New bankers’ bank leader jump-starts transition

Dwight Larson

There’s a transition underway at the Bloomington, Minn.-based United Bankers’ Bank, and the person at the center of it is leveraging his humble upbringing, industry knowledge, people skills and competitive nature to make it successful.

Similar to one of his “sprint triathlon” starts, Dwight Larsen has completely immersed himself in his new role as president and CEO of UBB. Only the third person to lead the 44-year-old bank, Larsen, 56, compared the challenge in front of him to the race course he faces when competing in swim-bike-run races. He has completed 41 such races (seven this year) but none will be as important as taking the nation’s oldest bankers’ bank into an era of consolidating community bank charters, increasing competition and uncharted technical challenges. 

Diving in head first since starting the job on August 26, Larsen said he is getting his “feet, hands and body wet” reacquainting himself with the bank he left three years ago. After serving 14 years as a bank examiner with the Comptroller of the Currency, Larsen joined UBB in 2000, where he headed several departments over the course of 16 years. Larsen left in the fall of 2016 to rejoin the OCC. But when Bill Rosacker, who had headed UBB for 34 years, announced he was retiring, Larsen accepted the advice of former colleagues who encouraged him to apply for the job.

UBB had engaged Kaplan Partners to assist with the search. The firm contacted 450 candidates, according to UBB Chair Brian Grove, American State Bank, Grygla, Minn. Eight were interviewed before two candidates were selected to give a presentation to the board in which they shared their vision for the bank. The board unanimously selected Larsen.

“Dwight has a great skill set,” Grove commented, referencing his communication ability and people skills.

“Our mission isn’t going to change,” Larsen said. “We have solid financials to work from and great people. Our goal is to be one of the surviving bankers’ banks, to be a premier bankers’ bank. I don’t see anything that prevents us from being able to do that.”

Larsen says he is listening a lot as he visits with board members, employees and customers across the bank’s market, which stretches from the Pacific Northwest, across the Midwest and through to Ohio. 

“We want to be financially strong for a couple of reasons: We want to be around in another 44 years and we want to be available to take advantage of market opportunities should they present themselves,” he explained. Those opportunities include merging with other bankers’ banks. “I want UBB and our shareholders to be in as strong a negotiating position as possible because as the community banks consolidate, so too will the bankers’ banks. It is just a matter of when,” Larsen said. 

Larsen acknowledged the sensitivity surrounding profitability at a bankers’ bank. Making a good return on investment is a fundamental measure of business success, yet make too much money and customers may contend the bank is charging too much. UBB returns about 0.55 percent on average assets. Larsen said he has a multi-year goal to improve that figure to 0.8 or 0.85 percent, which he said would put UBB more in line with its bankers’ bank peer group.

Small-town roots

Larsen was born in Frederic, a town of 1,100 people in northwest Wisconsin. Larsen described his parents as hard-working and honest in a low-income area. He was active in sports, lettering in four during high school, making all-conference in three. He paid his own way through college at the Eau Claire campus of the University of Wisconsin. He eventually earned an MBA at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

“Knowledge I gained in early life became wisdom in later life,” he reflected. “Many wonderful teachers, coaches and mentors helped me along the way. I think I learned humility from always having a job, and working with, being around friends growing up on farms. ‘Summer vacation’ was an oxymoron to them. 

“While working at the local grocery store, I witnessed people struggle to pay for food. That helped me develop empathy. In junior high, I remember my mom fainting in the dentist’s office when she heard how much my braces were going to cost — $800. Money is not something I have ever taken for granted. Entitlement is a foreign concept to me.” 

At UBB, Larsen is looking at everything from products and services, to vendor contracts, to marketing. Intending to make refinements where opportune, Larsen talks about wanting to “put on our financial beach body.”

Larsen notes that he has never been afraid to ask for help and that he has tried to be quick to lend a hand. “You need a team to accomplish goals,” he summarized. “These early life experiences frame my reference points when discussing customer or staff needs, budget or spending issues. My decisions are based on what’s best for UBB, our staff and our customers.”

Growing up in a small town helped Larsen to understand the importance of community banking, he said. “Community banks are not going away. They will continue serving their respective trade areas despite the headwinds,” he said. “Community banks are staffed and managed by the same hard-working people who live in those towns and they’re not the kind of folks who shrink from a challenge. UBB is going to be here to work with them for a long time.”

Early in his career, Larsen worked as an examiner in Chicago, San Francisco, Kansas City and Minneapolis. He has seen the inside of a lot of banks. And, he has met a lot of bankers – not only at the bank, but at school. Larsen is a 20-year faculty member at the Graduate School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teaching enterprise-wide risk management and asset/liability management. Kirby Davidson, GSB-Madison president, said that as a section leader, Larsen plays an important role in the school’s curriculum development. “He is one of the most consistent, highly-rated instructors,” Davidson said. “People like him because he brings to the classroom the perspective of both a regulator and a banker.”

Bankers from about 100 of UBB’s 1,000-plus customer banks participated in the bank’s Grand Event Oct. 17-18 in Bloomington. The two-day event annually features a banquet dinner, prominent speakers and some industry education. The 2019 version featured an inspirational author and an astronaut. That was in character with previous editions but there was a departure at the opening night dinner. Larsen invited an Elvis impersonator to provide entertainment. Among the guests that evening were Larsen’s 90-year-old mother, Abby, two daughters and his wife, Mary Beth, a former television news reporter. 

Larsen sang along at his table, seeming to know the words to every song featured by the man in the white jumpsuit. At one point, Larsen and college-age daughter Annika donned grass skirts and joined the entertainer on stage for a Hawaiian number. It somehow felt like a new era.

Referring to marketing guru Simon Sinek, whose latest book is “The Infinite Game,” Larsen told bankers they could count on UBB. “Forty-four years ago, the founders made an investment in us, to play the infinite game, to put money aside for a purpose, that you continue to feed, that you grow in your culture and your values,” Larsen said. Bankers, he said, build on that vision “week after week, month after month.”