How Jerry Smith's Entrepreneurship Shaped His Career in Commercial Banking

Feb 19, 2018

Jerry Smith's entrepreneurial streak helped shape a successful 45-year career in commercial banking. He was founding CEO of First Business Bank and its parent company. Jerry is now chairman of First Business Financial Services, a publicly traded company with a $200 million market cap and $1.8 billion in assets.

Tips from Jerry Smith

1. Trust your instincts and don’t quit

Despite the fact that he would be paralyzed for 36 years, Jerry’s dad never gave up hope that he would one day walk again. In his father’s prayer book, Jerry found a daily psalm, the paper worn thin. Its title: Don’t Quit.

2. Have a good business plan and a good advisory board

“It’s critical to have well defined biz plan in writing and critical to have strong advisors who will speak their mind. When you only have yourself or a couple people to sort things through with it makes it much more challenging. We really needed a board that had an appreciation for what a startup is and we needed their credibility -- not to be window dressing, but to to be real advisors for me.”

3. Make shifts when needed

Jerry expanded First Business Financial Services’ offerings when he saw openings. For example, early on he saw other opportunities on credit side. The core business didn’t have lot of room for loses so it had to be cautious on risk side. So First Business started an asset-based lending company, called First Business Capital, which focuses on non-traditional clients – highly leveraged businesses with ample capital. It has offices across the country. Now if a customer of the traditional bank stumbles, it can flip into the asset-based lending company, then go back to the core business when things get better. Another successful shift was the creation of First Business Trust and Investments, which now has more than $1 billion of assets.

4. Admit when you’re wrong

When it became clear that Jerry and his join venture partners in Appleton had different ideas and philosophies, he couldn’t figure out any other way to proceed but ending the partnership. Jerry offered that either he would buy out his partners or they could buy him out, which is what ultimately happened. “The direction they wanted to go was different from where we were and where we wanted to go; it was stressing our relationship and impeding the bank.”

5. Value relationships, but trust your instincts

So many people helped the Smith family over the years that Jerry learned the value of relationships. “We’ve been very, very focused – with a laser-like focus -- on small, closely-held businesses. Our shareholder base and our reputations are more appealing to closely held entrepreneurial businesses. That has remained intact.”

6. Differentiate

There are thousands of banks, many doing business banking. So Jerry made sure everything was differentiated – the look, the feel, the product offerings and the marketing all had to be different from that of other banks.

7. Don't let your fears conquer you

That's the advice to heed when you're staring at the ceiling at 3 am.