A Story of Entrepreneurial Spirit
First Business was started in 1990 when Jerry Smith and his partners raised $3 million of equity from 167 local investors. It was the first bank in the Midwest to focus exclusively on businesses. For its first five years, the company was simply a business bank with one location in Madison and averaged less than a dozen employees. As the years went on, First Business developed logical business extensions to meet its clients’ needs. For each business addition, the First Business team had to figure out how to strategize competitive advantages and deliver attractive benefits to its clients. It also had to find the right person with specific industry expertise to lead each of these initiatives.
The strategy was to attract talent from bigger companies, and find individuals with an appreciation of First Business’ culture and entrepreneurial spirit. In 1995, First Business added an asset-based lending company; in 1997 it began providing equipment finance and leasing services; in 1999 it started a trust and investments division; and in 2000 it opened a Milwaukee bank. In 2005, First Business went public on the NASDAQ exchange. As a publicly traded company, First Business continued to grow. In 2006, First Business added a regional headquarters for First Business Bank in Appleton, creating its Northeast Wisconsin division. In 2012 the firm successfully completed a $29 million equity raise and also established a factoring company in Chicago. In 2014, First Business added an office in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and successfully completed its first whole bank acquisition by purchasing the holding company of Alterra Bank in Kansas City, MO. Although the company may still be referred to as a bank, it is really a full-service financial services company that specializes in the unique needs of businesses, business executives, and high net worth individuals through specialized business banking, private wealth, and specialty finance services.
Holding Company Timeline
- 1990, April — Business Banking | Madison, WI
- 1995, May — Asset-based Lending | Nationwide
- 1998, October — Equipment Finance | Nationwide
- 2000, June — Business Banking | Milwaukee, WI
- 2001, December — Private Wealth | Wisconsin
- 2006, September — Business Banking | Northeast, WI
- 2012, November — Factoring | Nationwide
- 2014, September — Business Banking | Kenosha
- 2014, November — Business Banking & SBA | Kansas City, MO
“Many people in the community haven’t heard of First Business, but that doesn’t bother us,” states Corey Chambas, President & CEO of First Business Financial Services, Inc. That’s because the bank has a strong niche. Most banks determine their target audience by getting out a map and drawing a circle around a branch location. These days they add in a credit score and their target client is pretty much defined. First Business goes about things entirely different. First Business operates from a single location in each of the markets it serves. “As a niche bank, we are very selective about our client base. We do this so we can offer the perfect combination of sophisticated products and services, and the expertise of a large regional or national bank, with the personal attention and access to senior management that small banks provide. Most banks can deliver well on one end or the other; but the combination is our unique niche.” The company targets small to mid-sized businesses, their owners and senior management staff, and high net worth individuals. “Sometimes people are surprised to learn we do business with high net worth individuals,” states Chambas. “But it makes sense. Business owners, executives, and other professionals have financial needs that require that same unique combination - sophisticated services, industry expertise, and accessibility.”
When Jerry Smith opened First Business Bank’s doors in 1990, the company was not only the first business bank in Wisconsin, but the first in the Midwest, and one of a few in the nation. Although the number of business-orientated banks in the nation has increased, First Business Bank remains one of the very few that has not diluted its model by adding consumer banking and multiple branches.
By being selective with its client base, First Business can have a higher employee to client ratio. This allows its employees to be easily accessible and to develop deeper relationships with clients, which is critical to business owners and high net worth individuals. This niche approach also allows better alignment of employee skill sets with clients’ needs. The employees’ business expertise allows them to focus on the precise issues their clients face.
This insight led the company to develop the First Business Seminar Series. The series offers free business training and networking opportunities to its clients. “As we ran our company, we found we had business issues we needed to better understand or address, and realized our clients were also facing these same needs. So instead of just bringing a consultant in to advise just us, we organized seminars where our clients could benefit and our bankers could become better informed business advisors,” stated Chambas. First Business offers 2,500 seminar seats at no cost to the local business communities each year. The Seminar Series has been offered for two decades.
Another factor Smith credits First Business’ success to is its culture. Right from the beginning Smith realized there was an attitude or mindset that must be present in all employees – current and future- for the company to succeed. He documented these attributes and created what has come to be known as the First Business Statement of Beliefs. Although the company does not disclose the details of the Statement of Beliefs to the public, they all revolve around “the golden rule.”
“We use these beliefs when talking to potential employees and reference their importance and application during our staff meetings,” states Smith. Sometimes First Business turns away a potential employee because it believes the candidate will not live by one or more of its beliefs. “Our people are our competitive edge. We’re very committed to protecting what we’ve built,” continues Smith.
A great culture also helps with employee retention. Everyone works hard, and treats the clients, coworkers, and vendors in a respectful manner. According to the company, the Statement of Beliefs drives the professional attitude and behavior that must be part of business banking.
The third business strategy Smith attributes to First Business’ success is succession planning. “We work with hundreds of business owners, but we’re also business people ourselves. I saw the importance of a succession plan early on. People often put this off until it’s too late. They’re busy operating their business, and they don’t want to think about giving it up,” stated Smith. “I was proud of what we were building, and I wanted to preserve the model and culture so it would last beyond me. I first met Corey (current President & CEO of First Business Financial Services, Inc.) while fishing. Over some time I got to know him and I knew he was right for our company, so I convinced him to join First Business. As we worked together, I knew he possessed the right qualities to be my successor.”
After 12 years, Smith handed over the reins of company CEO and he took on the role of Chairman. “Corey made the transition very easy,” stated Smith. “I was confident he had what it took to succeed, and even though he might do some things differently than I would, we respect each other, we’re open and honest, and have a great working relationship.”
When Smith launched the company, he never imagined the company would be where it is today, publicly traded on NASDAQ with over 200 employees. “It can be very emotional,” states Smith. “When you start out, admittedly, you want to succeed because as an entrepreneur you have that competitive drive. But as I attend our company outings at this stage in life, I’m shocked. I didn’t consider the number of lives First Business would positively impact. Not only did I achieve my personal business goals, but through the company’s success, I was able to provide opportunities for First Business employees, who in turn provide for their families. I get to see these employees and sometimes their families at company gatherings, and I’m just amazed at how much respect I’m given. It’s not something you think about when you start a business. And 25+ years later, it’s one of the most rewarding aspects.”