Merging Together and Moving Forward

By Rose Oswald Poels

Mergers do not happen overnight, and that certainly was true for the merger between the Wisconsin Bankers Association and the Community Bankers of Wisconsin. Leadership on both sides began setting the stage years prior to the start of meaningful discussions. This helped us bring about a smooth transition that strengthened our mission, increased the effectiveness of our advocacy and ultimately benefitted our collective membership.

Our merger has piqued national interest for a variety of reasons. Wisconsin has always been a significant community bank state, with bankers receiving benefits and value from two strong state bankers associations. Both WBA and CBW were financially healthy, led by younger executives and enjoyed strong member support. Both associations had forward-thinking boards of directors over the years that always focused on doing what was in the best interest of the membership. While both associations were affiliated with their respective national trade associations, the WBA and CBW boards and senior staff operated very independently, making their own decisions. These characteristics are likely similar to what you see in your state bankers associations.

What made WBA and CBW unique is that we routinely communicated over the years and collaborated on various projects. Not only did the senior staff leadership talk and meet throughout the year, but the bank officer leadership also met at least once each year. In addition, we jointly sponsored a handful of education programs and, over the last several years, held an annual Capitol Day in Madison. We shared our advocacy policy agendas with each other, and often worked in concert at the state level to achieve policy victories on behalf of our collective membership.

When it came time to begin merger talks in earnest, the discussions flowed easily and quickly, given our history of open communication and collaboration. Ultimately, the merger decision was up to each respective association’s membership, and when votes were cast in December 2014, the CBW members and WBA members voted 96 percent and 97 percent, respectively, in favor. This overwhelming number of positive votes really was a mandate to merge, affirming the thinking of both associations’ boards.

With a little more than a year behind us as one new association, our members are beginning to witness the value of their decision. Not only did our members collectively save over $430,000 in dues, but we were able to pool resources to expand current programs, invest in new initiatives and unify our advocacy efforts, allowing us to be more focused and effective.

Combining the best of what both associations were offering, we expanded and improved education offerings, streamlined and strengthened leadership programs and expanded eligibility for the popular ATM Access program. We spearheaded new initiatives, including the Wisconsin Bankers Foundation, a 501(c)(3) supporting consumer empowerment through financial education and nVest Wisconsin, LLC, a crowdfunding platform bringing Wisconsin banks into one segment of the fintech world for the benefit of Wisconsin consumers and businesses.

One of the most important ways the new WBA serves the industry is through focused advocacy. Our united voice and message has an increased influence in Madison that led to several pro-banking pieces of legislation becoming law and saw the defeat of even more legislation that was detrimental to our industry. Our voice is unified and our message is louder with more bankers participating in grassroots and political efforts.

The executive management team, comprised of senior staff leaders from both organizations, shares responsibilities and works well together, focused on the goal of this merger: to always do what is in the best interest of Wisconsin banks. As the industry continues to evolve and merge, with more change on the horizon, our new single, stronger association is well-poised to tackle future challenges head on.

Rose Oswald Poels is president and CEO of the Wisconsin Bankers Association.