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Despite having to deal with the fallout of the 2008 housing market crash and banking crisis — and the regulations that followed — local financial institutions are continuing to do well.

To survive and thrive, though, they have had to adapt to changes in technology and make themselves more efficient while remaining customer-friendly.


When Nicolet Bank opens its new Colby office in March, branch manager Heather Jeske said customers may notice a lot of changes, but one important thing will stay the same: the cookies made by employee Phyllis Untiedt.

“She will be able to make them in the new branch,” Jeske said with a smile.

Laurie Nolechek, vice president and retail banking manager for Nicolet’s central region, said local Nicolet customers have come to expect little perks like that.

Nolechek and Jeske said the new building, which is just over 2,500 square feet, will offer a more customer-friendly environment for account holders. The bank’s current office at the corner of Spence and First streets, while significantly larger than the newly built one, has a layout Nolechek describes as “choppy.”

Instead of bank employees having to move around to different parts of the building to get work done, Nolechek said the new space will be streamlined to maximize efficiency and transparency.

“Everyone will have sight lines to the lobby, to the traffic, to the customers,” she said. “It will be very open and inviting.”

In an era when more and more banking transactions are done online, Nolechek said Colby’s branch still has more foot traffic than other Nicolet branches, though it is on the decline.

“Any financial institution has seen a downturn, if you’re comparing it to even five years ago, absolutely,” she said.

Nolechek said the branch still offers strong in-person service, in addition to the online options Nicolet provides. The new office will include four teller windows — the same as the current one — but they will be more clustered together instead of spread out like they are now.

In addition to the lobby and teller area, the new building will have three fullsized offices, a conference room, and a smaller work-space office. A two-lane drive-through window with an ATM will be accessible right off Hornet Drive.

Nolechek said the new office will be very similar to the Nicolet branches recently opened in Rhinelander and Medford, but on a smaller scale.

While the design will have a “modern” feel, Nolechek said the new location will also include a couple unique callbacks to the bank’s local history. An old-fashioned safe, which used to sit in the Abbotsford branch office before it closed in 2016, will be making the move to the new location.

So will the bank’s silver vault door, believed to date back to the 1920s or 1930s. It will no longer be a functioning door, but instead serve as an art piece displayed in between the conference room and the branch manager’s office.

The building on the northeast corner of Colby’s downtown has been a bank for as long as anyone can remember. Nicolet took over Mid-Wisconsin in 2013, and for decades before that it was home to Security State Bank.

“As I have been cleaning stuff out here, I did find some books and records going back to the late 1800s,” Jeske said, including handwritten meeting minutes from the early 20th century.

Although the old corner lot has served Nicolet and other banks well over the years, Nolechek said they’ve been looking for a new location since 2017.

“We just kind of recognized that this building is more than we need,” she said. “We used to have rental space, and we haven’t utilized that area in many years.”

Nolechek, who has been involved in previous branch relocations, said the process actually goes pretty quickly. After they close for business on a Friday, armed guards will assist in moving the safe deposit boxes and bank employees will all pitch in to move the rest.

If all goes as planned, the bank will open to customers on the following Monday. The goal is to do that in March.

When asked about the reactions from customers, Jeske said they’ve been happy to hear that Nicolet is not going to be building some “monstrosity,” but rather a scaled-back, efficient office.

“For the most part I think it’s been positive,” she said. “People come in and ask questions and want to know to why. Then, when we explain to them and show them the extra space we have and some of the inefficiencies, they say ‘Oh, well, that makes sense.’”


Since 1968, the original location of the Abbotsford-based AbbyBank has been a fixture of the community — a defining characteristic of Wisconsin’s First City as drivers pass by on Highways 13 and 29.

Other banks have come and gone over the past 52 years, but AbbyBank — formerly known as Abbotsford State Bank — has kept its loyal customers, which has allowed it to expand to a total of seven locations across the state.

In 2016, AbbyBank purchased Fidelity National in Medford and remodeled the building there into a modern, customerfriendly bank. Last year, AbbyBank acquired Greshman-based State Bank, adding approximately $28 million in assets.

Jenny Jakel, executive vice president of AbbyBank, credits the bank’s board of directors with the longterm success of the local institution.

“We’re not big risk-takers,” she said. “We’re not uber-conservative, either, but we recognize we have a need to be here for our customers and our shareholders as well.”

Jakel said AbbyBank operates like a “three-legged stool,” with separate portfolios for business, residential and agricultural loans. The ups and downs of each portfolio depend on the state of the economy at particular times, she said.

When times get tough for a particular sector — like housing a decade ago or agriculture in recent years — Jakel said the bank does what it can for its customers while working within regulations to maintain safety and soundness ratings.

“We manage the bank so we can help our customers weather the storm,” she said.

The local branch employs 50 people, including about 30 tellers, a dozen loan officers and support staff. AbbyBank has a total of 106 employees across all its locations.

Jakel herself has been with the bank for 43 years, starting as an entry-level secretary and working her way up to the executive level.

“It’s the only job I’ve ever had,” she said. “I actually started as a three-month temp, covering for somebody on maternity leave, and then she decided to come back.”

Just like other brick-and-mortar institutions, online technology has changed the way AbbyBank interacts with its customers, though the local branch still has a fair amount of in-person transactions.

“We’ve definitely seen the foot traffic decrease over the years, but being a rural area, we’re always going to have more foot traffic than some of our more metropolitan offices are,” she said.

Jakel said AbbyBank first computerized its records in the early 1980s, and it continues advancing “exponentially” every year what employees and customers can do online.

“We can offer everything the big banks can offer,” she said.

The cost of keeping up with technology and complying with banking regulations is a major challenge for smaller banks, Jakel said. She said the Wisconsin Banking Association has been able to win some regulatory relief, but the process of lending money is still much more complicated than it used to be.

“When I started, you only had to sign two pieces of paper,” she said.

For many community banks, the added expenses of technology and regulation are too much, she said.

“It makes it difficult for smaller banks to afford those things,” she said. “So, you’re seeing more and more banks going on the market.”


When Forward Financial Bank took over for Community Bank of Central Wisconsin in February of 2013, more than just the name on the building changed.

Jennifer Sobotta, vice president of marketing for what is now referred to as Forward Bank, said high-quality per- sonnel allowed the bank on STH 13 in Colby to maintain a sterling reputation.

“We were able to bring in some really good people, with Vicky Fischer, Tracy Geiger and Gary Schraufnagel,” she said. “You’ve got a core group of very local, very dedicated bankers that stepped in for the team at Community and picked up where they left off.”

Sobotta said Community Bank had really imbedded itself in the area, and Forward Bank was able to build on that foundation.

“I think we’ve done a really nice job for the customers here,” she said.

Forward has been keeping up with the increasing popularity of online banking, Sobotta said, but at the same time, loyal customers keep coming through the door when they need in-person service. She said account-holders have the freedom to deposit a check using their smartphone, but they can also come to the bank if they have more complex transactions to make or questions to ask.

“We continue to grow in the number of people we serve,” she said. “The foot traffi c has stayed flat, so we’re growing, but there’s about the same amount of people coming in, and our online and mobile traffic is increasing very steadily.”

Sobotta also noted that the on-site ATM accepts both cash and checks, so that’s another option customers can utilize.

“We do have a strong focus to serve our customers when and where they want,” she said, noting people can do everything from opening a deposit account to applying for a mortgage with mobile devices.

Forward Bank’s Colby branch has six employees, including the three lending specialists and three others who interact with customers in a multitude of ways.

“There are less and less banks that have strictly tellers,” she said. “The team you see up front, most are cross-trained to be able to open deposit accounts and really be more relationship-building than just transactional.”

Sobotta said Forward is invested in multiple sectors of the local economy, including agriculture, which has seen some big ups and downs in recent years.

“We’re impacted when our farmers are impacted,” she said.

Other sectors seem to be doing well at this time, she said.

“Business seems to be consistently growing,” she said. “We’re really focusing a lot of our efforts on making connections with customers and our area non-profits.”

Sobotta said charitable organizations are particularly popular in the Abbotsford- Colby area.

“Everybody seems to be excited to give back with the help of their bank,” she said.


The staff at Royal Credit Union in Colby have been at their location on Spence Street since 2001, but the credit union’s history in the city goes back much further than that.

Jill Robida, a level III member account representative (MAR), said RCU bought out Member’s Choice Credit Union in 2001, and before that, it was located on First Street. It started out as a credit union for employees of Packaging Corporation of America, but it long ago expanded beyond just that company.

Branch manager Kim Reineke said RCU’s Colby office has eight employees, including herself as the branch’s loan officer. The traditional separation of duties among different RCU employees has dissolved in recent years.

“Everybody does everything,” she said. “There’s no breakdown anymore of tellers and other staff, which is kind of nice because it gives everybody the opportunity to connect with members.”

Since she took over as branch manager in 2013, Reineke said there’s been a steady increase in total transaction numbers, whether online or in-person.

“It’s a very busy little branch,” Robida noted.

The office has just one drive-through lane, so they still see a line of customers on Saturday mornings, which is “a good problem to have,” Reineke said.

Like other financial institutions, RCU offers online banking, but Reineke said a lot of small-town members still like to do some transactions the old-fashioned way.

“A lot of the members in this area like the face-to-face,” she said. “They want to talk to somebody, they want to get their options.”

Still, technological innovations have allowed RCU members to do many activities online, such as signing loan documents and making deposits remotely, The branch is also now able to issue new check cards instantly on-site.

“If you lose a check card, we can make one right here, which a lot of people love,” Robida said.

As far as lending trends go, RCU is seeing a good buyer’s market bringing in a lot of members looking to buy homes.

“Mortgages come and go depending on where the rate is,” Reineke said. “I’d say this last fall they were probably at an all-time high. Rates really dropped and members came in to refinance and get the better rate.”

Once a week, a mortgage specialist comes to the Colby branch to meet with customers, and once a month, someone from Investments and Insurance stops in. RCU also operates a student credit union at the Colby School District.

This type of multi-faceted service is what keeps RCU’s 7,000 to 8,000 members loyal.

“We have great rates, but service is the main thing,” Reineke said. “We send out a lot of surveys and we get feedback from our members. And that’s one of the number one comments: They stay because of the service.”


Eleven years ago, the Medford-based Taylor Credit Union took a chance by building a branch office in Abbotsford.

“We were looking to expand into an area that would help us gain more members, and it has,” said Debbie Woods, president and CEO. “After the first year, we gained 200 new members just from here, which was great.”

Branch manager Joy Pawlukiewicz said membership continues to grow annually (it’s currently at 7,980), including in new demographic areas, such as the Hispanic population.

For immigrants who do not have a Social Security number, Pawlukiewicz said TCU offers what’s called “ITIN lending,” which allows customers to use their Individual Tax Identification Number to take out loans. Not all financial institutions are able to do this, she noted.

Woods said branching out to Abbotsford has been a “good learning experience for our whole organization.”

“We’ve had to adapt and do things just a little bit different here,” she said.

Woods said the growing popularity of online banking has caused a “tremendous change” in their industry. Credit union employees no longer see people filling up the lobby on a Thursday or Friday night to cash their paychecks, but people still need access to their money.

“Even though the foot traffic has decreased, it hasn’t decreased the volume,” Woods said. “It has just shifted, and given people many different access points which they didn’t have in the past.”

Mobile banking has allowed TCU to retain more members over time, as they no longer feel compelled to open a new account somewhere else when they go off to college or travel south for the winter.

“They don’t have to have accounts in other places,” Woods said. “All of that just travels with them.”

Unlike other financial institutions that engaged in risking lending in the past, Pawlukiewicz said TCU hasn’t had to alter the way it does business.

“Our lending policies have always been very stable,” she said. “We didn’t have to change those things because we were lending responsibly.”

Still, they’ve noticed customers are paying closer attention to their credit scores than they used to and are being more cautious with their money.

“I think people are maybe saving a little bit more that what they did before, because we are seeing saving rates that have increased,” Woods said.

Over the past decade, TCU has hired six financial coaches to help people manage their money, and in 2014, it opened a student credit union at Abbotsford Elementary to teach kids good savings habits at a young age. “We focus a lot more on financial education, trying to teach people how to responsibly handle their money,” Woods