Jerry Smith, founder of First Business Bank, of Madison, and chairman of its parent company First Business Financial Services, learned early on that hard work and a supportive community are among life’s essentials.
Born in Appleton, Smith’s family lived in a garage built by his father, with no indoor plumbing, until his parents could afford to add on a house.
When Smith was 7 years old, his father was severely injured. A freight train hit the elder Smith’s truck, leaving him a quadriplegic. Jerry was shuttled off to live with aunts and uncles on their dairy farms in the Freedom area, in Outagamie County, for the next few years. Every day before school, he would head to the barn and milk 30 to 45 cows.
Over the summers, Smith worked in stone quarries and thought he would get into the sand and gravel business, like his father. He never imagined a career in banking.
“Getting tied down in a stodgy bank every day was the furthest thing from my mind,” he said.
But the bank business was where he landed and grew, working at banks in Appleton and Marinette before coming to Madison, where he was an executive at Affiliated Bank of Jamestown, now BMO Harris, and president of Metropolitan Bank, Monona, now part of Chase, then a consultant.
In 1990, Smith started First Business in Madison with 167 investors and a handful of employees. It was the first business-focused bank in the Midwest.
Today, First Business is the seventh-biggest bank based in Wisconsin, by assets — primarily loans and leases — with $1.9 billion. Its Trust & Investments subsidiary manages more than $1.5 billion.
Smith, 74, is no longer a daily presence at the bank, at 401 Charmany Drive in University Research Park. He lives in Merrimac with his wife, Donna. The couple have three children and three granddaughters.
How did you get started in the banking industry?
One of my first jobs after high school and a semester at Marquette University was with Thorp Finance Co. in Clintonville and Shawano. I worked as a field representative, so I clerked farm auctions, did inspections and got into lending. When my boss left a couple of years later, they made me a manager.
My former boss recruited me to make consumer installment loans at First National Bank of Appleton. One of my jobs was to go to car dealerships and check their inventories to make sure the cars they were selling really were on the lot.
Banking did become fun, and to my surprise, I was good at it. I’m a people person and I like math. I was successful in spite of myself.
How do you start a bank? It seems as though it would not be simple to raise money and jump through government hoops.
Former co-worker Don Brown, insurance agency owner Ken Urso and I bought a small bank, the Kingston Dalton State Bank, north of Portage. We were going to change the name to First Business Bank and move the headquarters here. We had $10.5 million in assets from the Kingston Dalton Bank; the Federal Reserve said we had to put in $2.5 million of additional equity, and approved us.
I went out and sold most of the stock. It caught fire very quickly. A lot of prominent Madison businesspeople were supporters and investors.
We ran the Kingston Dalton’s two branches as offices, then sold them to another bank around 1993.
What was your vision?
My vision was: If someone moved to Madison, they would see the name, First Business Bank, as a good name for owning, buying or starting a business. Advisers told me we had to differentiate ourselves, stay close to our clients and keep the decision-making process as short as possible.
Before we opened, I lay awake at night wondering if we could make it. Within a week, I knew that we had hit home.
What have your experiences taught you about life?
I think the most important thing to me is my credibility and my reputation. You can never do anything to jeopardize that. You may never be able to get it back.
I come from a small town where people are hard workers. In a small town, you have to get along with everybody because everybody knows everything about you. It’s a wonderful thing and it’s a nightmare; it’s a good place to be grounded in.
You have served on a number of local organizations’ boards of directors including the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau, Madison Community Foundation, Aldo Leopold Foundation and Dane County Natural Heritage Foundation. What sparked your interest in the environment?
I’m an outdoors person. I was in the woods all the time. I used to hunt. I love to fish. I love birds. The outdoors gives me peace.
— Interview by Judy Newman
“Banking did become fun, and to my surprise, I was good at it. I’m a people person and I like math. I was successful in spite of myself.” Jerry Smith, founder of First Business Bank and
chairman of First Business Financial Services