Inside Track: Driven to find new opportunities and to discover ‘what’s next’
Tom Welch, president and CEO of Fifth Third Bank Western Michigan, believes growth is a mindset.
It’s not often that entrepreneurial chances arrive in corporate America, but Tom Welch saw an opportunity in 2002.
Welch, now president and CEO of Fifth Third Bank Western Michigan, was then a Fifth Third senior vice president in Evansville, Ind. He saw a city 180 miles to the west that was devoid of a Fifth Third presence. A single lender was hired and sent on his way to open an office in St. Louis, Mo.
Eventually, that person had so much work on his plate that another was hired, and then another.
“Based on that, I was able to put together a business proposal to bring some other lines of business to St. Louis,” Welch said, who was asked to relocate and serve as the first president of the St. Louis market in 2006.
The market grew to $1.2 billion in assets in 10 years. That growth took place during the Great Recession, and Welch attributed the achievement under such adverse circumstances to not trying to grow too fast.
“It has been a complete de novo operation. I’d like to say it was by design, but certainly there was a bit of luck,” he said. “It allowed us to put together a business case and say, ‘We’ve never done this, but it’s working.’”
Had Welch not volunteered to head to Evansville from Cincinnati following Fifth Third’s acquisition of Civitas Bank, he wouldn’t have been able to seize the open St. Louis market.
About that same time, Fifth Third had acquired West Michigan’s Old Kent Bank, which also offered an appealing option.
“There was a long line waiting to go to Grand Rapids and there wasn’t a long line heading to Evansville, so I saw that as an opportunity,” he said.
Welch is always looking for new opportunities, which is the reason he took the offer in 2013 to come to West Michigan.
For Welch, moving frequently goes all the way back to his childhood, when his father was a doctor and moved the family from Chicago to Cincinnati to Denver to Columbus to Travis Air Force Base in California, and finally to Toledo, Ohio, where Welch graduated from high school.
He then went to Northwestern University and earned a degree in economics before being hired at Norwest Financial — now Wells Fargo — in Chicago in 1990. A transfer to Cincinnati allowed him to jump to Fifth Third, which is headquartered there, in 1993.
“I can’t say that I wanted (to move so often), but the challenges and finding new opportunities does drive me,” Welch said. “So often now it’s tough to stay in one place when you’ve got that drive that says, ‘What’s next?’
“It’s that ‘What’s next?’ that has made me look outside where I was living.”
The move to Grand Rapids was the most difficult and likely will be the last, he said. With nine children, it took the family a year to move from St. Louis as his oldest daughter finished her senior year of high school.
He was offered the position in June 2013 with a start date of July 1.
“I’ve got nine (children), so I’ll always upset at least one of them,” he said. “But it was my oldest, my daughter — I couldn’t do that.”
So every Monday, Welch flew from St. Louis to Grand Rapids for the week before flying back to Missouri on Friday. It helped that, a few weeks after beginning the job, Southwest Airlines began offering direct flights from Grand Rapids to St. Louis.
The daughter graduated and the rest of the family moved to Michigan in July 2014.
“I’m glad that’s over with,” he said. “I never want to be away from my family that much again.”
He said St. Louis was home to his children; his oldest was 10 when the family moved there and three were born there.
His family is supportive, but Welch said he does his best to make sure they receive the attention they deserve.
“There’s an expectation that you’re involved, and you can convince yourself being gone all the time is the right thing because you’re busy and you feel like you’re doing something,” he said. “Life sometimes gets out of balance, but it will never be in balance unless you’re committed.
“To do it, you also have to be intentional and deliberate about rolling up your sleeves and getting the work done every day.”
Welch’s work now is to grow the West Michigan market and sustain Fifth Third’s tradition, or “growth and swagger,” as he called it.
The local market is Fifth Third’s third largest, and Welch credited the success to Old Kent Bank’s solid footprint that had been built for more than a century prior to its acquisition.
During his career he met many of the West Michigan team members as it was a market many looked up to as a “Best Practices” area.
“It’s already great — how do we make it better? That was the challenge,” he said.
The growth he is focused on isn’t necessarily in terms of dollars.
“Growth is a mindset. It is truly to believe that there are opportunities out there,” Welch said. “There’s more to be done, more impact to be made or growth as a person.”
The impact of that mindset is something he sees on a daily basis in Grand Rapids, and it impresses him and inspires him to do more. He said it’s the CEOs and executives chipping in and working together that help make Grand Rapids the city it is today — something he didn’t see in many of the other cities in which he’s lived.
“The leadership contributing to the work is why I look out and see one Grand Rapids, and everyone else says, ‘Well, you should have seen it 20 years ago,’” Welch said. “There has been a committed group of people.”
Welch isn’t only committed to doing what’s best for him; he also wants to ensure the team he puts in place around him has everything they need to be successful.
He took the Fifth Third St. Louis market from zero to more than a billion-dollar operation with 17 locations and 150 employees — yet he’s most proud of the work he was able to do in putting together the staff from the ground up. The first lender Welsh had hired in 2002 took over as president in St. Louis when he left.
He says his love for his work stems not from a love of numbers but a desire to see people achieve as much as they can. Welch said he’s had his failures and looks at them as learning experiences. The experiences he had working his way up from teller to president help him connect with his employees.
“That’s an advantage I have — I’ve gone through what they have,” he said. “I can address our 1,000 employees in retail banking and say, ‘I’ve been there and I have empathy.’”
Nearing 47, Welch now can look back on his career and not regret choosing the path he did. While at Northwestern, he initially thought he might follow in his father’s footsteps as a cardiologist.
“I quickly figured out that I could get through college, but medical school — I wasn’t so sure,” he said. “There comes a point when you are realistic with yourself, and you know your strengths and weaknesses. Mine matched up with the business atmosphere.
“Are there days you still go back to that dream? Sure, it’s human nature to wonder. But I’ve never looked back. I love it.”