Sunsetting the Wingert Era

Illinois community banking association legend comes to retirement 43 years after picking up cause

To tell the story of the Community Bankers Association of Illinois is to tell the story of Bob Wingert’s career. The two are indelibly intertwined.

The biggest difference between the two comes with their beginnings. While the CBAI, then the Independent Community Banks in Illinois, was founded as a response to perceived excessive big bank influence at the Illinois Bankers Association, Wingert’s path to community banking advocacy actually began on the lakes of Canada.

Two years after graduating from Southern Methodist University in 1972, Wingert and five college friends headed north for a summer canoe trip. Once outfitted in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, the Canadian Railway brought the six to the edge of a lake. They canoed, portaged and camped for 10 days. Wingert, a struggling real estate agent at the time, kept a diary on waterproof paper, writing a little bit every day. At the end of the trip, his college roommate John Backlund requested a copy of the pages.

“It was a little bit compromised [from dropping it in the lakes],” Wingert remembered 43 years later. So he typed out the entire log.

Back in Illinois, John let those pages fall into the hands of his father, Chip Backlund, president at Bartonville Bank. Backlund was among the driving forces behind the ICBI’s founding. Knowing the real estate market had bottomed out from underneath Wingert, Backlund sensed an opportunity.

“He just said, ‘I read your diary. We need somebody who can write and communicate more than anything else,’” Wingert said. “‘Would you be interested in talking with us about it?’

“Trying to keep my cool, I said, ‘Well, yeah.’”

Wingert’s ability to communicate shines through in the retelling of this four-decade-old story. That train did not simply deliver him and his traveling companions to their desired destination. Rather …

“The Canadian Railway dropped us out in the middle of nowhere, and when that train whistle went off in the distance, and we’re standing in the stark wilderness, I thought, what in the world did I just do?”

It is easy to believe further details caught Backlund’s eye. The ICBI was looking for someone to lead its fight against efforts to change historic bank structure laws during the four-month legislative session in Springfield. Before Wingert would whole-heartedly agree to the task, he needed to know whether he agreed with the ICBI’s stance. Like most people, he had never put too much thought into which bank he used.

A February trip to Springfield — Wingert’s hometown where his parents still resided — introduced Wingert to the likes of Jack Marantz, president of the Bank of Springfield, and Art Murray, president of the Citizens State Bank of Milford and the first ICBI chairman in 1974-75. After hearing their pitches, he continued his due diligence back in Dallas.

“I went to the Southwestern Graduate School of Banking at SMU,” Wingert recalled. “I went in to their offices and they allowed me to look at theses on the subject of bank structure.”

Forty years ago, the topic was a hot one across the country both in practice and in theory.

“There were tons of them, for and against. … I knew what the position of the group was, so I was trying to make sure I was comfortable with the position as I read all these papers, and I was.

“I called Chip back. ‘I feel very comfortable with what you’re trying to do. I can see your perspective on it, and I get it.’”

By March of 1975, Wingert was the ICBI’s first employee, working out of a $50-per-month office space he describes only in adjectives questionable to print. The budget of $50,000 was devoted to lobbying efforts and Wingert’s salary, after all, not office décor. Eventually, he and his mother painted the brown paneling a cream color, deeming it a significant improvement.

Following the four-month legislative session, the ICBI board had to decide if they wanted to retain Wingert. He had to decide if the Dallas real estate market was beckoning. It wasn’t.

“The board had a discussion. We defeated the bills again, what do we do? We committed to only four months here for Bob. Some of them said, ‘We need to keep this going; we need to make this permanent. We can’t hire someone, let them go, and then six months later try to hire someone else.’”

From then until this coming Dec. 31, Wingert’s path was the association’s. As its only president throughout a 43-year history, Wingert’s ebbs and flows mirrored the group’s highs and lows.

He took to smoking four packs of Winstons a day, quitting them cold turkey one evening while standing at the railing of the third floor of the Illinois State Capitol. He went from being a bachelor busy lobbying state legislators to a husband of 34 years with four children. The association, which became CBAI in 1988, slowly shifted its focus from battling monopoly banking and excessive branching to advocating for community banks’ regulations and educating the next generation of lenders.

Wingert’s belief in the community banking platform has only deepened over the years. Time, people and events convinced him of its validity more than any academic papers could.

“It was corroborated and verified, vindicated if you will, so many times over the years when you see what some of the giant banks have done,” he said. “And it’s a shame, because every time a big bank messes up, community banks are victimized by it.

“Community banks and big banks have different agendas. You could argue that they aren’t even in the same profession. The truth is, the big banks could care less about community banks.”

When Wingert gets rolling like this, he may as well be reciting Murray’s talking points from 43 years ago. For that matter, Murray sticks to those points now, echoing some of them in a speech honoring Wingert at the CBAI’s annual convention Sept. 14-16 in Springfield.

“We were an agitated group within the Illinois Bankers Association,” Murray said of the ICBI’s founding. “Our organization exists to represent the best interests of our communities and our community banks. We, as community bankers, have a vital role to play in our communities, our state and our nation.

“To say a banker is a banker is to say a surgeon is a surgeon. Really? You think a brain surgeon and a tree surgeon are alike?”

Murray expressed great pride in his wisdom in hiring Wingert before crediting him for all the CBAI has done over the years for the state’s “brain surgeons.”

If asking Tom Marantz, Jack’s son and the 2016-17 CBAI chairman, it is Wingert’s community banking passion that has made him both a strong lobbyist and then a deft association leader.

“He really represents and embraces community banking,” Tom Marantz said. “It’s great not just having a hired gun. We have somebody who believes in the mission and sees the needs of the community bank.”

If asking the younger Marantz much else about Wingert, he will plead the fifth, insisting the outgoing president has more embarrassing stories on the outgoing chairman than vice versa. That aspect of close friendships partnered with Wingert’s communicative abilities in making his skill set perfectly suited for the president’s position. Marantz’s mother knew Wingert’s. He delivered a eulogy at Chip Backlund’s funeral less than two years ago. John Backlund was the best man in Wingert’s wedding.

“It is the relationships with these people,” he said of the community bankers as a whole, invoking all 327 current CBAI member banks. “They are genuine salt of the earth America. For want of a better term, they’re just a wonderful slice of life. … They are good people and they work hard and believe in what they do,” said Wingert. “Every so often you come across somebody who is really making the sacrifice for their community. It’s not all about making money.”

Wingert has tried to remain loyal to that cause to a fault. Every credit card he or his wife Diane uses comes from a member bank. When his daughter first switched to a credit card from a bigger bank with an appealing rewards program, she called Wingert to apologize. He insisted he understood, as any good father would.

Suffice it to say, what Wingert first pondered in conversations with Chip Backlund and Art Murray, what he studied further in SMU’s research papers, what he preached to the state legislature all became his finely-tuned mantra.

“Community banks must have separate and autonomous representation so that our interests are not watered down or compromised to serve the interests of Wall Street.”

That ethos has grown CBAI from a staff of only Wingert to now 27 strong. It has gone from an office with a bare hanging light bulb to owning its own building. Its budget has increased hundredfold, up to $5.5 million in 2017. Even as community banks consolidate nationwide, CBAI’s membership percentage remains constant at about 72 percent of all of Illinois’ bank and thrift charters. The association now both lobbies on behalf of its members and provides those members a self-sustaining education program with dual focuses of grooming future bankers and enhancing the skills of the current generation.

All this began with a four-month stint intended to wait out a real estate slump 43 years ago.

Perhaps more accurately, all this began with waterproof paper on a Canadian canoe trip with a college roommate.