By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
Phil Hickman was looking for a challenge in 2014 when he landed the role of Southern Illinois Market president for Associated Bank.
Four and a half years later, the challenge has been met. Bank revenue is on the rise. Employee morale is up. And the customers, surveys show, are happy.
“It was a market that was kind of neglected from the bank’s standpoint,” said Hickman, who was previously with the privately held Park Bank in Milwaukee for 18 years.
“I was the No. 2 person at that bank, and there was more I was wanting to do,” he said. “I was looking for a challenge. Associated Bank came calling as did a number of other banks. I’ve known many of the folks at Associated ever since being in Wisconsin.”
Associated’s primary footprint is in Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota, with the bank based in Green Bay. At the time Hickman came aboard, one of its biggest needs was in Southern Illinois.
“It was going the wrong direction,” Hickman said. “The turnover when I came here was 19.5 percent. We were losing money, morale was not good. There was no visible leadership in the community, and our business was declining here.”
Hickman feels things are now on track for continued success.
“Our turnover today is negligible, less than 1 percent,” he said. “I’m big on team building, and your employees are your biggest asset. Any customer service organization like we are, the only way you’re going to get it done is through good, quality employees.”
By giving them the right direction and making them more involved with the bank’s success, Hickman said, “employees feel much better about the organization. Our success has been a total team effort.”
Independent surveys of workers are showing the improvement.
“Our employee engagement scores have been at the top of the organization the last three years,” he said.
Last year, Associated Bank won the top workplace award in a ranking printed by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
And, the bank is making money. Loan growth was 6 percent last year, and deposit growth was 7 percent.
“From 2017 to 2018 we doubled our net income, and we’ll probably do it again this year,” Hickman said.
Overall, Associated Bank has about $35 billion in assets.
“We have all the tools that the very largest banks in the country have, but we can operate on the local level,” Hickman said.
Customer surveys taken in the Southwestern Illinois Market are showing top scores in the entire company, he said.
Community engagement also has been turned around. Workers are encouraged to participate at business gatherings and in community service. Last year, some 1,600 hours of volunteerism were recorded, and the number has been increasing each year.
Associated has eight offices in the Southwestern Illinois market — Glen Carbon, Fairview Heights, two in Belleville, East St. Louis, Alton, Millstadt and Columbia.
The bank invested about a million dollars into its East St. Louis branch, a move that Hickman says shows confidence in the community. Similar moves are being made elsewhere.
“Every single branch, except downtown Belleville, we have remodeled and brought up to modern terms,” he said.
The downtown Belleville location is a large, antiquated bank facility that Associated has been trying to sell, he said. Plans are to build a smaller, modern branch next to what exists, but unless some interest is generated in the main building, a decision might have to be made to remodel it for efficiency.
Associated Bank, he said, is actively looking to grow and make acquisitions.
“The St. Louis region is a significant target for us,” he said.
Associated Bank, which bought First Financial in 1997, inherited all of its locations, all of which were in Illinois.
As for programs and services, the bank has rolled out several new initiatives in recent years. One is Zelle, a person-to-person payment system.
“Say you want to send money to your daughter,” Hickman said, suggesting one scenario. “The old system, called Popmoney, was once the primary way and it took a few days. With Zelle, if I send you the money right now, in a few minutes you’re going to have it in your account, and all I have to do is have your phone number or your email address. We were an early adopter on that because we know our customers want that.”
A significant upgrade to the commercial online banking system is also underway, and a major upgrade with health savings accounts took place last year, along with enhancements to fraud prevention systems, consumer mobile and online banking, credit card products and checking and savings packages.
“It is important that we leverage technology to provide greater service and convenience to our customers, while also creating operating efficiencies,” he said.
Hickman lives in west Belleville with his wife Mary. They have two grown daughters (an attorney and a teacher) and five grandchildren.
He grew up in Jackson, Ohio, 40 miles from the Kentucky and West Virginia tri-border, and is a graduate of The Ohio State University and Capital University. He worked in banking in Columbus, Ohio, for about six years, before moving to Wisconsin in 1986.
“I thought it would be a couple of years and we ended up staying in Milwaukee almost 29 years,” he said.
By DENNIS GRUBAUGH