Babcock holds the reins for 125-year-old community bank
by Jim Boyle
As John Babcock and his partners put the finishing touches on the sale of a catering and event-planning business back in 1996, the same questions people may have had of him as a young boy surfaced again.
Would he work at the The Bank of Elk River someday? And would he become the fifth generation of Babcock men to lead the community bank?
He did not consider himself the heir apparent. Nor did he want to be. He went away to school at Colorado College in Colorado Springs in 1984 and got a degree in political science (and a minor in urban studies) in 1988.
Afterward, he assimilated quite quickly into a business career with the Minneapolis-based Apples Inc.
Eventually he was a partner in the business and its general manager. His success and enjoyment of the business side of owning and operating this outfit gave him a taste of the business world, and provided just enough spark to create an interest in giving the banking business a whirl.
So he joined the bank in 1997, and the rest is, as they say, history.
The start of Babcock’s career in business and banking can be traced to summer jobs he had in college. He got his start at Apples Inc. while working a part-time summer job during college.
He also worked a couple of summers at The Bank of Elk River during college.
It was his job at Apples Inc. that took root first, however. He accepted a permanent position at the catering and event-planning company in 1989.
He started as an operations manager and later became the general manager.
He added partner to his list of titles in early 1992. He also orchestrated the purchase of the company’s headquarters, a 20,000-square-foot banquet facility in Minneapolis.
Owning and operating the Minneapolis-based hospitality business taught him a lot about himself and his love of business.
“I realized I liked it,” Babcock said, noting it didn’t matter so much whether it was running the catering or event-planning business or selling cheese trays.
“I liked the whole process of it — how all the component parts that work together,” he said.
By the time the decision was made to sell the operation to a competitor, there were 110 people on the firm’s payroll and $1.5 million in annual sales.
Once the sale was finalized in 1996, Babcock said he had to re-evaluate his career before charting its course. Among his options was coming to work for the community bank that had been in his family since 1885.
His father, Edmund Babcock, the fourth generation of Babcocks to lead the bank, was chairman of the board at the time. His brother, Jim Babcock, worked at the bank, too. Nothing in two summers working at the bank while in college had told him his life would unfold the way it had for previous generations of Babcocks.
When he didn’t come back for a third summer while still in school, that raised some questions.
“I can remember people asking me if John was going to be back,” said Stewart Wilson, a senior vice president at the bank. “People enjoyed working with him.”
He decided to give working full time at the bank a shot when he started out as an officer in training in 1997.
“I wasn’t sure on Day 1 whether it would stick,” John recalled. “I remember thinking ‘I hope this works.’”
In retrospect, Babcock said the bankers at The Bank of Elk River did a very good thing after they hired him. They ran him through a training program that was designed internally. He worked for a time in each department of the bank. No department was left out of the mix. “It helped me understand how each department worked,” he said.
Then in 1998, he moved over to the Otsego branch of The Bank of Elk River as a loan officer. He became the branch manager there in 1999, while continuing to work as a loan officer.
It was in 2003 that he would become the vice chairman of the board, positioning him well for swift advancement at the bank. This is when he decided to ramp up his commitment to his career as a community banker.
He enrolled in the Graduate School of Banking in 2004 in Madison Wis.
It added to Babcock’s growing knowledge of banking, and connected him with bankers from all over who he continues to connect with professionally.
Babcock moved over to The Bank of Elk River Main Street office in 2007, when the community bank completed a major investment in downtown Elk River by expanding its headquarters.
Babcock and Wilson, who had been working at the School Street location, came to the Main Street office at the same time.
That’s also about the time long-time president, Jim Simpson, passed his job on to Pat Dwyer.
Then in 2008, his father retired from his position as the chairman and CEO.
John stepped into that role, and began to prepare for his next promotion to bank president.
“Pat brought the longevity and the perspective of a successful banker,” Babcock said. “I had a hunger to get my arms around information and consider pushing in different directions.
“We had enough differences that we both gained from our work together. At least I would like to believe that.”
Dwyer decided, as he planned, to move into his early stages of retirement this past year at the age of 61 — after 40 years with the bank. He had talked about retiring completely by the time he was 63.
Dwyer now works about two days a week, and according to Wilson and Babcock remains as committed to seeing the success of the bank as he was during his role as president.
The 44-year-old Babcock became the president of the bank in October 2010. Dwyer remains a senior vice president at the bank and a director on the board.
“He’s still an important part of what we’re doing,” Babcock said. “He has an enormous knowledge and history. He still has the drive and commitment.”
Changes in leadership have not been the only changes at the bank in recent years.
The local economy has gone from growing at warp speed to a crawl at best, with many businesses struggling to pay their bills and some failing to keep the doors open after a nationwide recession took hold.
Wilson says Babcock’s engagement with all aspects of the operation has helped him find success in difficult times. It has helped that people at the bank also find him approachable and reasonable. “He takes his new role very seriously,” Stewart said.
The Bank of Elk River continually re-evaluates how it’s set up and how it might need to adjust for the future. “We ask ourselves how do we need to respond,” Babcock said.
In addition to local forces, there are plenty of larger, outside forces, too. The down-turned economy has brought about greater scrutiny of banking. New laws are being passed that impact community banking, too.
So as The Bank of Elk River has added lenders and shifted new responsibilities to its existing bank staff members, Babcock says the bank has been careful to make sure each move strengthens the bank’s position for success.
Lenders remain customer-focused, but there are more questions getting asked and business plans are being scrutinized more. It’s not all bad, as borrowers are even more likely to be healthy borrowers. Increased dialogue and planning also creates greater understanding.
“These times require candor and cooperation,” Babcock says.
Hard times for businesses in the area quickly translate into financial pain for the bank. “When you see really good operators struggling to make it, you know times are hard,” Babcock said.
The Bank of Elk River continues to work hard not to change the flavor of the bank that has built its reputation on customer service and community involvement.
“I feel privileged to be a community banker,” Babcock said. “It’s wonderful to feel part of the community to get to know more than just a little about so many of the businesses in the community.”
It appears banking stuck to Babcock rather well.
Occupation: Chairman, president and CEO for The Bank of Elk River.
The Bank of Elk River was established in 1885. It has eight locations and $420 million in assets.
Education: Graduate of Colorado College with a degree in political science and the Graduate School of Banking in Madison, Wis.
Community involvement: Sherburne County Historical Society, the Sherburne County Economic Development Alliance and the Elk River Chamber of Commerce and a past chair of the Anoka Technical College Foundation.