Something Worth Fighting For

By Doug Wareham

When I think about the defining moment that led me to my current role with the Kansas Bankers Association, I always end up reminiscing about a conversation my parents didn’t want me to hear on a cold wintery evening back in the early 1980s. I must have been 12—and my older brother Rob 13—when our parents kicked us upstairs in our old two-story farmhouse because they were meeting with an important person that was stopping by. That person just happened to be our community banker.

This wasn’t the first time Rob and I had been asked to head upstairs. We were always sent up on Christmas Eve so our parents could get things in place for Christmas morning, and we were sent up many times when our parents grew tired of our regular wrestling matches. We knew the drill and so when we were sent upstairs on this day we did what we’d always do; we quietly laid on the floor next to the furnace register and listened to everything happening downstairs.

The conversation between my parents and their banker began with the normal pleasantries you’d expect, but it quickly turned to cash flow problems, operating cost concerns and the worry that there was no immediate end in sight for the low commodity prices that were devastating family farms at the time. My brother and I certainly didn’t understand everything being discussed, but we completely understood what was at stake when my father asked: “Are we kidding ourselves? Should we continue?”

At that point, my brother and I knew our parents’ dream, which began with the purchase of 160 acres in the late 1960s, was on the verge of vanishing. Several things passed through my mind in the few seconds before our banker responded: Where would we move if we lost the farm? Would we have to change schools? Was my family’s hard work wasted? Then came the response that not only allowed us to breathe again but allowed our entire family to continue living the life we had loved and built together. “We’ll have to restructure some things, but we know you are doing things the right way and we know you’ll continue to do things the right way,” said our community banker guest. His next words were the ones I’ll never forget: “If you are in this, we are in with you.”

I didn’t pledge the rest of my professional life to help protect and defend the banking industry on that day, but my personal opinion of the important role community banks and relationship bankers have with their customers was cemented that day. The positive outlook and can-do spirit I witnessed from our banker three decades ago is a big part of what attracted me when the opportunity to join the KBA team came back in 2004. I’ve seen the same positive, caring attitude in bankers serving rural and urban communities across Kansas since joining the team and I consider it an honor to work with and advocate for such an important industry.

One final note just in case you are wondering: my parents, who were first-generation farmers, survived the 1980s farm crisis. This past spring, they made their final farm mortgage payment, and they are still actively farming today. Needless to say, they were committed to being successful—and their banker was with them every step of the way. That’s a business-banking partnership model worth fighting for.

Doug Wareham became president and CEO of the Kansas Bankers Association earlier this fall. He previously served as EVP and COO at the KBA.