Banking on the Future

Written by: Fargo Inc Staff
Steve Swiontek (left) and Kevin Hanson (right)

Gate City Bank’s approach to succession planning starts with their mission.

For more than 41 years, Steve Swiontek has been involved with Gate City Bank. As the former President & CEO steps into his new role as Executive Chair, Kevin Hanson becomes the next President & CEO. How does Gate City Bank know that he’s the right man for the job? Well, his 36 years of experience with the company is a pretty good indicator.

From The Beginning

The year is 1978. Swiontek – an Edgeley, N.D., native – fresh off graduating from NDSU began applying for jobs. He landed an interview with the then Personnel Department (now known as Human Resources) of Gate City Bank and his life and the company were never the same.

The only company Swiontek has ever known, he’s held a variety of positions and has been an inspiration for growth and expansion.

“When I started, there were 148 team members and 16 offices,” said Swiontek. “Now we have 710 team members and 38 offices. What I’ve been most impressed with is this team has embraced our mission of creating a better way of life for our customers, communities and team members. They have been blowing it out of the water and I have the privilege of sitting back and watching them do it. That’s what I find really gratifying.”

Like Swiontek, Hanson started his career at Gate City Bank and it’s clear the company is under the right leadership. Hanson has been the Chief Operating Officer (COO) for the last two and a half years, which has really been a CEO-in-training. His story is similar to Swiontek’s. After graduating from college, he landed a job with Gate City Bank.

“I opened up the phone book and by divine intervention Gate City Bank popped out,” said Hanson. “On a Friday, I got a call to start work on Monday and have worked here for my entire career. Like Steve, I was in a management trainee position and had the opportunity to work in various areas of the bank.

Swiontek’s New Role

Still actively involved at Gate City Bank, Swiontek is now the Executive Chair, which is a unique opportunity as only about 10 percent of companies nationwide have this position. In this new role, he oversees philanthropic giving and provides a strong voice to the many programs that touch the lives in the communities the Bank serves. It doesn’t end there, though.

“The other thing that I’m doing this last year is mentoring, coaching and working with our Executive Leadership Team and Emerging Leaders,” said Swiontek. “I ask a lot of questions and don’t give them the answers. I’m working with them to ensure that they’re comfortable in the decisions they make.”

In July next year, Swiontek will officially retire from his Executive Chair role, while remaining the chair of the board, which is a bittersweet moment for him.

“What I’m going to miss is the dialogue,” said Swiontek. “We recently had a meeting with our fraud and risk department and we had lunch with them for about an hour and a half, I’m going to miss that discussion with people.”

Under New Leadership

About four years ago, Swiontek shared his plans to retire. The search began to find his replacement and Hanson became the new President & CEO July 1st of this year. The Fergus Falls, Minn., native and Minnesota State University Moorhead graduate has worked for Gate City Bank for 36 years. While spending their entire careers at the company, Swiontek and Hanson have spent a lot of time working together. Swiontek has made an impact on Hanson.

“He’s taught me that you just don’t do the motions, it comes from your heart and you do it with a passion and caring for customers, team members and communities,” said Hanson. “It’s really believing in the mission for a better way of life. … He’s preparing me for the future and always has my best interest, but he’ll challenge me like a coach would.”

Despite working together so long, the two of them are different, which isn’t a bad thing in the eyes of Swiontek and he does have some parting advice for Hanson.

“I’ve always said to Kevin, ‘Don’t try to be me. Be yourself,’” said Swiontek. “He’s going to do things differently from a leadership style. Laugh at yourself. Empower your team to do the job that they have been selected to do, look at the bigger picture and look at it from a thousand-foot level.”

It’s interesting that, although they’ve worked for Gate City Bank their entire career, being president was never on the mind of Swiontek and Hanson when they first started their careers.

“My mom and dad always said, ‘Steve, just do your job and things will come along,’” said Swiontek. “I never, ever thought that this would happen. I never strived for it. I think if you strive for some of these things, you change how you’re going to make decisions. 

Thirty years ago, if I would’ve said, ‘I want to be president,’ I would have tried to change how I did things.

Next Man Up

In sports, there’s a common saying called the next man up. This means that you’re never completely dependent on the players you currently have. There’s always a bench of talented people who are ready to take over if somebody gets hurt. With Gate City Bank’s support of NDSU, it only seems appropriate that this is also true in their company.

Something that Gate City Bank prides itself on is its retention. Many of their team members are in their careers for the long- haul and, because of this, they’re able to cultivate employees from within.

“When I talk to new team members here, I ask them, ‘Why did you come here?’ A large percentage of them say, ‘A current team member recommended me to come here,’” said Swiontek. “Decades ago, that wasn’t the case. Now roughly 38% percent of our new hires are recommended by fellow team members who work here. That’s really quite a message to send.”

Everyone has heard about how Millennials job hop so often. In fact, according to a Deloitte Millennial Survey in 2016, 44 percent of respondents said they’re planning to leave their company within two years and 68 percent said the longest they’d stay with the same employer is three years. The average US worker only spends about 15 months in one role. So what’s Gate City Bank’s secret to such successful retention?

“The Bank’s Emerging Leaders Program ensures a pipeline of talent is available for succession planning and gives Emerging Leaders an opportunity to engage and teach us Baby Boomers how to use technology and adapt, said Swiontek.

The culture at Gate City Bank is also a big factor in the retention rate. The company offers paid volunteer time, 12-weeks paid maternity leave, four-weeks paid paternity and adoption leave, and fully paid military leave…and much more.

“What I find with Millennials is they want to work for a company that believes in something,” said Hanson. “The people who work here are engaged and participate. We’ve developed a great volunteer program where they can take time off during work and get paid for it. So, in addition to giving monetarily, we really encourage our team members to be engaged in their passion. I think that really helps with retention; they know they’re working for a company that is making a difference.”

The Future

Anytime there’s a leadership change, people expect there to be a lot of changes that come with it. That’s not necessarily the case here, though. Rather than trying to launch a ton of new things, Hanson wants to improve on what they already have going on.

“What I see as exciting is that Steve is really challenging us to make it 10 times better,” said Hanson. “He wants us to think differently because sometimes when you think about doing things 10 times better, you step back, look at the process and approach things with a new perspective.

“I look at the technology that has and will be coming into play in the next five years… banking is going to continue to be a disruptive industry. It’s an exciting time and fun to be part of an organization that’s always asking themselves how they can make something better.

Hanson is planning on being in the President role for about eight years so where does he think the company will be when he retires?

“Gate City Bank’s still going to provide a better way of life,” said Hanson. “It’s still going to have a passion for our team members, customers and our communities. It’s still going to be a mutual bank. It’s still going to have the student loan program, free ATMs and those things will stay.

“That said, one of the things we have found is that as much as people embrace technology, there are always times when they want to talk to their banker. We’ll always be a leader in innovative technologies. How we do something might be different, but our core values will always remain constant. We’ll always be here to create a better way of life for our customers, communities and team members.” 

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