President strives to uphold Wisconsin bank’s values

TJ Minnehan, president at the Bank of Kaukauna, Wis., says the key to a successful community bank is connecting with and motivating people to grow. Leadership in this pursuit, he said, isn’t an end goal, but an ongoing process.

When TJ Minnehan walked into the Bank of Kaukauna, Wis., for an interview to become the bank’s president, he looked around, walked out, got in his car and turned the GPS back on. “I thought it had taken me to the wrong address,” Minnehan said. “I thought, ‘this looks like a museum.’ ” 

Through the two sets of doors into the lobby, the first thing Minnehan noticed was the light. The white walls, windows that stretched to the ceiling, elegant furniture, and an array of artwork on the walls.

“It was unlike any bank I’ve ever walked into,” said Minnehan, a 2020 Rising Star in Banking. 

He sat down with John Brogan, the bank’s CEO, for the formal interview, but it was more of a visceral conversation that sealed the deal. Minnehan said he could tell he and Brogan had similar foundational values. 

“John and I have a shared vision, which was really evident to me early on in the interview process,” Minnehan said. “When you’re in a leadership capacity, the secret sauce has to be your people.

“The alignment that John and I had early on, and the consistency with which we apply that philosophy to the decisions we make […] all really centers around how do we continue to make this a great place for the people who are here so they can live a happy life, grow within the organization and continue to have the opportunities they want,” Minnehan said. “When you can provide a platform like that for somebody, they’re going to be a loyal part of your team for a long time.”

The $107 million bank has been around for 141 years. “We’ve got countless customers who have been with this organization through multiple generations of families’ small businesses, and personally,” Minnehan said. Many of the 22-employee staff has significant tenure. Several have worked at the bank for more than 30 years, and one woman has exceeded 40 years. In May, Minnehan celebrated his one year anniversary as president.

Being relatively new to a bank with history so exhaustive is a bit daunting and overwhelming at times, Minnehan said, but his biggest challenge is continuing the cultural legacy that makes the new hires want to stay for the next 30 years.

“There’s really a shared value exchange between the opportunity that you provide [employees] and the good they do for the organization in return for it,” Minnehan said. “When you can create that sort of continuity amongst the team, the possibilities are endless in terms of what you can do inside a community bank.”

The global health crisis caused by the coronavirus was never something Minnehan could ever imagine happening, but he is animated by the stories of perseverance. “The silver lining in all of this global health pandemic as it relates to banking, is that the community bankers have really been the stars,” Minnehan said. 

After the Paycheck Protection Program launched on Friday, April 3, the Bank of Kaukauna had all of its customers’ loans submitted, approved, and their funds secured by midday Sunday. After that, the lending team started reaching out to businesses to make sure they were getting taken care of. 

“It’s given us the ability to build some new relationships that we may not have otherwise been able to have,” Minnehan said. “But more importantly, it gave us an opportunity to help support the small businesses that may not have otherwise had access to the program.”

By mid-April, the bank had processed about 130 loans, totaling $18 million, and about 100 of them were completed in the first two and a half days.

“The key to having a successful community bank is the ability to connect with your people, lead and motivate them to grow,” Minnehan said. He also believes that leadership is not an end goal, but an ongoing process. “If you’re not always learning lessons, looking at yourself in the mirror and kind of questioning yourself, you’re not doing much justice to the people around you.”

Though the bank’s clientele isn’t terribly diverse, being a papermill town between Appleton and Green Bay, the collection of art on display is intentionally inclusive. The bank has artwork by Asian, Mexican, African Americans young and old, male and female. 

“Given where the country is with race and social justice issues right now, I want to emphasize what brings us together rather than what tears us apart,” Brogan said in an interview for an article in the “arts” section of a Madison, Wis., magazine in November 2016. It remains relevant today.

Minnehan has two pieces of art that hang at his home that his grandfather bought from an artist in Detroit in the early 1970s. One is an owl, and the other, he’s not sure about. “It kind of looks like a beer mug,” he said; but both remind him of his childhood.

“That’s just really near and dear to me, and hopefully I’ll be able to pass them down to my children at some point as well.”