Nebraska banker finds work a blast
Robert Cook Fricke, known universally as "Bob," is affable and engaging, and possesses a ready smile. But beneath the charming veneer of this fifth generation Nebraska banker is an intensely intelligent man whose interests are too varied to name, whose bank is highly profitable, whose hometown has benefited from his visionary approach to downtown revitalization and who declares "Banking is fun!"
The former high school and college wrestler is an accomplished amateur photographer, an airplane pilot, a gifted furniture maker and woodworker and a passionate fly fisherman. Is there anything this 42-year-old dynamo can't do? Well, he claims he's a better numbers cruncher than a lender, and he focuses more on the technical and operational sides of banking.
Two years ago, Fricke became president of the 114year-old bank that his great-great-grandfather started-Farmers & Merchants National Bank in Ashland, Neb. Since 1995, earnings are up from $125,000 to $228,000-not bad for an agricultural bank in a tiny town half way between the state's big city, Omaha, and capital city, Lincoln. Between June 1996 and June 1997, assets increased by more than 14 percent, loans increased by almost 12 percent, deposits increased by 10 percent and earnings by a whopping 46 percent.
There are some good reasons the bank is doing well. First, it benefits from Fricke's belief that banking is fun. Second, it benefits from Fricke's belief that good employees who are well treated will be exceedingly productive. Third, the city of Ashland is reaping the benefits of the first rule in the real estate salesman's handbook-location, location, location.
Because it lies midpoint between Nebraska's two most important towns, and citizens of those metropolitan areas have grown weary of city life, there is new growth in Ashland's vicinity. Add to that a fabulous state park that attracted 900,000 visitors last year; the new Strategic Air Command museum that upon completion will attract millions of tourists; the new Nebraska Wildlife Safari that promises to attract thousands of nature lovers; and a nearby new public golf course that already attracts celebrities and others for golf tournaments. Consequently, Ashland is poised for continued growth in this center for recreation.
"I measure community results jointly with the results on the balance sheet," Fricke explains. "Our bank is essentially family owned. Since all of our stockholders are descendents of the founder or former employees, traditions and legacy play an important role. Management decisions are weighted more toward the long-term benefits to the community and stockholders rather than short-term profits. This formula has worked quite well for more than 100 years."
INVESTING IN COMMUNITY
Fricke also understands a basic tenet of community banking: If the community does well, the community bank can do well.
That's the reason Fricke, chairman of Ashland's planning commission, spearheaded a downtown revitalization program in which Farmers & Merchants bought most of the $750,000 bond issue that financed the development. The bond purchase saved the city more than $8,000 in marketing costs. It also improved the appearance of downtown by repairing and replacing curbs and sidewalks and sprucing up streets.
"People said to me, `Why do you want to spend all this money on a dying town?' I said, `Well, we decorate the graves of the dead. We may as well make our dying town look good, too.' After that comment, there wasn't much more they could say," Fricke says with a mischievous grin. The 2,300 citizens of Ashland overwhelmingly passed the first city sales tax, and the improvements began.
Today, there are few empty buildings in the town, and storefronts have been made more attractive. Art galleries are open for business and a computer software company from …