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Corn+Soybean Digest

Banking On Community

Like a lot of bankers, it isn't unusual for John Dollinger to end the day with soil from a farm field on his dress shoes. The difference is, it's from his own fields. He farms 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans with his sister and brother-in-law.

A farmer all his life, Dollinger diversified into banking five years ago as large banking companies bought out the local banks in the Joliet, IL, area. “Friends and business associates of mine decided there was still a need for community banks where lending decisions are made by someone you know, not someone further up the corporate ladder in some other city,” he says.

The group started the First Community Bank of Joliet. It grew large enough that the directors formed a holding company, First Community Financial Partners. That company helped create other community banks and now has assets of more than $700 million.

“Traditionally, farmers have been reluctant to invest outside of farming,” Dollinger says. “When they have cash to invest, they buy more land,” he says. “I looked at banking as a way to diversify my investments so I had something else to fall back on when times are tough in farming.”

Ironically, the First Community Bank doesn't have much of an ag portfolio. “We targeted small and mid-sized family businesses,” he says.

While the Venture has been financially rewarding, stepping away from the farm has taught Dollinger lessons he believes also give him better perspective.

Dollinger quickly learned why bankers like to stay in close touch with their customers. “I had no idea of all the regulations, documentation and paperwork banks have to keep in files,” he says. “And, it seems like there is always either a state auditor or someone from the FDIC in the bank checking to make sure you have it all.

“That's why it's so important for farmers to have regular communication with their bankers. We can work with customers. We don't want loans to go bad,” he says. “When people quit calling, we know there's likely a problem with the loan.”

As a banker, Dollinger says he has a greater appreciation for what it means to be part of a community beyond farming. “It's invigorating to me to be on the board of directors and learn how people in other industries manage their businesses,” he says. “It gives me insight on how I can better analyze and manage my farm business.”

It's an opportunity he encourages other farmers to consider. “It's important to meet with people you don't see everyday to learn how they solve problems, get new ideas on how to manage your business and think outside the box,” he says. “It's tough to do that when you do the same thing each day.”

Another lesson Dollinger has learned: In the non-farming community, the businesses that give back significantly to the community are the ones held in the highest regard. “I think it's a lesson that farmers need to learn as their businesses get bigger and bigger,” he says. “As you become more visible in the community, it becomes more important to give back to it.”

Community is a big part of Dollinger's farm and family life, as well. He shares the history of his family's farm, near Channhon, IL, by working with community organizations to host an antique tractor, steam engine and gas engine show in July and a Civil War reenactment in October. John's wife Noreen coordinates the production and selling of 30 acres of pumpkins each fall, too.

“Our farm has been in the family since 1852 and used to encompass the entire town of Dresden,” he says. “My mother still lives in the house that used to be known as Rutherford's Tavern and served the stagecoach route,” Dollinger says. “Our farm is a real visit into the past.” And, Dollinger hopes his investment in community is a vision of the future.

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