Were it not for a reference 40 years ago, Tim Keller might have enjoyed a long career as a high school business teacher and coach.
Instead, he’s getting ready to walk out the door for his final day at F&M Bank in Wayne, ending 27 years as the bank’s president who built the company’s assets, quite literally, from ground zero.
And while most people get job references from their supervisors, business associates or close friends, the 65-year-old Keller’s introduction into the world of banking in 1977 came from a rather unusual — and unexpected — source.
“I was teaching and coaching in Gordon, and one night I got a call from Frank Talstead at Gordon State Bank,” Keller said as he looked back on his career from his downtown office. “He had somebody who was retiring at the end of the year and asked if I’d be interested in going to work for the bank.”
Keller said he was shocked to have received the call and told him he had never even thought about going into banking before.
“He said, ‘Well why don’t you come down to the bank and I’ll help you think about it,’” he said. “I loved what I was doing as a teacher and coach and had never been exposed to banking, so I’d never thought about it as a career.”
As it turns out, that phone call was made after a dinner-time conversation with his daughter, a high school student who had Keller as a teacher in a number of her classes.
“He was home having dinner with the family and mentioned that he was looking for a young man with an ag background and a business degree who gets along well with people,” Keller explained. “His daughter, Jana, who I had as a student in some classes, said ‘Well, dad, that sounds like my business teacher, Mr. Keller.’ How many 15-year-olds listen to their dads to begin with, and then dad takes their advice?”
Keller took the job and moved from an officer trainee to the bank president position within eight years. His boss was promoted to the bank’s corporate office in Alliance, and after the company decided to merge its 11-bank operation in north-central and northwest Nebraska, Keller was put in charge of merging the banks and eventually managed all of the banks.
And, in those days, that mean travel — a LOT of it.
“When you travel in western Nebraska, you travel a lot of miles,” he said. “I’d drive from Alliance to Thedford and Mullen and Valentine and Chadron and a number of other communities.”
With the new duties and all that driving, Keller missed the day-to-day contact with customers and wasn’t sure that driving all over the western part of the state and meeting with bank presidents was what he wanted to do.
It was around that time in 1990 when he got a call from a job placement service, asking if he’d be interested in a bank president position at a new bank in Northeast Nebraska.
“They wouldn’t tell me where it was other than that it was in this part of the state, and I said I wasn’t interested unless it had at least 3,500-4,000 people and a good hospital and a good school,” he said.
When told that the community had those qualities he was seeking, he was put in contact with Phil Burns, who owned a bank in West Point and was looking to build an independent-charter bank at the building where Occidental Savings & Loan had operated before it went out of business a year earlier.
Keller made the cross-state drive from Alliance to Wayne, coming into town from the north on Highway 15 where he got his first look at two of the community’s crown jewels — Wayne Country Club and Wayne State College.
“That was a very impressive side to come in on,” he said. “I met with Phil here and he offered me the job, and a week later I called him and said I’d take it.”
And while Keller had plenty of experience in managing existing banks — building a new one with few assets to start with was going to be quite the challenge.
“We started with zero loans and a few deposits from Occidental, but my boss bought the building here and liked what he saw in the community, and it was a tremendous amount of work to get it started,” he said. “You can’t just put an ad in the paper and say we’re open for business and expect people to line up at the front door.”
Keller worked long hours writing letters, calling potential customers and meeting with families at their kitchen tables to sell the bank and its services. With an initial board of directors that included Marion Arneson, Don Larsen, Dr. Ken Liska and Sam Schroeder providing names of prospective customers, Keller was able to get the word out about F&M Bank and bring new customers through the bank’s doors.
“My board of directors were the eyes and ears of the community since I was the new guy in town, and I was able to sell myself and sell the bank’s services,” he said. “I didn’t wait for them to come — I went after them.”
Keller said his boss was hoping the new Wayne bank would be profitable within four years, but Keller had other ideas in mind.
“I’d never started a bank from scratch before, but I told my boss I didn’t think it would take three years and was hoping to have it profitable in the first year,” he said. “My boss thought I was setting myself up for disappointment, but we were profitable that first year, tripled it the second and quadrupled that the third.”
Keller said he didn’t come all this way to fail.
“My attitude was that I’m not moving my family with three little kids clear across the state just to fail. That wasn’t an option,” he said. “Work ethic was something that was taught to me on the farm and that was the attitude I had to have and it’s worked out even better than I thought it would.”
Keller spent a lot of time building F&M bank’s assets over the years, and now he’s ready to kick back and relax, with Wayne as his central point between the family farm near Naper, in the north-central part of the state, and Omaha where his three children — Kurtis, Klinton and Karla — all live with their families.
“It’s not an easy decision,” he said of his decision to retire at the end of this month. “My wife has been a retired teacher the last six years and wanted me to retire a year ago, but I was more ready to do it this year. It’s been 27 years and seemed like 27 months.”
And time flies by when you’re enjoying your work, as Keller discovered during a retirement party held at the bank earlier this week, where a steady stream of well-wishers stopped by for a three-hour party that lasted almost twice as long.
“I was overwhelmed with the number of people who came out,” he said. “We were going to be done at 7:30 and I think I got out of there at 9:30. There were a lot of former employees who came back, so it felt kind of like a reunion. And having family show up was really emotional. The relationships you build over the years and knowing you made a difference in their lives is the most rewarding part of this business.”
And now, after a 40-year career that came completely out of the blue, Keller said he is looking forward to enjoying some of his favorite hobbies — golfing, hunting, fishing and riding his Harley — along with picking up some new hobbies, including barbecuing, building model airplanes and recreational reading.
And, most important — enjoying his six (soon to be seven) grandkids and spending time with family.
“I’m giving up this identity, but I’m taking on a whole new one that will allow me to spend more time with my kids and grandkids,” he said. These last 27 years have flown by, so I can’t imagine how the next 15-20 will go and I want to be able to enjoy it.”