Looking for proof that living with “It’s a Wonderful Life” values can nurture great businesses as well as strong families and communities? Look no further than Ed Wehmer.
As founder, president and CEO of Wintrust Financial Corporation, Wehmer is widely considered Chicago’s most successful banker. And you could say he’s an even more successful family man — the 35-years happily married husband, father of six and grandfather and in-law to many more has replicated and built upon the large family he grew up in as the fifth of six children.
During a conversation about his path through life, in his wood-paneled office overlooking O’Hare Airport, Wehmer explains that he didn’t intentionally chart this course. Rather, business and personal success followed naturally when he acted on strong values and good advice.
Here are seven tips and tenets that have guided Wehmer along his personal and professional path to success.
1. “Find your passion and make it happen.”
Wehmer grew up in Kenilworth, attending Faith, Hope & Charity grade school, then Loyola High School. He also worked in the Wilmette grocery store his grandfather founded.
By his high school senior year, the only thing Wehmer was certain of was that he did not want to attend the University of Notre Dame — the expected next step in his North Shore Catholic education.
“After the season was over, some teammates and I crowded into a car and took our Holden Caulfield trip, driving across Canada and the United States to explore alternatives,” Wehmer says.
After some soul-searching on his trip, he decided to matriculate to Georgetown University as a business major.
To this day, Wehmer uses that story to inspire others to “find your passion and make it happen.”
2. “If you don’t know what you want to do in business, be an accountant. You get paid to see all kinds of industries and ask dumb questions.”
By his 1976 college graduation, Wehmer knew he did not want to make a career in grocery stores, but he didn’t know what he wanted to do instead. So he acted on sage advice to try accounting, “because I would be paid to learn about all kinds of businesses and ask dumb questions.” He started at Ernst & Young, where he quickly discovered a passion for banking.
This turned out to be a wise move. Following the proliferation of big-box stores, the family business, like so many other independent groceries, folded.
Today, Wehmer is very proud that Wintrust bought the grocery’s Wilmette location for its most successful community bank launch of all — North Shore Community Bank.
3. “Learn how to merge.”
Wehmer’s mentor recommended he learn how to merge banks — shortly before a wave of consolidations hit the industry. By age 26, Wehmer was flying around the country helping banks consolidate.
Learning to merge still is great advice. Merging is a variation on collaboration. In these fast-changing times, the world belongs to smart collaborators. Families are stronger when members know how to collaborate effectively too.
4. “Marry well — the love of your life, someone who also inspires you.”
“Behind any success like mine is someone like Dorothy,” Wehmer gushes about his beautiful brunette wife of 35 years. “She is my inspiration!”
They met at Muldoon’s Saloon, where they had gathered with friends before a Bulls game. Wehmer framed the check deposit slip on which Dorothy wrote her phone number that night. It still hangs in his home office.
Engaged 11 months later and married nine months after that, their first five kids were born every two years thereafter. Their youngest followed four years later. Wehmer gives his wife most of the credit for their flourishing family life, but it’s clear that family has always had an incredible hold on his heart too.
As their family grew, so did Wehmer’s career. Unfortunately, he found himself leaving home Sunday nights, not able to return until late the following Friday. He had to make a change.
5. “Find the right work/life balance.”
“I left Ernst & Young to become the CFO of a local bank,” he explains. “This allowed me to learn the regulatory side of banking too.”
But within two years Wehmer was recruited to other banks in grow-and-merge mode too. Consequently, he again found himself spending too much time away from his family and their Lake Forest home.
“I needed to find the right work/life balance.”
Wehmer wasn’t looking to grow an empire. “My objective was to be like Jimmy Stewart in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life,’” he says. “I just never wanted to miss coaching my kids’ teams or any school events.”
Wehmer knew that as big banks across the country were swallowing smaller ones, customers and employees still wanted a personal touch.
He resolved to start a bank in his hometown, bribing co-workers with a case of beer and a box of cigars to work after-hours to help him develop a business plan.
In 1991 Lake Forest Bank and Trust opened with 11 employees, 1,100 square feet and a policy, which continues to this day, that those employees should prioritize family activities over business. Wehmer describes it with a grin, “If your kid has an event, get out of here!”
6. “To be a successful community business, get the community involved and treat people like you want to be treated.”
Wehmer solicited investments in his start-up from as many friends and community members as possible. “Local owners are the best salespeople of all,” he says, smiling knowingly. “So are satisfied customers, so we kill them with service!”
Employee empowerment is another “treat people like you want to be treated” priority too. Wehmer shares his management truths in rapid fire:
“Empower people to make their own decisions.”
“Give them the ability to take on challenges and run.”
“Push decisions as close to the customer as you can.”
“If an employee doesn’t work out, you failed — by either hiring wrong or not giving them the right training.”
Wehmer has applied similar empowerment rules to his parenting too. “You have to let your kids make their own mistakes,” he says.
7. “Doing right by the community is the secret to success.”
Doing right by employees and community quickly proved to be a successful and easily replicable model. Within a few years, Wintrust opened banks in Hinsdale, Libertyville, Barrington, Crystal Lake and Wilmette. Soon other banks wanted to merge with Wintrust too. The bank now provides community-oriented, personal and commercial banking services to customers located in greater metropolitan Chicago, northwest Indiana and southern Wisconsin through 4,200 employees in 15 wholly owned banking subsidiaries, including three wealth management companies and two commercial finance companies. Looking ahead, Wintrust aspires to continue its rapid expansion within Chicago’s city limits by opening a branch in every neighborhood.
“We’ve never really strayed from the operating principles and plans developed over those first beers and cigars,” says Wehmer. “Being deeply involved in community and local events is still one of the secrets of our success too. Every employee is required to be part of at least one charity.”
That charitable commitment has also led to a plethora of honors and impressive board service for Wehmer too. These include:
Boards and memberships:
- Member of Stepan Company (NYSE) in Northfield, Illinois
- Chairman of the Board of Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital
- Audit committee member for Northwestern Memorial Health Care
- Trustee for Lurie Children’s Hopital and Foundation
- Member of Board of the Archdiocese of Chicago and Vice Chairman of its Budget and Operating Committee
- Director of the Catholic Extension Society of America
- Member of The Economic Club of Chicago
- Member of The Commercial Club of Chicago
- Member of Bankers Club (also former president)
Awards and recognitions:
- LINK Unlimited – Dreamkeepers Mentor Award
- Lake County Foundation – Scholarship Gala Honoree
- Chicago Innovations Awards – Chicago Champion Award
- Clearbrook – Shining Star Ball Honoree
- Bunker Labs – Bunker Builder Award for Leadership
- Anti-Defamation League – Americanism Award
- City Year – Ripples of Hope Honoree
- Amate House – Mary Ellen Nolan Guardian Angel Award
- Erie Neighborhood House – Community Leader Award
- Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago Foundation – Champions for Children’s Corporate Award
- Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce – Corporate Leadership Award
Not surprisingly, his family life continues to thrive as well. Wehmer beams as he describes how his now-adult children all settled in Chicagoland; he delights to have his grandchildren live nearby in Lake Forest. He and Dorothy just built a larger home, on the lake, and regularly host scores of extended family members there and at vacation homes for holiday gatherings too.
Wehmer’s story serves as compelling inspiration to follow his example and pursue the “It’s A Wonderful Life” lifestyle, opening doors to a successful future for many more. Wehmer also credits his fifth-grade Faith, Hope & Charity teacher, Sister Seraphia, with providing him lifelong inspiration by teaching him the poem “It Couldn’t Be Done” by Edgar A. Guest, an excerpt of which he gleefully recites from memory to this day:
‘Oh, you’ll never do that;
At least no one ever has done it;’
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat
And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.”
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