At 75 years, GSB-Wisconsin has kept pace

Students describe programs at the Graduate School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as challenging, yet career-changing.

“The trouble with opportunity is that it always comes disguised as hard work,” Dr. Herbert V. Prochnow once wrote.

That could be a fitting description for the programs at the Graduate School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which students describe as challenging, yet career-changing.

Prochnow, a noted toastmaster and author who went on to become an executive at the First National Bank of Chicago, started the school in 1945 in collaboration with what was then the School of Commerce at UW-Madison and the Wisconsin Bankers Association. Since the beginning, 17 state bankers associations have sponsored the school.  

“Sometimes I ask myself, if Herb were alive today, would he be surprised at what he started 75 years ago and what it’s grown into, and the fact that more than 20,000 professional bankers have gone through a program he started?” said President and CEO Kirby Davidson. “It was a brilliant idea and it stood the test of time.”

Wisconsin’s GSB legacy has made it the “school of choice” for many organizations, with two and now even three generations of bankers attending from the same families or financial institutions, Davidson noted. Bankers from all 50 states — and from as far away as Mexico, Liberia, Egypt and Mongolia — have completed the program.

Some keep coming back. Ernest Strube was a chief financial officer at a community bank with a degree in economics when he attended GSB in the late 1990s. For the past 10 years, he’s returned to campus nearly every summer to help as an administrative assistant for the school.

“My unintentional takeaway from the Graduate School of Banking is that it really forced me to start strategically thinking for the future, developing some plans and goals that we then incorporated into our bank,” he said. Seven years ago, that kind of thinking led him to a new job, as president and CEO of The Goose River Bank in Mayville, N.D.

This summer, the school will celebrate its 75th anniversary with a homecoming program designed to bring alumni back to campus, both to socialize and to learn. Celebrate Innovation is open to 75 participants, with priority given to alumni. The program, to be held Aug. 4-7, starts concurrently with the regular GSB session and includes classroom time with faculty members Jim Johannes and Terry Saber, along with bank innovation expert JP Nicols.

Shifts in curriculum

“Current research shows that our industry, like most in the United States, faces an urgent talent shortage of qualified, competent next-gen leadership,” said Saber, a banking consultant who’s been an instructor at the school for nearly 30 years. “The need to ‘grow one’s own’ is at a peak as baby boomers retire.”

Although the school’s focus has always been on preparing future leaders, that mission now gives students an additional credential. As of 2017, graduates now earn a Certificate of Executive Leadership from UW-Madison’s School of Business along with their GSB diplomas.

Before they come to campus, first-year students participate in an online Life Styles Inventory. In year two, they complete a 360-degree assessment with their bank peers. GSB faculty help interpret the results and assist them in defining goals to build upon their strengths as leaders.

Each year, classes are added, modified or discontinued to keep up with industry changes. That work begins with an in-person meeting in January that includes bankers from each of the 17 sponsoring state bankers associations, along with 15 instructors and section leaders.

In addition to the core courses, the school offers 25 electives. Last year, the school added Effective Negotiations, Benefits of Continuous Process Improvement, and Cash Management: How Sales Operations and Technology Can Work Together to Generate More Fee Income.

A major change for 2019 will be the launch of FiSim, a new bank management simulation model developed internally by faculty, including Tom Farin of Farin Financial Risk Management. It replaces BankSim, which the school had used for 40 years.

Although FiSim will remain the capstone of students’ senior year, concepts from the updated model will be embedded within all three years of the curriculum, Davidson said.

It’s an experience that stays with students throughout their careers. “A great takeaway from BankSim for me was that your decisions rarely turn out as you expect they will. A banker needs to be able to adapt and improvise on what does not turn out as planned,” said Joe Peikert, president and CEO of Wolf River Community Bank in Hortonville, Wis.

Diverse student mix

Bankers who attend GSB-Wisconsin are generally younger today than they were a generation ago – and they’re coming to prepare for a variety of roles within the bank.

Crystal Balentine had worked as a teller, loan assistant and loan officer over 10 years when she accepted an HR position at FNB Bank in Mayfield, Ky. She first attended the Human Resources Management School, one of the specialty schools that GSB offers in addition to its three-year graduate program. Having started in banking in high school, it was also her first experience on a college campus.

“I knew absolutely nothing about HR before attending GSB. I probably would not have survived my first four or five years in this role without my friends and colleagues through GSB,” said Balentine, now senior vice president/HR officer. She returned the following year to begin the graduate program.

Will Haugen moved into the role of vice president and branch manager at First Dakota National Bank in Chamberlain, S.D., after graduating from GSB in 2010.

“Being in a management role, to have a better understanding of ourselves and how other banks operate – and to know where we stand within the industry — it’s invaluable,” he said.

Inter-session projects are another way that students dig deeper into learning about their own institution and others.

“The asset-liability management track was probably the most challenging, and where I learned the most. The inter-session project for that class really helped me dig in and understand our bank’s ALM management process and the asset-liability committee reports we review,” said J. Michael Radcliffe, now chief risk officer at Benton Banking Center in Benton, Ky.

“A big part of the experience at GSB is the peer interaction,” said Jason Schwartz, senior vice president of commercial lending at Hawthorn Bank in Jefferson City, Mo. “Working with other commercial lending managers, you are able to pick up trends, get confirmation on your current ideas, and learn from others’ experience.”

Added value for banks

Kirby Davidson

“We always promote the fact that we bring real-world solutions and tactics — 95 percent of our faculty are either current or former bankers — and we don’t run it like a boot camp,” Davidson said.

The offer of a scholarship through the Nebraska Bankers Association brought Jerry Catlett to the school when he was already well-established in his career as president, chief operating officer and compliance officer at Bruning State Bank in Bruning, Neb.

“I got to be around some great banking minds, and they were pretty serious about what they wanted to do and learn,” Catlett said. “I was able to get into a group of bankers my age. We all partnered with each other in class and competed for test scores to move each other along. But it also established a peer group that I’m still involved with, and when we have issues or problems, we try to share what each of us is doing. It’s just another source of information that I wouldn’t have gotten without having that experience.”

Through the Herbert V. Prochnow Educational Foundation, more than $225,000 in scholarships are available annually through the school and its sponsoring state bankers associations.

In addition, graduates looking to earn a master’s degree can reap cost savings by transferring GSB credits to online MBA programs at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst or the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

“I never had the privilege to meet Herb, but I’ve heard he was a pretty humble man, a world traveler, and I think he’d be tremendously proud of what he put in place and the impact it’s had on the banking industry,” Davidson said.