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How CEO Bob Atwell Created One Of Wisconsin's Largest Banks

Nicolet National Bank/Facebook
(From left) Bob Atwell and his colleague Mike Daniels started Nicolet National Bank in 2000.

Bob Atwell’s critical career decisions can be summed up in one word: contrarian.

Unlike most of his classmates at Yale School of Management, Bob came back to the Midwest to find work. Secure in a coveted commercial lending job at a big Milwaukee financial institution, Bob decided he would rather be in a smaller town at a smaller bank. At that smaller bank in a smaller town, Bob found a stable job with a great deal of responsibility. Then, despite having 10 kids and an 11th on the way, Bob quit.

He and a colleague, Mike Daniels, raised $18 million and started Nicolet National Bank in 2000, at the time the biggest bank startup in state history. Nicolet now has $3 billion of assets, 38 branches and a lead position in many of its markets. It is the third-largest bank headquartered in Wisconsin.

Atwell's tips for other entrepreneurs: 

  • People follow not because you are in charge; rather you have authority because they follow you.
  • Money is not the purpose of our work. Service of our customers is our purpose. The result is financial gain.
  • Sometimes it is necessary to assert authority, but it is far better to communicate and build consensus.
  • Nobody is a self-made man or woman. We have all been helped far more than we like to admit.
  • Don’t wait to “give back”; rather give “during.” Give of your heart, your time and your money. Today. Now. Those who give the most win.
  • Challenge convention. Experts can be helpful, but the consensus on “best practices” today will be something different three years from now.
  • Don’t be a “sport negotiator.” When you are making a yardstick you can afford to give 8 inches of a ruler.
  • Great leaders make good decisions with less information than they would like or even than they need. Life doesn’t wait for decisions to be foregone conclusions.
  • Admit your mistakes and learn to profit from them. You literally have more to gain from mistakes than from success.
  • Apologize clearly when you screw up. Don’t say, “I am sorry you feel that way.” Just say you are sorry and make good what you can.
  • Humility is knowing who you are and who you are not. It is the foundation of all the virtues. False humility is a denial of the gifts you have been given.
  • When you succeed you will win some false friends and some true enemies (to paraphrase St. Therese of Calcutta). You are not in business to be loved, especially not by your competitors.

How Did You Do That? is produced by WUWM, in association with the Milwaukee Institute and Golden Angels Investors.