Guest Column

West Michigan: a culture of optimism and conscience

November 10, 2012
| By Rob Dwortz |
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I learned something this year. After spending the past 20 years in Chicago and Detroit, I returned home to West Michigan approximately one year ago today. I returned to join The Bank of Holland as president and CEO.

At first impression, I observed a bank with good people, good products and strong convictions. After spending the past year getting to know our staff, clients and communities, however, I have discovered something much stronger and more enduring. The bank has a true culture, one that I have since described as a culture of entrepreneurship and conscience — one that is purely West Michigan.

The culture of entrepreneurship came as no surprise to me. After all, the bank was founded in an abandoned bicycle shop in Holland in 1998. What's more, several among our staff have spent time in industry, sitting in the chair of the business owner — from manufacturing to real estate development to investment firms to agriculture and energy-related businesses.

We take the perspective of the owner at all times and ask, “What would we do?” This perspective of ownership is very real to our people, as employees represent the single largest block of ownership of the bank itself. We think like owners because we are owners.

Thinking like owners reflects and complements the entrepreneurial spirit of West Michigan businesses. Over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting dozens of West Michigan business owners who have shared their stories and an optimism that goes beyond the thinking of national economists. They have faced and overcome an economic crisis unprecedented in most of our lifetimes. What’s more, they feel confident that they are prepared for anything the economy may throw at them going forward and stand ready to invest to meet growing demand. This optimism is for West Michigan.

The culture of conscience took me a bit by surprise. While raised in West Michigan, I spent my career in large cities where business is more “transactional” in nature. Looking back, I realize I was playing a zero-sum game in every business interaction.

Here in West Michigan, however, long-term relationships take precedence over splitting up the pie. This approach is deeply rooted in the way our people approach banking. They are fiercely competitive and entrepreneurial, but more than anything, they want to do the right thing — the right thing for their clients, the right thing for their communities and the right thing for one another. There is a morality and a desire to serve that underpins every decision, every action. The result: deep relationships with our clients and communities.

Conscience requires more than service, however. It requires prudence and perseverance, two more pervasive West Michigan qualities. A common thread running through the stories I’ve heard over the past year is that many West Michigan business owners did not get caught up in the excesses that preceded the financial crisis. Owners didn’t over-invest or over-expand. As a result, businesses didn’t sink too low during the Great Recession and have quickly returned to health and growth.

Like many local business, The Bank of Holland made difficult business decisions to steer clear of the real estate bubble in order to maintain its financial strength for its clients, as well. This prudence and perseverance is unique to West Michigan.

Some readers might say, “This is just the culture of West Michigan.” I’d respond, "Absolutely, and The Bank of Holland is proud to be an active participant."

So far, it seems to be working, as we've built our business consistently based on one-to-one relationships across the region. In that process, our customers have been our biggest sales force. For that, we are extremely grateful. I'd add, “Thanks to all who have been so welcoming to me and my family over the past year.”

Rob Dwortz is president and CEO of The Bank of Holland.

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