Nebraska banker was industry treasure

Tom Olson

Tom Olson was a quintessential community banker, born and raised in Lisco, a Western Nebraska town of about 100 people. He started his career at the tiny Lisco State Bank, working alongside his father who started the bank. It was a sufficient foundation for Olson to flourish into one of the industry’s leading bankers. He eventually came to own banks in more than 20 communities in Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming, and he served as president of the Independent Bankers Association of America in 1987-88. 

Olson died on July 26 at the age of 85.

The industry honored Olson at the 1988 IBAA convention in Honolulu. I got to cover that meeting, getting to know Olson, who became a trusted industry source and friend over three-plus decades. He was one of the most humble people you would ever meet. He usually let others speak first, even when it was clear he was the smartest one in the room.   

He was president of IBAA (now ICBA), at a time when the country was suffering through an agricultural crisis. He was instrumental in industry efforts to launch Farmer Mac, a new secondary market for farm loans. The latter 1980s was also a time when the S&L crisis was heating up. Olson expressed industry concern that the troubles in that industry would impact community banks. Eventually, the S&L industry largely dissolved, with parts of it integrating into the banking industry. Olson and the IBAA were advocating for additional powers for community banking which preserved the restrictions on investment banking created by the Glass-Steagall Act. In the coming years, Congress would pass FIRREA and FDICIA that would resolve issues surrounding the remnants of the S&L industry and somewhat expand banking powers.

I saw Tom Olson at many subsequent industry meetings; he usually carried a briefcase. Whenever I would interview him, he would give me thoughtful answers, and he would ask about my work and family. I recall the annual convention of the Nebraska Bankers Association in April of 2000, where Olson was installed as NBA president. He referred to a bifurcated state, where the Lincoln-Omaha corridor bustled with economic activity while the western half of the state struggled economically. He urged his colleagues to “bridge the divide.”

During his acceptance speech that year, Olson noted the narrow net interest margin banks experienced in 2000. That year, the average net interest margin for all banks in the country was 4.0 percent, down from 4.29 percent in 1995. Today, it is 2.56 percent. 

I always thought it reflected well on Olson that he was active in the industry trade associations aligned with both the ICBA and the American Bankers Association. Here’s what he told the High Plains Journal in 2010: 

“What’s important is that you have two fine trade associations in ABA and ICBA. Sometimes, it’s difficult, because you have some people who are inclined to be with one association and not the other. Just like times we’ve just gone through on regulatory reform, each organization has taken different sides, which makes things difficult.

“I don’t make a big issue of it because I’ve been associated with both, and you have to look at what each does and be positive about what each of them does, and sometimes you may disagree with the stands one of the associations takes. You can’t really get hung up at all on the positions these associations take. It would be good if these organizations would work closer together.”

Olson had a long list of industry service, including serving as a director to Farmer Mac, the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City (Omaha Branch), and the Federal Home Loan Bank of Topeka. He was honored by the University of Nebraska, from which he graduated in 1957, and the American Bankers Association honored him with its prestigious Bruning Award in 2010.

Olson was one of the industry’s real treasures.