9. Greg Evans,

CEO & President of Merchants Bank

 

Eric: Hey, welcome back to The Eric Mueller show everyone. I am your host, Eric Mueller. I'm eager to introduce you to our interview guest for this chapter of the show. This time around, we have the pleasure of diving into the mindset of an active Chief Executive Officer, who oversees a company that has served its community for more than 145 years.

 

Headquartered in Winona, Minnesota, Merchants Bank is responsible for more than $2.6 billion in assets and was the fifth largest banking organization headquartered in Minnesota as of year-end in 2020.

 

Our guest, Greg Evans joined Merchants in 1989 and served 18 years in Winona as the bank's senior vice president and director of marketing. From 2007 through the end of 2013, Evans served as one of the company’s four regional presidents, with leadership responsibility for markets of Cannon Falls, Red Wing, and Hampton. He was named president and chief executive officer for Merchants Financial Group, [00:01:00] Inc. and Merchants Bank, N.A. in February of 2017.

 

Listen to Greg speak on the importance of growing your organization from within, what it takes to be the leader of the team as a CEO, and how fostering your competitive spirit will help push you in the direction towards your full potential in life.

 

You can always access the show at ericrmueller.com/ericmuellershow. Be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, follow on Spotify, and if you like the show, leave me a five-star review on Apple Podcasts. Without further ado, let's go ahead to the interview.

 

[EDM music begins playing and then fades-out]

 

Eric: So welcome to The Eric Mueller Show, Greg Evans, CEO and President of Merchants Bank. Say hello to the audience here, Greg.

 

Greg: Hi Eric. Thanks [00:02:00] very much for having me. It's a pleasure to be with you.

 

Eric: Absolutely. I'm very and I'm enthused to interview you I'm really excited for this and you know a fellow Winonan. It's really, really cool to have you on. So tell the audience a little bit about yourself Greg.

 

Greg: Sure, Eric. So as you mentioned, I'm a Winona native just like you are. I grew up in Winona, went to school at Winona Senior High School and had two special people as classmates: your mom and dad. Jeff and Chris, great people and played basketball with Jeff and you know, it's fun to have your mom now as a co-worker. You know, we've kind of rekindled a friendship that you know, kind of lapsed over a period of time.

 

But I left Winona, went to college in Valparaiso, Indiana. Navigated my way to Northwest Indiana and primarily for the reason to playing some college baseball there, and then it didn't take too long for me to figure out that I wasn't probably good enough to play at [00:03:00] that level. So converted my baseball-playing dedication to fraternity stuff and going to school and getting a couple of degrees. My degrees are actually in political science and journalism.

 

I grew up literally in a newsroom. My father was a print journalist for about the first two-thirds of his career. So I grew up running around in the newsroom at Winona Daily News and learned to write, and that's when I really embraced my passion for communication: writing, reading, learning. And my first job out of college was as an assistant sports editor for a newspaper in Mason City, Iowa.

 

Banking, community banking wasn't anything I knew anything about. Wasn't anything that I ever thought about getting involved in in terms of a career, and then the president of Merchants Bank at the time in 1989 [00:04:00] was aware of me and my communication background. And Merchants was creating an internal marketing and communication position for the first time.

 

The company was just poised to pursue some geographic expansion and merger and acquisition activity and had identified the need for somebody to lead marketing, communications, brand development, and the company took a big leap of faith in bringing me on board.

 

I moved back to Winona. I didn't think I'd be back in Winona for all that long and here we are 31 years later and back in Winona, and it's home, and it's a wonderful place to have made a career and add to you know, my resume in terms of leadership, influence and just really thankful for Merchants Bank. You know, seeing something in me that you know, I probably didn't even see in myself at the time and giving me an opportunity and [00:05:00] then just over a period of 30 plus years, investing in me, giving me the opportunity to learn the business, giving me growth and development opportunities and allowing me to take on new roles and responsibilities over the course of time.

 

Some which I was ready for, some which I probably wasn’t, and then moved and transferred out of Winona for a 7 year stint with Merchants. We bought a family-owned bank that took us in a new markets, Cannon Falls and Red Wing just up the river from our headquarters community of Winona and because culture transfer and leadership and community engagement and our approach to community banking, we feel you know, takes a special sense of pride and attention.

 

I was given the opportunity to transfer from my marketing/leadership role to become one of our regional presidents and transfer the merchants culture of those new communities, so really had an opportunity to accelerate [00:06:00] my understanding of the business from 2007 to 2013 in Cannon Falls, and then in 2014, was given the opportunity to come back to Winona. Come back home, and I served the first three years back here as the Chief Banking Officer and responsibility for all of our markets and oversight of the flagship market in Winona. And then when my predecessor Rod Nelson, wonderful mentor and leader, retired as the president and CEO in 2017, I was given that opportunity to provide executive leadership for the franchise as a whole.

 

Eric: Thank you for sharing that career path with us Greg. I'd I think that really helps me lead into what I want to ask you next is you mentioned the culture within your organization. So the Merchants Bank culture. I know I've heard a little bit about it from my Mom. I've seen some of the things she's been involved in. I've read about you know, the mission statement and what not online, but share with us about that company culture like [00:07:00] what culture exists in your organization and how did you establish that or how did you help facilitate that going forward?

 

Greg: You know, I think the culture that we enjoy Merchants has been evolving but well-grounded in fundamental core values that were present when I joined in 1989 and maybe not, you know as sophisticated or well-defined at the time. It was a really small community bank of about 200 million in assets. We just had two locations here in Winona. We hadn’t yet started to expand and acquire other banks, but I think what I would say is that. You know, the people of the bank that I join, you know, that I would that I had the privilege to work within those early years were just they were selfless caring people.

 

They really cared about the Winona community. They really cared about our customers and you know, I learned very early that, you know in our approach to community banking, [00:08:00] you know, we really benefit when our communities and our customers do well and a byproduct of that, you know, if our customers are successful, you know if our communities are thriving, if there's an economic vitality. As a community bank and an important leader in the community and a driver of economic activity, we're going to benefit in the form of rewarding performance.

 

So I think fundamentally from, you know from my very first day at Merchants, it was basically kind of golden root principles. You know, treat people the way you want to be treated yourself, and you know, over the years as our culture has evolved it still comes back to you know, understanding that our business is based on trust and to earn trust you have to earn a reputation for integrity and ethical standards and you know, really kind of a [00:09:03] philosophy of servitude, and that's really what Merchants Bank has been known for, you know for the great run that I've had with the company over 31 years.

 

You know, more recently we've done some really keen, intensely focused work on our brand. You know, kind of redefining our mission statement and really honing in on establishing clarity for all stakeholders about why we exist, and that why we exist really is about, you know, helping our customers and our communities realize their hopes and dreams, and we're engaged in that pursuit because we're community members too, and so it comes back to that principle when our customers and our communities are thriving, we're going to benefit as a result as an organization.

 

Eric: That hits right on. That matches exactly what I've heard from my Mom, and I know she's been involved with some leadership [00:10:03] things, and I think that's really impressive how you, you know facilitate that culture from within and really build that. Get people to stay motivated to, you know, remain with the company, but then also to become passionate about why they're doing what they're doing.

 

So building off of that question how have you built that successful customer base? What strategies have you utilized? You know, you coming from a marketing background, that's how you got your start with the company. I applaud you, it's inspiring to see how you've worked over those last, you know, that decade-plus of time to get to where you are. But share with me a little bit about those marketing tactics how you’ve remained successful in that way?

 

Greg: Right. It's you know, it's a challenge. We, you know we deliver a commodity. You know, there isn't there isn't any bank or credit union or financial services company that, you know doesn't deliver basically the same fundamental products that we deliver to our customers. And you know, so it's a very competitive landscape, and I think you know [00:11:03] what we recognize as the differentiation is first and foremost, you know a high degree of personalized service.

 

And probably up until the last 10 years, you know that was probably good enough, but there's so much disruption in our industry today and technology is a disrupter, and I think that high-touch, personalized service approach is still relevant, and I think people still want that, but they also have the right to expect that, you know, the convenience and utility of digital solutions, you know have to be present.

 

And so, you know, we're trying to deliver that high-touch, personalized approach in a number of different ways today, but I think it's about really trying to position our people in the role of trusted advisors. So again, everybody can get the same type of checking account or mortgage loan or commercial loan from any, [00:12:03] you know number of providers, you know in the service footprint that we currently serve.

 

But having that banker who really truly is vested in the customer’s best interest and delivering service in a way that you know, really puts the customer first and with some authenticity about how much we care about, you know, their financial future of those clients. You know, that's really, you know, the secret sauce and again it requires a very dedicated and committed workforce to try to achieve a level of exceptional customer experience.

 

That's the standard that you know, we aspire to deliver. We know we fall short but trying to motivate and inspire all of our people to take a value-added approach [00:13:03] and really represent that care and concern for our clients is we think at the end of the day what makes us different.

Eric: Most definitely, and as you lead the company as the CEO, what advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a role such as that? Who wants to lead an organization. What advice would you give them to make sure that they you know, they are doing the things for the right reason and are showing, you know, they're walking the talk so to speak?

 

Greg: Sure. I think they're the biggest motivation is you know, and the sensory reward comes in and seeing some of those outcomes and you know last year, we you know, we originated more than 4,000 mortgage loans and you know, that's a lot of transactions. But it's also a lot of families that we helped either, you know, buy a new home, perhaps get financed into their first home. You know, maybe refinance an existing loan at a lower rate and [00:14:03] you know, the outcome of that is, you know, maybe more disposable income and also lots of different things that, you know, those outcomes are very rewarding.

 

Community banking is a tremendously rewarding profession because the work that we do and you know, the help that we provide and the value-added service, like I said it really does contribute to you know, customers realizing hopes and dreams and putting themselves in a better financial place and you know, having people who you know, gain a true sense of reward in helping that happen. It's a pretty special feeling when you feel like, you know, you've really made a difference in somebody's life.

 

Eric: And like you said have other options for banking. That Merchants Bank is not the only bank in Winona, not the only bank in the region. So [00:15:03] to be able to stand out and show that you're going to provide more value or you're going to be able to build a better relationship, I think really hits home with anybody who wants to lead a business large or small.

 

You know, if you're leading a local business, you need to keep your customers first in your mind as far as why you're doing that and by building those relationships you can really make a difference. And that's from my point of view in learning throughout pharmacy school when we hit on “What is leadership?” They defined, you know, my dean of student affairs defined it as just building relationships with other people. That's what he believed leadership was. What do you define leadership as Greg? Do you think you agree with him or do you have a different take on it?

 

Greg: Well, I think you know as a leader, you know, I've come to recognize that, you know, I've kind of prefer the, I guess the coaching aspect of leadership and really helping somebody, member of my team realize their full potential. You know, we really take a servant leadership approach [00:16:03] at Merchants and you know, I was inspired by my first read of the book The Servant by James Hunter. It's really telling tale about how just; you know taking a unique look at leadership not as a position of authority or command or control but really as a function of servitude and helping others.

 

I think that's really, you know, kind of my leadership style. I think it starts with an authentic sense of caring about all of the people in our organization all of our stakeholders and then, you know, really focusing on helping our people realize, you know their full potential. Being available as a coach, a mentor, as a counselor, but also really challenging people to find their own way. [00:17:03]

 

And so we've actually instituted a leadership development program at Merchants, and we instituted int about four years ago just because we wanted to be more intentional about the leadership philosophy that we hope to deploy throughout the entire organization so servant leadership and servitude and service above self has really been, you know kind of cemented as part of our leadership mantra and really embedded in the core values of the culture of the company.

 

Eric: Yeah, and audience members listen up. So if you've been following the show, if you've listened to the first interview of Bob Kierlin, you'll hear Greg saying a lot of things that line up with what he said. So one of Bob's main points was leadership is challenged not control.

 

One of his big principles that he instilled in Fastenal’s organization was to bring out the best potential and other people. So, you know, you see as [00:18:03] we talk to people that are in these roles just keep in mind all the commonalities. So if you want to become a better leader you have to serve. And I know that aligns with, I'm a big fan of Gary Vaynerchuk, and he has that mindset of himself as well. You as the CEO, you serve your team. They don't serve you.

 

So I think keeping that mindset also helps suppress your ego, but I appreciate those words Greg. I think that lines up with what leadership is in my opinion.

 

Greg: Absolutely.

 

Eric: Yeah. Yeah, for real and you mentioned that book The Servant so it's from leadership you're serving. What other finance or leadership books have inspired you the most? Do you have a list of to-read by Greg or anything?

 

Greg: You know, I read for relaxation and leisure. So again, I'm well-read at work. I'm reading a lot of trade publications. You know, I really am, you know, I'm a big believer in lifelong learning. You know, I wasn't, [00:19:03] you know cut out or set out to be the CEO of a banking organization. There's nothing in my genetic history or my DNA that would have positioned me for that. I think, you know what my parents, you know instilled in me from an early age was, you know, first and foremost care about other people; and then really instilled in me, you know, an understanding that learning and education and never stops.

 

So, you know for every one of my 31 years at Merchants, I've been given just dozens of opportunity for continuing education, you know, I'm a big reader at work. Trade and business publications, keeping up on digital disruption, technology and its impact on our industry. You know when I'm home at night and get a break. I'm reading primarily for leisure, and I like to you know, go to bed with [00:20:03] a with a good thriller or piece of fiction, but I also am a studier of history.

 

So, you know a lot of what I read about leadership is in the form of biographies or autobiographies. It just finished a really long read on George Washington and I mean it was fascinating. You know a long time ago, obviously, but just to get some context of you know, the challenges that, you know that were faced in very early years of our country and the endurance test that, you know as really the father of the United States of America, he was faced to encounter. It was a fascinating read. There's also a lot of things in the read that are very telling about, you know, some of the social, economic and social justice, you know matters that you know, we're still [00:21:03] dealing with in this country today. So I think, you know reading of history is very telling, it can very telling and enlightening about leadership, but there's wonderful context in history that is relevant to you know, some of the challenging times that we face today in our country.

 

Eric: And history not known is bound to repeat itself. Right? So if we don't learn our mistakes from the past, we might meet that unfortunate demise as well. So thank you for sharing that. I mean that sounds like an interesting read. I know that I like to relax at night too. I mean, you know, you want to stay focused throughout the day as much as possible and doing some things on the side like this podcast have consumed some of my time, but I enjoy it a lot. But I like reading for leisure as well. Some books that I'm reading right now right now. I finished the Rich Dad, Poor Dad book. I don't know if you've heard of that one?

 

Greg: I have, and I haven't read it.

 

Eric: It's not [00:22:03] super long. It took me probably too long to read it, but it's just over 200 pages, but Robert Kiyosaki lays out some principles there and from a finance point of view. I don't come from a finance background, but it's always been an interest of mine. So it's inspiring to hear you say at least that, you know in your opinion, you didn't feel like you were maybe fit to be a CEO later, but here you are. So I think that that's really cool to hear.

 

So walk us through a little bit too kind of going back to your career path. So you have this opportunity in 2007 to basically become a regional leader in the Cannon Falls area, and then seven years later you get this opportunity to join the C-suite at Merchants and come back home. At what point did you know that you wanted to be a CEO? Was it somewhere along that way or even when you started in marketing, did you know that you wanted to eventually have a trajectory vertically or?

 

Greg: Yeah, you know, I don't know that I was ever motivated or inspired, you know by a title Eric. I mean [00:23:03] candidly I was motivated and driven by the opportunity to you know have influence. You know, I feel really strongly about what we do. More importantly, I feel very passionate about how we do it. I think it makes a difference in our communities, and I think it again has real impact on the lives of our customers, and ultimately all of that works together to drive economic vitality in a region that is, it's a really special place.

 

You grew up in Winona. Winona is our hometown. You know, there is just wonderful spirit of entrepreneurialism and independence in Winona and such a rich history of business startups and long-standing, successful, family-owned businesses. And then as we've broadened our you know, our geographic reach, you know, we've got wonderful diversification in the makeup of our markets. We you [00:24:03] know, we serve agribusiness in a number of small communities, you know in this region.

 

We're in Rochester where you know, pretty much everything is driven by healthcare and the service industry in support of healthcare, and then we've got a presence in on the southern Twin Cities, which really affords us an opportunity to be a niche, commercial bank for you know, relatively small businesses in the scheme of the Twin Cities economic region in terms of again that difference of you know, being a trusted advisor and you know kind of carving out a niche focus in that Twin City suburban area.

 

So that diversification is something that I've really enjoyed, you know, you know getting to know different industries, different market characteristics, you know, what [00:25:03] makes different communities tick. So back to your question about you know, C-suite. It was never a, you know a goal or an objective or a, you know a motivation of mine to you know, be the leader or the executive leader for this company.

 

It was all about a really passionate belief in the importance of what we do, how we do it and wanting to be in a position to influence that for the company as a whole. And so for the first 17 years as we were growing it, expanding. You know, a big part of my responsibility was helping bring our brand alive and making that brand relevant not just in Winona where we've been since 1875 but making that brand relevant based on kind of that trusted advisor approach that we're delivering to all of the markets we serve.

 

And then thinking I was [00:26:03] ready in 2007 to take that next step and because of what I had learned about the business and because of the you know, the responsibility that I had in kind of influencing the brand and its development, its awareness. I thought I was ready, you know to transfer that in a leadership role in the business.

 

I would tell you that I probably wasn't as ready for that opportunity as I thought I was, but those first few years in Cannon Falls were some of the most challenging but most rewarding years of my life. If you remember, you know, we bought that bank in the fall of 2007 and shortly after we bought the bank is when the Great Recession occurred and so, you know, we were in community banking, and I was providing leadership for some markets, you know for our community bank that were under stress and [00:27:03] in banking, some of that, you know requires some hard work. You know and you show with dignity, you show up, you know with an approach that you know, we're here to serve, and we're here to work with our customers and we're here to get through these hard times together, and I learned an awful lot, you know, in those seven years in Cannon Falls.

 

And then again, company once again, you know took a leap of faith and gave me the opportunity to come back here to a broader leadership role. And Rod Nelson, who was my predecessor as the CEO was a tremendous Community Banker. He saw this profession the exact same way that I do and really the way our entire executive management team does, and again the board of directors in 2017 when Rod retired, had some outstanding candidates [00:28:03] from which to choose to lead the company, and I've got some wonderfully talented co-workers that are just as capable as I am. And again, the board again put its leap of faith and giving me that opportunity and very grateful. And again, we have a tremendous, tremendous leadership team, and we have complementary strengths and you know good teams. You know, everybody on good teams know their roles. We respect everybody's strengths. We respect the fact that we all have weaknesses. We collaborate, and we work together to do important and great work.

 

Eric: Thank you for sharing that and you know, jumping off that you mentioned hard work, so hard work in an executive role. I'm sure there's a lot of that, you know from the top down [00:29:03] everybody's working hard, but I'm curious, if you can put a number on it. How many hours a day would you say you work on average as CEO and President of Merchants?

 

Greg: So you know what I would say Eric is, you know, I have a very strong work ethic. I learned it from my parents and you know, my approach to leadership is that you know, I have the obligation to set the example, and I have to make sure that you know, I'm representing the fact that you know, there isn't anything about hard work that you know, I'm not willing to make a commitment to.

 

You know, I would say that, you know from a practical standpoint. You know, it's kind of like being on the job 24/7. You know, and in this industry, you know, we're really representing, I'm representing the face of the bank in the community even when I'm out, [00:30:03] you know, socially or enjoying some of my hobbies. You know, there's a there's a connection to Merchants Bank with every one of my interactions.

 

Probably one of my weaknesses is I take everything probably too personally to a fault so I’m not a great sleeper. I can get to sleep after a good read, but if I wake up in the middle of the night, my mind is just kind of spinning and spinning and spinning, and I'm thinking about you know, the challenges of the next day, or I'm making a mental note of something that I've got to remember to do, or I have an innovative thought that I need to write down. So, you know, it's never really totally shut off for me. It's probably, it's definitely a fault of mine.

 

Typical work day for me is I'm a morning guy, typically up 4:30 every morning. I try to get a light workout in. I'm too old to work out hard anymore, and my body is telling me that I'm too old to work out hard, but I try to get in a light jog [00:31:03] or a walk before work. Typically in the office between 7:00 or 7:30, and my work day is you know again, I have a lot of flexibility. And you know, I've got the flexibility to leave on a Wednesday afternoon if I want to play a round of golf, but there's a lot of evenings I'm working late. Typically work at least a couple of hours, you know on the weekends, and I'd say typical regular work week for me is probably 55 to 60 hours.

 

Eric: Okay. Yeah, I think that that probably falls in line with, you know, some other CEOs and other executives and presidents at least I would say they probably would share that you're on the job 24/7 type mindset. Not that you're clocked in per se, but you're just you're carrying with you that organization and that that Integrity that you have to carry with you on the golf course, when you're out to dinner, you know, if you're at a sporting event, [00:32:03] and you said something that that made me curious. How do you generate new ideas? Do you have any strategies? Like, you know you say you wake up maybe you had an idea, but when you're sitting down to intentionally think of one, how do you do that?

 

Greg: You know, I'm really well read. So again, I don't know, I'm not, you know brilliant in terms of innovation. I'm probably at times not bold enough in terms of, you know thinking innovatively, but I'm an intense reader. I'm an intense reader of our industry. I'm an intense reader of socio-economic environment. You know, I'm an intense reader of business and markets and you know, so I think you know the culmination [00:33:03] of all that, and I'm a quick reader. So I can you know, I'm not, you know, I'm not a speed reader. I can't, you know read The Wall Street Journal cover to cover in 10 minutes and have a good sense of everything that you know, maybe I scanned, but I'm pretty quick to hone in on things of interest or things of relevance to community banking or to you know, governance things and culture things that we need to be mindful of because you know, the environment that we're doing business in today is vastly different than the environment we were in doing business and even two years ago.

 

And how different is it going to two years from now? So I would not suggest that you know, I'm great at you know, thinking that far ahead, but I am very in tune with where’s momentum [00:34:03] coming from or where is momentum may be taking us, and I have an ability to you know to think critically about something I've read and how that might impact or be relevant to a strategic pursuit that we need to have some sense of awareness around.

 

Eric: And then it goes your point earlier of maintaining, you know, that that mindset of continually developing yourself and you never stop learning. In being a well-read individual, is there a common myth about finance or banking that you want to debunk here on the show that you think other people have about the industry? I'm curious as to what your answer might be.

 

Greg: Well, you know, I think in general banking gets a bad rap, and I think there's a perception about banking that is stuffy and arrogant [00:35:03] and greedy, and I think there probably is some of that in banking. Probably more, you know more routine in kind of the investment banking world.

 

You know community banking is something very different, and it isn't any of those things. It really is selfless, and yeah, we have we have the obligation and responsibility to protect our depositors’ savings and be stewards of those deposits, you know when we're making loans, but access to capital, you know through a community bank like Merchants in the kind of communities that we serve, it brings businesses to life.

 

It helps customers on the retail side, [00:36:03] you know finance their homes, finance their toys, build a comfortable lifestyle for themselves. And some of the greatest rewards of community banking are you know being on the production floor of a family-owned, you know manufacturing company that, you know that our financing is helping grow, expand, add jobs and drive the economic vitality of these communities. So, you know the myth of kind of stuffy, stodgy, boring work and doing nothing but making money at it is an absolute myth that needs to be debunked and again, it's just awesome to see the success stories that, you know we helped bring to life.

 

Eric: Do you have a most joyful memory of giving back to your community off the top of your head or one or two maybe?

 

Greg: [00:37:03] You know, again, my parents, you know are two really special people in terms of selflessness and how much they care, and they inspired in my sister and myself the importance of giving back and you know, I've been a real active volunteer in this community with a number of different organizations. And you know, when I joined Merchants in 1989, Eric, again, it was a newly created position.

 

Bank leadership at the time really didn't know what they were going to be doing with this punk kid and it's marketing role, and they didn't have a great strategic perspective of what my role was. You know, one thing that they shared with me, you know about a month into the job was that, you know community service and community leadership was really fundamentally [00:38:03] important to Merchants giving back: donating, volunteering.

 

And they were seeking an opportunity to kind of attach the Merchants brand with kind of a signature community service project that would kind of become, you know that community service volunteering representation of the Merchants brand, and they had this notion for a community-wide food drive. And I didn't have anything to do, they didn't know what I was supposed to be doing I said, you know what, I can take this on, and we can we can figure out a way to make this happen.

 

So in 1989, we decided to start the first 10 days of giving food drive in our history and today, you know, 32 years later, we're still doing the 10 days of giving food drive in Winona. We're actually now, we've expanded it to a number of communities through our footprint. We partner with Winona volunteer [00:39:03] services. We engage dozens of other businesses in the community. We engage all of the schools in the community. And again, just something that started very small with Merchants looking for kind of a signature way to, you know represent how we give back is something that now is kind of an annual staple in this community.

 

We've established a wonderful partnership with the Winona volunteer services that business in that nonprofit has grown and expanded a great deal. I think as a result of the awareness that we helped create that not everybody in our county has enough food to eat all the time. And so that's been pretty rewarding just to watch how that has grown and prospered and again, I think representative of the fact that, you know we care about everybody in this community, and we look for ways to go above and beyond to help people [00:40:03] not quite as fortunate as some of the rest of us.

 

Eric: Yeah, and it's inspiring to hear you talk about that, you know the 10 days of giving and how it started small and how it built incrementally over time. I'm a big believer in that. Even a small little idea or just a little spark can ignite a big flame that goes forward, and that I think should be really inspiring to the audience who is maybe dreaming big. Maybe, you know, some of the younger members are thinking that they do want to have an executive type of leadership position later and to just know that if you start small and just kind of at least progress in that right direction over time, with little bit of hard work and luck, you might end up with an opportunity like you've had.

 

Someone might approach you with an offer, and I'm curious as well, so when you are, you know in that Regional President role and you get approached to then step up and take on even more responsibilities, is there an interview process that happens there?

 

Do you I mean, you know, it's not, maybe as an internal hire, there's maybe not a formal application or is there? I'm [00:41:03] curious to hear what you have to say.

 

Greg: Yeah. So in our organization, our philosophy is that you know, pretty much every position is something that is posted and recruited for. Now, you know, there's some variation to that and we’ll deviate from that that formula occasionally, but I think one thing that we've; again, first and foremost Merchants has done a wonderful job of demonstrating consistently over the years that whenever possible we promote from within, and we really try to give you know, our internal people plenty of opportunities to learn, grow, develop.

 

You know, we've got, you know career pathing opportunities. We've got customized kind of career pathing and training programs, and your Mom helps facilitate some of that in her important role as part of our training department. So we're really good at you know, trying to find any and [00:42:03] every opportunity for people inside the organization to try new roles, advanced, earn promotions, earn additional responsibilities, and that will always be you know, a fundamental part of our culture, but we also recognize that we can't get better by only knowing what we know from within.

 

You know, so there is always a healthy energy that comes with bringing somebody from the outside into the organization. Somebody that has had different experiences maybe with other industries or maybe with other banking organizations. We can you know, we need to learn from those things and so our philosophy, Eric, is to always post and always go through a formal process. You know, pretty much for every recruitment opportunity. So, you know when I was [00:43:03] given the opportunity to transfer to Cannon Falls, you know, I applied for the opportunity, and I went through the process and I know that, you know, it was probably a pretty tough management decision because I think, you know there were probably some very qualified candidates from outside the organization who probably had more market, business, leadership experience than I had at that point.

 

But again, to the company's commitment, you know, they gave me that opportunity for both the Chief Banking Officer role and for the Chief Executive Officer role when those positions opened up. You know, that was a process that was you know, those were both positions that I sought out and then then was one of many candidates for and went through the formal process of interviewing just like the other candidates, and that's generally [00:44:03] how we approach recruitment for pretty much any role in the organization, and hoping that we've got qualified internal candidates all the time.

 

Eric: And just a message to the audience. So if you need to pause and rewind so you can play back and hear the important words Greg just said paralleling what Bob Kierlin has said about Fastenal. So Merchants building from within and promoting from within. So there's some magic happening in Winona in terms of how leadership and how leaders of companies are developed, and I think it really speaks to the culture going forward because if you can promote from within and you can get people to be passionate about why they're doing what they're doing and they're not, you know necessarily even doing a job; they are part of a bigger mission. I think that's really inspiring, and I think that really shows that that company has a lot of, you know promise in the future. So I appreciate you sharing those insights Greg and everybody listen up and rewind that if you need to.

 

Greg: An you know one thing I'd add here [00:45:03] on that topic is that again, you know our culture, you know, our culture is not perfect. It is what it is. It's very strong, but it's not for everybody, you know, our culture requires that, you know people with, you know leadership roles embrace an intense level of responsibility. It comes with the territory, and it is about you know, kind of that that servant leadership approach, living our values, working hard, leading by example. You know, it's not about a title, it’s not about command, it’s not about authority.

 

It's about you know, it's hard work. It requires tremendous presence and engagement. So the culture is not for everybody, but the culture is what it is, and I think what we've discovered; especially when we've acquired other banks or gone into new markets is that we accelerate our excess when we have somebody who's from within the culture [00:46:03] that is ready to be placed into those key leadership roles because that culture transfer piece is really critically important, especially when it comes to acquisitions.

 

So, you know where we've struggled with some acquisitions, it's because that culture clash. Maybe between the old regime and the newly, you know the new acquiring entity is prolonged, and you know, we would prefer to accelerate that cultural integration that just positions us for success in those new markets quicker.

 

Eric: I believe that, and I can imagine that transition at times can be difficult, but you can see success going forward when you make a transition like that happen, and you can probably show that Merchants grows stronger and develops and kind of molds over time keeping people that have come from different backgrounds.

 

So Greg I want to ask how do you define [00:47:03] success? We've talked a little bit about leadership and your views on that but the true definition of success, what does that mean to you?

 

Greg: That's a great question. I don't know that I got a great answer for you. I mean, it's you know, you know, I think at the end of the day: happiness. And you know, finding joy in you know, all the good that comes with hard work and all the good that comes with working with great people and all the good that comes with helping people become successful.

 

There is real joy in that and that probably for me is dynamite. You know and just you know, seeing somebody else prosper. Seeing somebody else, seeing a customer you know, rebound or get back on their feet or realize, you know, hopes and dreams. And you know, seeing [00:48:03] co-workers happy and having fun at work. You know, we work very hard, I'm a very driven person. I'm a very competitive person.

 

I have a sense of urgency that's probably off the charts at times, but trying to have fun and having a sense of humor, and I think you know, people closest to me know that I've got a quick wit, and I expect and like having a quick wit shot back my way. And you know, just having fun because we spend too much time at work not to enjoy it and not to have fun with each other and there are stressful days and there are bad days and leadership requires hard decisions at times but finding the fun in it and you know, finding joy in others’ successes. Those are probably the things that [00:49:04] that motivate me, and you know drive my, I guess, understanding of success.

 

Eric: Yeah, and I appreciate you saying the difficulty of the question. I've often thought, you know, I ask people this question, but I think internally of myself; I don't know if I necessarily know exactly what my answer to that question is either. How I define success. But you did speak on a piece that I really liked there and that is your internal drive, and how you've you know maintained motivation throughout your career and how you can keep that high work ethic. So one of those components of my show, the backbone of The Eric Mueller Show is to really explore what makes any successful person's inner clock tick in that way. So I want to ask you what is the one, single driving force that keeps your inner clock ticking towards that success?

 

Greg: It's probably my competitor’s spirit. So I don't know if you're you know familiar with the Clifton Strengths Finders program. You know, my five strengths are responsibility, [00:50:04] developer, competitor, relief and strategic. So I've talked a little bit about, you know my ability to you know, think critically and think strategically and connect the dots. You know developer, I think that speaks to servant leadership and you know, truly wanting to demonstrate, you know a servant-like approach to helping people be successful. Responsibility I've talked a lot about that. You know, that's my number one strength and just embracing, you know the responsibility that comes with this territory.

 

You know, it's you know, you don't get to coast when you when you enter that C-suite; at least not the way I look at leadership. And you know, people are watching, and you know, everybody's kind of looking to those of us at the executive leadership team level to set the tone for the culture. Be transparent about expectations, [00:51:06] be transparent about performance and be transparent about you know, the future direction of the company.

 

But that competitor strength is probably the driver that makes me tick everyday, and it probably you know comes from you know, having a ball in my hand when I was two and keeping it there till I was 25 and loving to compete and everything I learned about teamwork and you know, roles and collaboration from football and basketball and baseball and exposure to coaches of all different types and you know, the lessons I learned from so many people about the desire to win but to do that the right way and you know, I think it's that, [00:52:06] you know competitor in me that, you know motivates me to do the things I do, and it's the thing, you know, and it's not just about work. It's about what like what I like to do, you know for recreation, you know, golf and sports and theater and music and you know, I've got lots of interests outside of the workplace as well, but always have to have something going on, Eric.

 

Eric: Yep, I agree with that, and speaking of that competitive nature and that competitive piece of your life. My parents mentioned you’re a massive sports fan. Big Minnesota Gopher fan, big Winona State Warrior fan. So I just wanted to ask you a little bit about that and talk about your passion there. Namely, what do you think about the new hire for the Golden Gophers? Ben Johnson.

 

Greg: You know, that's amazing you ask me that Eric because right before I joined you, I was on a zoom call with the new coach.

 

Eric: Wow!

 

Greg: I've had Gopher, my wife Teri and I have had Gopher basketball season [00:53:06] tickets for about 31 years and because of you know, my long-standing connection to the athletic program and the basketball program, I was extended an invitation to jump on a zoom call with Coach Johnson, and there were probably maybe 40 people on the call right before I connected with you.

 

I was impressed with him. I would tell you I was probably, you know at first blush, a little disappointed in the hire. You know, just because he hasn't had head coaching experience in the past and you know, as one who really wants that program to be successful and really thinks that it can be, you know providing, you know, the university demonstrates it wants to make the commitment to you know, to be at the championship level in that sport. But [00:54:06] Coach Johnson really impressed me. He was kind of a straight shooter, to the point, you know doesn't shy away from the fact that he hasn't had that head coaching experience in the past, but he's been mentored by a lot of great coaches.

 

He's had a lot of experience working as an assistant in a number of different programs, you know, obviously first and foremost, he has an intense love for the state of Minnesota and the University of Minnesota and its basketball program because of having played there and served as an assistant coach.

 

So I think he's highly motivated to be there. He wanted that job, and I think you know that hunger and that drive is certainly, you know going to position him well, you know for the growth and development that he's going to have to accelerate for himself if he's going to be successful in the Big Ten. But I was impressed with how he commanded himself, [00:55:06] and he's eager to get started.

 

Eric: I'm happy to hear that. I hope you know, as you, I’m a big Gophers fan too.  I really hope we can do something here. I thought you know, Pitino had his chance. He had enough years to really turn it around but seeing, you know a school like, Illinois kind of turnaround and become a #1 seed and obviously their tourney run ended short and in not the greatest way for them.

 

But you know, you know Minnesota's got the potential to do that. So maybe this new guy, you know, first head coaching opportunity. He was pretty essential in some recruiting aspects of other programs. So he's at least got that, you know going for him. So, you know, maybe the new guy just needs a shot, maybe he'll surprise the heck out of us in you know, his freshman or sophomore year of the coaching job.

 

Greg: Absolutely. He certainly articulated that you know, he feels he's up to that challenge and he's ready to take that step and obviously he's got so many connections in Minnesota, to the coaching community and the AAU community that you know, he can hit the ground running on their recruiting front and I wish him, you know, the very best. [00:56:06] I think everybody in this state, you know wants to see that program do well, and how's your bracket doing by the way?

 

Eric: Oh, it's busted beyond belief.

 

Greg: Just like everybody's right.

 

Eric: Oh my gosh. I think there was maybe after the first 16 games, there was like 108 left still standing, and then after maybe another few games, I know I think, I can't remember which team it was that went down but once one of those teams went down, maybe it was Purdue, then the rest of them went, you know, went to crap as well.

 

But yeah, we're no stranger to success in the Winona area for basketball either having the Warriors, you know, the 2006, 2008 wins, almost a win in 2007. I remember watching that game, the end of that and just couldn’t believe they lost that but yeah, I'm glad that you're you know, I aspire to be a season ticket holder one day too. I'm a huge Minnesota Vikings fan. So that's probably where I'd pick it to do that first, but you know being in that that fanship mindset, like you want to see your team succeed, and I hope you're right on Coach Johnson. Hopefully [00:57:06] he can get us to that next level.

 

Greg: Absolutely and interesting story to Eric. Again, I didn't go to Winona State but grew up here and my Dad did towards the end of his career spend several years in the administration over at the University. So got a love and a fondness for the University. I've actually been part of the, I've run the game clock for Winona State basketball for about 25 years too so those national championship years were really fun. And even those seven years that I was living in Cannon Falls, I would come back on the weekends to run the clock for Winona State basketball, and some of your listeners might be interested in knowing that the gentleman who is currently the head men's basketball coach at Winona State is a guy by the name of Todd Eisner; played collegiately at Creighton. He grew up in Wisconsin, played at Creighton. He and Porter Moser, the head coach of the Loyola basketball team are best friends. They were best men in each other's wedding.

 

So [00:58:06] I get to kind of live vicariously through coach Eisner on Porter’s journey with Loyola and Sister Jean, and Todd was in Indianapolis last weekend with his friend Porter and watching the games, and I know he'll be heading back out there Saturday for the Sweet 16 game. So, I was kind of hoping that Porter would be on the University of Minnesota's list. But again, I think he's probably got an opportunity where he can command any job he wants but he's got a pretty good gig at Loyola right now.

 

Eric: Yeah, they're having quite the run too. Do you have an inkling suspicion of who might win this tournament based on without even looking at the bracket? Is there one team?

 

Greg: You know, I kind of thought all along that Gonzaga was you know, this was their year. I think they're really a talented group. I think they are the best team and again, they've you know, they've kind of you know nipped into that Championship Circle in the past and haven't quite [00:59:06] gotten that done, but I think this might be their year, I kind of hope it is.

 

Eric: I tend to agree with you. My Sooners fell short with them. Gonzaga looked really strong in round one, so I was nervous about that, but it's been a down year for the Blue Bloods too. Kansas getting blown out big, you know, Duke and Kentucky not even in the tournament. So it's been a crazy year. I think it's more fun for the casual basketball fan. You know, your bracket is, maybe if you picked that 14 seed or something, you're having a lot more fun, you have a chance to win your pool. But yeah, it's a good time.

 

Greg: And it’s awesome to have it back. It was so devastating last year not to have March Madness so.

 

Eric: Oh, I know. And to move it to a Friday, like the games didn’t start until Friday, so I actually had a chance to watch most of them which typically Thursday/Friday it’s a little tougher. But yeah. Well, Greg, yeah, it's been it's been a pleasure chatting with you. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to do this. Getting up, you know, 4:30 is going to come fast for you, so you better get to bed. But yeah, thank you [01:00:06] so much. Appreciate the insight and the leadership, appreciate the insight into you know, what success means to you and we'll look forward to chatting with you soon and catching up with you after the tourney is over.

 

Greg: Thanks, Eric. Hey, congratulations to you on you know, getting your Doctor of Pharmacy degree and you know kind of these ventures on the on the podcast and kind of your entrepreneurial spirit. I wish you nothing but the best and don't hesitate to reach out to me again, so it's been fun getting to know you. I'd love your Mom and Dad, great folks.

 

Eric: Well, and I have to say Greg. So my Dad told me I had to ask you. He, you know in basketball in high school, he told me that he got a lot of rebounds off of some of your missed shots on the court.

 

Greg: He’s right! He's absolutely right. So I'm not going to deny that at all. Your dad was a good player and boy, that's a long time ago. That's all I got to say.

 

Eric: Yeah, time seems to be going fast for me as well. You kind of get caught up in the mindset of your day to day and it can [01:01:06] kind of tick by but stepping back and relaxing is important. But yeah, well Greg, thank you so much. Really appreciate chatting with you. Thanks for your tips. I appreciate the good wishes for my entrepreneurial journey. I really feel like I am destined to do something big.

 

I don't know if it will be this podcast, but I’ve felt that within myself for quite some time. So I hope that I can just continue down that path and learning from people like yourself and Kierlin really helps me develop in the right way, I think and just keep you know, that that humble mindset. Well perfect, well Greg. I'll let you get back to your night. Thank you so much.

 

Greg: Yep, thanks Eric. Good luck.

 

Eric: Yep, you as well.

 

Greg: Take care.

 

Eric: Take care.

 

[EDM music fades-in, plays and then fades-out]

 

 

Voice audio: Written, produced and edited by Eric R. Mueller

EDM music: Produced and edited by Eric R. Mueller