Kansas lender tackles the complex deal

Caleb Sekavec

Editor’s Note: Each summer, BankBeat recognizes banking industry up-and-comers, nominated by readers, who are making a significant impact to their institutions and communities. This annual tradition is sponsored by United Bankers’ Bank, Bloomington, Minn.

Each quarter, First National Bank’s “hoopla team” circles up to celebrate quarterly successes. The Kansas bank’s branches pass around a traveling trophy, whose ownership is fastened by spirited bets between loan officers vying to make the most calls or see who can harness a greater number of new clients.

Who has the trophy now?

“Well, we do,” said Caleb Sekavec, senior vice president and commercial/ag loan officer, who works at the bank’s Garden City location. “But we had to steal it.”

Sekavec is one of seven bankers being recognized as a BankBeat Rising Star in Banking, in part for his ability to marry competition, fun and positivity. And he sure likes to win.

His competitive nature helps drive him and also unites him with his bank. “We’re competitive, but we’ll also do all we can to help each other out,” he said. “We’re all on the same team.”

Sekavec’s outlook has been steeped in this competitive and propitious spirit since he joined First National in the “glory days of banking,” as a young credit analyst in 2006. Soon after, he was tossed in the thick of the financial crisis. “My first experiences were working through bad loans before I got to make good loans,” Sekavec said.

In those difficult years, he realized it was “imperative to maintain a positive attitude no matter what the situation is and focus on what you can do well and not on the things you can’t control,” Sekavec said. “Anyone can be a leader when he’s doing well. It takes extra perseverance to be a leader when times are tough.”

The roots of Sekavec’s success in banking dig deep into his relationships with customers. Sekavec’s customers are proud to call him “their banker,” said Chris Floyd, First National Bank’s president and CEO. “He really goes to bat for [his customers], and gives an uncommon amount of effort to get things done for them.”

“What really builds those relationships is that I treat their businesses or their farms or whatever it is, like they’re my own,” Sekavec said. “If you live the golden rule and do unto others as you would have others do unto you, it really makes an impact on people.”

He’s particularly proud of a relationship that started with a small logistics company operating in the wind industry. In a short period of time, the company saw explosive growth, outgrew the bank’s legal lending limit, and created 75 jobs in the area. Now, the company owns and operates the largest wind power component distribution center in North America.

“It was neat to see a company that had basically started from scratch and turned into a multimillion dollar company in just a few years,” Sekavec said. “It was basically just because of the relationship we built.”

And that’s just one of the customers in Sekavec’s loan portfolio, which is the largest and most complex in the bank, Floyd said. Sekavec said he doesn’t necessarily seek out the complex loans, but rather gravitates toward them, “or they gravitate toward me,” he said.

Sekavec has handled loans that financed cranes, radio stations, farms, and even a windmill relocation in the middle of western Kansas. He said working with a variety of businesses is one reason his job is so fun. “I’m not just putting a rubber stamp on the same deal over and over,” he said. “Everyone has a different spin, and everyone has a story.”

Caleb Sekavec boasts ownership of the “traveling trophy” (the largest the bank could order), which has been tossed between the branches of First National Bank, Garden City, Kan., for eight years.

And Sekavec, too, has his own business story. The rising star started a custom harvesting operation with his brother, which has grown steadily since 2008. The kin were reared in Ness County, 75 miles from Garden City, and have farming in their blood. The business helps Sekavec harvest his passion for farming, connects him to his roots, and helps him “realize there is more to life than four walls of an office,” he said.

Sekavec views honesty and integrity as the highest and most important virtues to have as a banker and has seen it exemplified at First National. One lasting impression the bank made on Sekavec was when it remained loyal to a customer even after a ruinous storm jeopardized a loan agreement the bank had with the customer. The board was emphatic that it needed to carry through on its commitment, he said. “They put their money where their mouth is, and where their values need to be.”

When you make a deal, you stick with it, Floyd said. “A banker that sticks with you is priceless.”

In addition to its value system, First National certainly knows how to have fun. The bank in Garden City has a Chief Fun Officer (CFnO) and designates a few minutes once a week for “game day” in the office.

The fun — and competition — ensue with the banks’ quarterly celebrations and the toting of the nearly 5-foot-tall trophy.

After First National’s last quarterly meeting, the trophy perched above the teller station on a shelf more than eight feet high at the Johnson branch. When the Johnson employees, including Floyd, weren’t looking, members from the Garden City branch climbed a ladder and swiped back the prize.

“I may have been involved.” Sekavec joked, “but I might plead the fifth.”