Selecting our “Banker of the Year” from reader submissions is the most challenging professional decision I face each year. The candidates we learn about through your nominations are each worthy of recognition. These are bankers who have grown their organizations, organically or through acquisition or both; individuals who’ve resolutely climbed through the ranks; leaders who invested time and treasure to serve the industry or their colleagues; people who educated themselves on the issues that could make — or break — their institutions; visionaries who are able to see where their institutions need to be in three or six or nine years and put the work in now to chart that course.
Sometimes, nominations passed over in one year are submitted again; these are given extra consideration as our team evaluates nominations, understanding our final decision will excite one group of people while it disappoints others. This year, after rousing debate among our editors, we unanimously landed on a banker who hit all the marks—a leader deserving of the spotlight we switch on each January. Our 2021 “Banker of the Year” is Chuck Mueller, CEO of Fidelity Bank in Edina, Minn.
As I interviewed Mueller and others to write his story, and people shared their experiences and anecdotes, the persona of Mueller that emerged in my mind was “professor.”
Mueller is “steady and very approachable, but he keeps people on their toes,” said attorney Peter Stein, who told me he would have retired years ago if not for the work he continues to do for Fidelity Bank, work he loves. Mueller “forces you to think things through by engaging in dialogue,” Stein added. Mueller takes peoples’ ideas and asks them to take it to the next level, Stein said, “poking at it over and over without insulting them or making them feel as if they are being attacked. He will attack the argument flat out, but he never attacks you,” Stein added. In an era where the ad hominem has been elevated to an art form, Stein’s analysis is resonant.
I too found Mueller approachable. When he described his early years as a commercial lender focusing on short-term receivables financing, he told me client meetings required his best, because you never knew what you were going to find when you went in. It is much the same for the journalist conducting an interview. Sure, we do our research, but we never know if our subject will be reticent or free-sharing, and the difference can make — or break — our stories. When I arrived at Mueller’s office, he set the tone by first asking me to share a bit about myself. Ceding the first few minutes of our time together to me struck me as generous, given the depth of experiences he might easily share.
Mueller’s colleague Teri Keegan told me his style harkens back to the old days of banking, when people made educated assessments on the likelihood of getting a loan paid back, based on evidence and certain intangibles, like character. How is it that banking has evolved in a way that places interpersonal communication skills in the “old” school?
The young analysts who have joined Fidelity Bank through the years have received valuable lessons from Mueller. He walks them through credit situations on a micro basis, talks “economics and interest rate movements, what’s going on in the markets, hedging … the things that turn up on the scorecard,” he said, summarizing: “You have to accept the fact that you’re not going to be perfect all the time.”
Banking has changed so much in Mueller’s years at Fidelity, but on this evolution, he counsels: “You can be afraid of it or you can be excited about it.”
Mueller is a downhill skier. The slopes are where he goes to clear his mind when he’s not at the bank. He’s a cruiser, not a racer. “There’s nothing like standing on top of the mountain on a beautiful sunny day,” he told me. Sunshine has a certain restorative quality, I think. Mueller has earned his moment in the sun; I hope he basks in it.