Twenty five years ago Larry Gajda was drawn to Door County by the beauty and wide variety of things to do on the peninsula. After a quarter of a century of commercial banking, Gajda can point to businesses from Washington Island to Sturgeon Bay that he has been trusted to help. Gajda has decided to retire from Nicolet National Bank in January, 2017.
Gajda and his wife, Donna, had planned to retire together at the end of 2015. However, Gajda was Market Manager for Sister Bay, Ellison Bay, and Washington Island when he received the green light to remodel the Sister Bay branch. He stayed on to oversee a major renovation and move to the building across the street at 2477 S. Bay Shore Drive.
Meanwhile, the Baylake and Nicolet Bank merger was announced and Gajda was asked to stay on past his intended retirement to help with the transition. With Donna’s approval, and a bit of her skepticism of whether this time retirement would really happen, he agreed to stay through the year because he wanted to make sure the bank took care of the customers through the merger. He feels the employees, stockholders and customers are benefiting and being treated well. Gajda is certain “the future is going to be great for our customers and our employees on a long term basis.”
Gajda started his career as a teacher making $6000 per year after graduating from UW-Eau Claire with an education degree, a history major and minor in political science. To supplement his income he took a summer job in finance where he found a new career. He stayed with Thorp Finance and with his teaching background became a trainer for the company. Gajda says, “They did an excellent job with training because they taught how to collect loans first. Before sitting down with a customer, lenders had to learn what happened if they made a bad loan decision, so it made them a better lender. Lenders realize making a loan to someone with past due loans or bad credit history isn’t good for the company or a customer.”
Living in Menomonie, Wisconsin, Gajda traveled with his wife, three children, and family dog to Door County almost every other weekend year-round in their small motorhome to fish or go snowmobiling. In 1987 Gajda sought a chance to move to Door County because of the wide variety of things to do, and the beauty of this part of the state. On the morning of his interview with a Door County bank, Gajda woke at 4 am to ice fish in Egg Harbor, caught his limit of Brown Trout, shaved his full beard off and then met Greg Stephan for a 9 am interview, starting his banking career with 1st National Bank of Sturgeon Bay.
Gajda looks at his customers as friends, people he has come to know and establish mutual trust. If they both feel it’s a good deal, we were there to put the next project together. If there’s a mutual feeling, the loan was fairly easy to get done.
Gajda began working at a bank in Pulaski in October, 2004, before the recession. 2008 was not a good year for most bankers, and Gajda was no exception. He and his coworkers went to a meeting in which they expected to look at their goals for the next year, instead learned that bank was having to downsize being forced to reduce their loan portfolio to have an adequate capital level. As a lender he was laid off along with many of his fellow employees. They left the meeting turning in their phone and keys with no prior warning.
The recession was a difficult time to find a job so he accepted a position as Chief Credit Officer with a troubled bank across the state under scrutiny by the regulators. He worked with the president of the bank to get it back on solid footings, having their best year ever. Consequently, he worked himself out of a job. Gajda reflects, “Despite being a sad day, it turned out to be a great opportunity.”
He was ready to get back to Door County and found his final career through Baylake Bank which brought Gajda back to Sister Bay. It was the best thing for him and worked out very well for Baylake Bank. “A lot of times you bring someone on board from another financial institution, they think they are going to be able to bring a bunch of customers with them but it doesn’t happen. In Larry’s case, more customers came than we thought when Larry joined the bank.” said Mike Gilson, Executive Vice President, Community Relations.
He’s had customers that have followed him throughout his career from Door County in 1987, then to Citizens Bank in Pulaski, all the way to Pigeon Falls State Bank and back to Nicolet Bank. One of the last loans he will be making before he leaves is to a very good customer that could go anywhere, but followed him to four different banks. Gajda believes that’s because it’s beyond banking; it’s a matter of trust.
Gajda didn’t want to retire without ensuring a smooth transition. He’s found that in Commercial Banker Ken Glasheen. Although they may have different personalities and approaches with customers, they look at the credit in the same way, with the same underwriting standards in mind. “The nice part about working with Ken in Sister Bay, there haven’t been any loans that I thought we should do that Ken wasn’t able to get done for the customer. Nicolet is truly a community bank. Our customers and employees can look forward to a great working relationship.”
Is there a common denominator for a successful business? Yes, according to Gajda: management and good planning. “The owner of the business has to be committed to that business and understand it. We spend time looking at the numbers and business plan, you can get a sense of whether or not this person and business are going to be successful. The business may not quite make it for other reasons, like the economy, but in most cases it’s the individual who runs the business which is the biggest driving factor on whether it’s going to be successful.”
Gajda stresses the bank is their financial partner. “In working with the business sometimes the best thing the bank can do for an individual is to say “no”. There is a fiduciary responsibility to not finance a deal if there are enough warning signs that it’s not going to make it. In many cases if we have to tell someone “no”, part of our job is to counsel the business owner to what they need to do, what they need to change, so when they come in next time we’ll be able to say “yes”. That’s one of the things I pride in myself, that even on the loans I’m doing for the customer that we’re approving, I’ve always felt it was my job to educate that customer so they better understand why the bank structures a loan differently than they had requested. The bank doesn’t set up a line of credit for equipment purchases; it is typically used for seasonal fluctuations in the business or to purchase inventory. An equipment purchase would be financed with a term loan.”
Gajda has been active in the community with a leadership role as chairman for the Door County Economic Development Corporation and worked with the county’s Revolving Loan Fund. In Sister Bay he was involved in the Economic Development Committee, charged with taking Sister Bay forward by working the Village and a number of vacant properties, the highway project, and burying power lines to open up the lower level of Sister Bay for a cleaner look. Gajda is proud of the improvements Sister Bay has made, with the beautiful beach and increased activity. He was also involved in the Sister Bay Advancement Association since he came to Baylake Bank.
He has been Treasurer and Chairman of Sunshine House, and is pleased with the new Sunflower Cottage, expanding adult care for those with Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s and more. Gajda’s volunteerism focuses on the betterment of the community, starting with the Lion’s Club since 1987. He has been the club’s President and is currently on the Board of Directors. He intends to stay involved in the Lion’s Club after retirement, and look for other opportunities to serve.
The next adventure for Gajda will be a week-long saddlebag snowmobile round-trip from Park Falls to International Falls, MN. The group will put about 1000 miles on the sleds. Retirement comes during ice fishing season so he’ll be ready when the bay freezes over. He’ll get back to RVing with a southern destination this spring and then continue to areas of the country he hasn’t visited.
Gajda has a son living in Washington, and in Sturgeon Bay a son, Chris, daughter, Darcy, and three grandchildren. Gajda can almost always be seen at football and basketball games where his grandson Connor plays for Sturgeon Bay High School.
Gajda believes in financial education and that too many people have no idea what they need for a certain standard of living. “We need to figure out a way to do more about that. When people understand what’s expected of them, then they are better able to do what they need to be successful.” He hopes the community can help them be better prepared through ongoing time devoted to getting people ready for the real world and is considering ways to help.
The community is invited to a Retirement Open House for Larry Gajda at Nicolet National Bank at Sister Bay Branch, 9477 S. Bay Shore Drive on January 5, 2017 from 1:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. with cake, coffee and conversation with Larry.