A few months ago, Jerry Jacobson approved the purchase of a $9,000 statue from Sculpture Tour Eau Claire to be donated to Chippewa Falls Fire and Emergency Services for its new building on Chippewa Crossing Boulevard.
As president of Northwestern Bank in Chippewa Falls, Jacobson always is looking for ways to help the community.
He saw the firefighter statue and knew it would be perfect for the new fire station. He also knew the city of Chippewa Falls wouldn’t be able to spend money on artwork, so he took matters into his own hand.
After nearly 113 years in the banking business, Northwestern Bank has thrived by thinking outside of the box, constantly evolving and taking care of its community, Jacobson said.
“We’re grateful to make a living by working with the people of this community,” he said from his desk in the main Northwestern Bank location on Bridge Street. “It’s very important to make sure the community gets something back.”
It’s not a new philosophy for the bank. His predecessors have been doing the same as far back as Jacobson can remember.
“Whether it’s money or time, we live here too. We need to give back,” he said. “I don’t know if it makes us unique, but it definitely lets the community know that we’re in this with them.”
A look back
Jacobson was hired at the bank in 1978 and within 20 years had worked his way up to bank president. More than 60 years before Jacobson’s first day on the job, P.T. Favell opened Northwestern State Bank on July 20, 1904, at the bank’s current location — the corner of Bridge and Central Streets.
Throughout the decades, the bank went through cosmetic changes, but the heart of its mission never wavered — a strong commitment to its customers and the community.
The locally-owned, community bank grew generously in assets and staff since its opening. By its 25th anniversary in 1929, the bank had five officers, five employees and resources of $1.2 million.
The stock market crash and Great Depression in 1929 was a challenging time for banks across the nation. The Chippewa Falls bank closed for six months, and reopened with all customers receiving their money back with interest.
By 1962, Northwestern Bank welcomed an extensive three-story expansion, and assets had grown to $12.7 million.
After 100 years of service to the community in 2004, the bank celebrated its centennial with a total of 17 officers, 73 employees, a drive-up facility, five branches and assets of $260 million.
Having worked with bank presidents A.W. Langill and William Pickerign gave Jacobson a good view of why giving back to the community not only helps specific organizations short-term, but helps the entire community in the long run.
“Bill Pickerign had a great attitude of giving back,” Jacobson said. “He gave employees time off from work to donate their time to the community. That tradition lives on.”
For years the bank has been donating to many groups in the Chippewa Valley, including United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley, Chippewa Falls Boys and Girls Club, Heyde Center for the Arts and HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital, just to name a few.
Just within the last few years, Jacobson has approved many generous donations from the bank, including $100,000 to Eau Claire’s Confluence Project in 2014, donation of the Fanny Hill property to Hope Gospel Mission, and a number of school mini-grants through the Community Foundation of Chippewa County.
In the spring of 2016, Jacobson received the inaugural Hero award at the Junior Achievement Hero’s Gala — being recognized for his long-term commitment in giving of his time, talent and as a long-standing advocate of the organization’s mission.
Some of Jacobson’s favorite donations are gifts that affect many, such as those to Irvine Park Zoo and Chippewa Falls Downtown Riverfront Park development.
Donations that spur economic development just make sense, he said. “I don’t think a few days go by where we’re not talking to Bob McCoy and Mike Jordan,” Jacobson said. “It’s a crucial part of any financial institution. We’re proud to be part of the community, and we have to make money.”
Economic development and change
It wasn’t long ago when U.S. Highway 53 ran up the main drag in Chippewa Falls, intersecting with Highway 29 and the downtown was home to department stores and dime stores like J.C. Penney’s and Woolworth.
Bridge Street may not look like it did 40 years ago, but that’s what growth is all about, Jacobson said. “That’s why you come to the Chippewa Valley and stay here — economic development,” he said. “We have to be able to keep and retain our young people.
“Many young people have ties to the area, but that’s not enough. We have to change.”
As the Chippewa Valley evolves, businesses have to think ahead — anticipate and welcome change, Jacobson said.
“In 1978 we did not even have one computer. We did checks by hand,” he said. “It’s about finding out what people want. We’re looking at technology constantly.”
Recently, he spoke to economic department student at UW-Eau Claire with an important message. Quoting economist Joseph Schumpeter, Jacobson told graduates that a successful business is constantly on grounds shaking beneath their feet. Change is constant. Embrace it and continuously change to succeed.
Jacobson said Northwestern Bank is changing constantly — mostly in the way of technology — to be user friendly for its customers. But there’s no substitute for great customer service. “You have to constantly give customers what they want at a price that’s competitive,” he said. “You have to prove yourself every day.”
Jacobson said over the years, because of strict banking regulations, the hometown feel is sometimes challenged. For instance, identification is required for all transactions — something that wasn’t even a thought 20 years ago.
Years ago Jacobson’s uncle was a customer. He said to Jacobson, “I’ve known you since you were born.” Yet he had to show identification and sign a form. “You feel that for your customer,” Jacobson said. But it protects the bank and customers alike.
The lending business
All business leaders know that really good years can be followed by bad years. Such was the case leading up to the 2008 economic downturn, followed by a recession. Banks were hit hard, including Northwestern Bank. That is one reason all banks save for rainy days.
“One thing you have to do is put money aside. We had losses then and we will have losses again,” Jacobson said. “We take a lot of time evaluating our loans, and we try to make sure we have enough cushion. But things happen.”
People want to pay, Jacobson said. But “life happens.”
Through the years he has seen good businesses fall short on loans. Jacobson lives in reality. He knows there will be losses.
“Ninety-nine percent (of non-payment) isn’t because they are crooked. Most problems are because of life,” he said. “If you don’t have some sort of heart in this business, you shouldn’t be in the business. You just try to do your best.”
Jill Herriges, the bank’s leader of marketing and customer relations, said Northwestern Bank prides itself on being a company that works outside of the box when it comes to lending. “We want people to come to us if they’re thinking about a loan,” she said. “We look at all options and try to make it work.”
Herriges, who has been with the company for less than two years, said Northwestern Bank has always had a good reputation. “Before I worked here, I remember this place being referred to as ‘The Bank,’” she said. “No one even asked which bank — it was just ‘The Bank.’”
Now that she’s a part of the organization, she sees how much the bank is ingrained in the community. “We give back to our community, we’re involved in the economic development pieces … and we have friendly service,” she said.
Neither Herriges nor Jacobson see that changing in the future. What they expect is to welcome positive change in the years to come.
Jacobson admits he is not a visionary on the technology front. What he does know is banking, people and forward thinking.
“We’d like to grow with our communities and try to be a leader in that growth,” he said. “We’re constantly looking for the products that our customers need, and then presenting it to them in a way that makes sense.
“We’re here to fulfill dreams.”