Fran Vergauwen reflects on banking career
By Robert Cloud
Two bank robberies motivated Fran Vergauwen to move to Waupaca 50 years ago.
Vergauwen was working as the manager at the Siren station of First Bank of Grantsburg when he was robbed twice in five weeks.
“The first guy hit me over the head with a pistol, fractured my skull and threw ammonia in my face,” Vergauwen recalled. “The second guy walked in with a briefcase and shot me in the face with ammonia. When he left, he hit me over the head with a crowbar.”
Vergauwen said he decided to leave Siren and come to work at Farmers State Bank in Waupaca.
“It seemed a little safer down here,” he said.
In September, Vergauwen celebrated half a century with Farmers State Bank.
During that time, he was the bank’s president from 1987 to 2011.
When Vergauwen joined Farmers, the bank had 15 employees and $8 million in assets.
Today, Farmers State Bank employs 42 people and has assets of $185 million.
One of the biggest changes in the banking industry Vergauwen noted is how customer service is delivered.
“You were always trying to get people to come into the bank,” Vergauwen said. “Now, people are making transactions with their telephones and their computers. It’s not as important to get them into the building anymore.”
While Farmers still stresses the importance of friendly relations with customers, technology has changed the way the bank interacts with its customers.
“We didn’t spend much time in our offices,” Vergauwen said. “We were always in the lobby, talking to people and building up those relationships.”
Vergauwen said those personal relationships went beyond the bank’s lobby into the community.
“There are people you meet on the street and friendships you build up that are second to none,” Vergauwen said. “You really get to like your customers and like your job.”
Farmers State Bank was established in 1911 and was originally located on the corner of Fulton and Main streets.
In 1966, one year before Vergauwen arrived, the bank moved to its current site, 112 W. Fulton St. It has branches in King, Wild Rose and Fremont.
Farmers opened its Auto Bank in 1998 at 118 W. Session St., one block from the main office.
Vergauwen noted Farmers’ drive-thrus once had nearly 18,000 transactions a month.
“Now, they’re probably cut in half,” he said. “Customers don’t come to the bricks and mortars as much any more. They have no need to.”
Throughout its long history, Farmers State Bank survived multiple recessions and the Great Depression – it was one of only three banks in Wisconsin that did not close.
“I don’t remember going to any annual stockholders meeting where we didn’t have an increase,” Vergauwen said regarding the recessions. “They may have slowed our growth, but they didn’t stop our growth.”
The types of banking services offered at Farmers have also changed over the past 50 years.
“We were pretty basic when I first came here: checking accounts, saving accounts, car loans and mortgages,” Vergauwen said. “Now, we have investment services, and people on staff who help customers with their investments.”
Although Vergauwen has retired from the day-to-day management of the bank, he remains on the board of directors and is president of Farmers State Bancorporation Inc., which is the holding company for Farmers State Bank.
Vergauwen said he appreciates “the good relationships I had with customers and our wonderful employees.”
Fran and his wife Carole have five children, 17 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.