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Executive Q&A: Kenosha upbringing helps shape BMO official

Executive Q&A: Kenosha upbringing helps shape BMO official

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John T. Ronzia, senior vice president and managing director for BMO Private Bank in southwest Wisconsin and Rockford, Illinois, is, in his own words, “Wisconsin through and through.”

Born and raised in Kenosha, Ronzia grew up with a strong sense of community built around neighborhood and church. Business was dominated by the American Motors, then Chrysler, plant. “Employment was very much blue-collar concentrated,” Ronzia recalled. “As a result, I think I learned very early on that gaining consensus and working together as a team is much easier and more effective in reaching goals than acting on your own. I also saw hard work ethic and pride of ownership first hand.”

When AMC and Chrysler were at the peak of production, Ronzia recalls, people didn’t drive the cars just to support the home team. “They drove them because they knew the people who made them were darn proud of them and stood behind the product.”

Ronzia said that background shapes who he is now.

QUESTION: First of all, what is a private bank — and what’s a private banker?

ANSWER: When we discuss a “private bank” we’re typically talking about a specialized unit within a bank that brings a tailored approach to wealth management for high-net-worth individuals, families, foundations and non-profits. For most people, accumulating, protecting and, ultimately, doing something with their wealth is extremely personal — and a private bank needs to understand that. A good private banker uses soft skills to gain a deep understanding of a high-net-worth client’s goals around wealth, then apply expertise in developing and executing a plan to achieve them. With wealth comes the need for more tailored solutions involving creative lending, more active and individualized investment management and complex trust and estate planning. The hope is that everyone gets to a point where they can focus on building their net worth, but private bankers are working with a smaller set of clients who have achieved a level of wealth, typically greater than $1 million, which requires these more tailored services.

Q: M&I Bank was a Wisconsin bank, with a lot of local identity. Has some of that local identity has been lost as BMO took over?

A: Have we lost local identity? Hmmm, let me think about that. No. It’s a good question but, to me, saying we’re no longer a Wisconsin bank is like saying the Bucks are no longer a Wisconsin basketball team because its owners live in New York. Most companies try to establish their brands, or identities, in the marketplace as a way to let the consumer know what it is, how it does things, and how it will benefit them. It’s true — M&I had a long history in Wisconsin, but its local identity and visibility wasn’t a function of tenure. It was a reflection of its commitment, both corporately and by its employees, to the communities in which we worked and lived.

When leaders from BMO first came to Madison in 2011 after announcement of the acquisition, I was struck by the similarities in our two organizations. M&I was more than 150 years old at the time — and BMO had us by more than 50 years. Each had a rich tradition of supporting the community not only financially by investing in the many non-profits that strive to make us all better people and neighbors, but also by injecting sweat equity into those endeavors. We’re a large employer in the cities and towns where we do business, and the people who work for us have a great impact. What makes us feel like a Wisconsin bank is the reflection of the values of our people and our clients, and that’s never going to change.

Q: How did you get involved with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation?

A: JDRF is committed to finding a cure for Type I Diabetes (T1D). People are born with T1D, which is an autoimmune disease that affects the body’s ability to produce insulin. Without insulin, the body can’t convert sugars to energy. For people with T1D, symptoms and consequences typically begin to show up as a child or young adult. Different than Type 2 Diabetes, or adult onset diabetes, T1D cannot be prevented or delayed through medical treatment or lifestyle choices.

Irene and I are fortunate that no one in our family is directly affected by T1D; however it is very personal issue for us. We first became involved when a very close friend asked me to join him on a bike ride to raise money for JDRF. We didn’t know much about T1D at the time, but JDRF and its mission was important to our friend so it was important to us, and I agreed to do the ride. With that introduction to JDRF, we became exposed to the many people who are passionate about finding a cure. It’s an amazing organization that has a very clear understanding of what it needs to do to meet its mission. After seeing it firsthand, the decision to get more involved was very easy.

Q: You’ve taught classes for people who want to start small businesses. Is this a good time to start a business in Wisconsin?

A: Any entrepreneur looking to start a business needs to understand the many environmental factors which could have an impact, including economic, political, regulatory and competitive. To be sure, some of these factors will be difficult or impossible to control, but I believe that a good idea supported by a good business plan is hard to stop. My experience in working with business owners tells me that the most successful are the ones that had the clearest plan going into startup and are good adapting as the business climate changes.

Q: What’s the best part of being on the Madison Opera board? Do you sing, for example?

A: Well, the only way I’ll get to try on a costume is if I take to the stage. But, I can assure you, I’m not on the board because I’m an able stand-in if the lead tenor happens to call in sick the day of the performance. As a matter of fact, most people would characterize my voice as best suited for the print medium.

Despite my lack of talent, I do enjoy the performing arts, and the chance to make a contribution behind the scenes is a great experience and very fulfilling. Despite income from ticket sales, most performing arts organizations rely heavily on private and corporate donations. Kathryn Smith, the Opera’s general director, and her staff have done an incredible job of providing world class programming while managing the income streams to make it all possible.

Now is an exciting time of year for us as we begin wrap up on our current season with two performances of “The Tales of Hoffmann” in mid-April, but we’ve also just introduced our schedule for next season. We are all very excited to announce that Madison Opera will be performing the Midwest debut of Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird.” You guessed it, an opera based upon the life of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker.


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