

The consequent disgruntlement on the part of clientele, he said, creates the niche into which new, small banks can move by being able to deliver exactly that kind of service.

And that, he said, is exactly the sort of thing you hear from a Macatawa or a Mercantile Bank, or a Community Shores in Norton Shores.

“And we’re saying the same things they do about how we deliver service,” he said. “And it’s true. They have some wonderful people.

“But what’s unique about us,” he said, “is that we have a national company behind us with resources that can benefit the customer.”

That’s Irwin Union Financial Corp, a 130-year-old firm (www.irwinfinancial.com) that owns a group of financial services companies: a bank, a mortgage corporation, a home equity corporation, a business finance firm and a venture capital company.

Irwin Union owns 20 locally managed banks, each of which focuses on a market composed of small to mid-sized companies, those firms’ owners and executives, entrepreneurs and professional corporations.

And what makes such firms successful in that particular niche, Adams said, is that Irwin Union staffs its local banks with local professionals possessing broad experience in the local market. Then, he said, Irwin Union gives them the authority to make decisions. “Their decision to enter a market is based on the availability of experienced talent.”

He said the bank’s philosophy is that it doesn’t want its clients tied up in corporate bureaucracy in the fashion Adams and his wife, Heidi, currently are suffering with a major telephone company.

“If we could just find someone, one person,” he said, “who could make a decision so that the problem would be solved next month, everything would be fine. But we can’t.

“You’re losing that everywhere with these huge companies,” he said, “and that’s what we provide. And it’s not only with loans, but if it’s a problem with a checking account, or a credit card statement, they have the power here to solve the problem.

“It’s a case of having the responsibility with the authority. Too often in banking nowadays,” he said, “it’s a case of having the responsibility but not the authority.”

He swept his hand in a horizontal cutting motion.

“This is how flat we are: I’m the president in Grand Rapids; my boss is the president of the whole corporation. There’s nothing in between. He can’t add value to any loan decision. So it’s up to us, and of course we’re held accountable for our decisions.”

He stressed that he’d never heard of Irwin Union before 1999.

“They came to me,” he said. “They had to sell Irwin Union to me.”

Once sold, it was his job to recruit staff, find quarters, build the building and open for business.

With Adams from the opening day of operations, Oct. 1, 1999, were Joe Valicevic, an 18-year veteran loan officer with National Bank of Detroit (NBD) and Old Kent, and Kim Smith, a veteran of equal standing with FMB/Huntington.

Today, Irwin Union Grand Rapids has a five-member loan staff with an average of 15 years of experience. “They have more experience than me,” Adams said. He’s been in commercial banking 13 years.

In fact, he served for a time as manager of NBD’s (now Bank One) Grand Rapids corporate group. That appointment came after two years of service with the group which, in turn, came after what he calls his biggest career break.

The break, he said, was his assignment in 1990 to open a commercial banking department for NBD in Holland, a community in which the firm had no clients.

He said the challenge enabled him to develop the habits and skills that led to his promotion to head NBD’s corporate group in Grand Rapids.

In 1995 he was named manager of NBD’s commercial loan group in Grand Haven and Muskegon, but the following year he resigned to go into business for himself in Wisconsin. Over a period of two years, he opened a chain of three Pet Supplies Plus stores in Green Bay and Appleton. He still owns the company, which now has 50 employees, one of whom is his brother, Dan, the chain’s manager.

He returned to banking as manager of the lending group of Associated Bank Corp, in Green Bay-Minneapolis. But he and Heidi have a young son and daughter with grandparents in West Michigan, so he returned here with Old Kent Bank.

He served with Old Kent briefly before Irwin Union recruited him.

He said his experience in establishing the retail firms gave him insights into the entrepreneur’s life that is fairly rare among bankers.

Though Adams said Irwin Union’s strength is the experience it recruits (and the pay with which it rewards experience), it also is able to offer a range of other services – from leasing to mortgages – from its parent corporation’s other subsidiaries.

Moreover, it offers a couple of perks.

If a construction firm or a doctor’s office chooses to deposit funds at Irwin Union, Adams said the bank can send a courier to pick up the deposit. And once the money is in the bank, depositors can manage those funds via the Internet using software to which clients have free access.

“It’s tremendous software developed strictly for banking. There may be some other software that’s as good, but if there is, I’m not aware of it.”

Too, he said, Irwin Union rebates to depositors any charge they incur in accessing their own accounts via some other bank’s ATM.           

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