Ex­ec­u­tive Q&A: John­son Fi­nan­cial Group’s Jim Popp takes the helm

CEO says best part in­ter­act­ing with cus­tomers

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Business - Paul Gores Milwaukee Jour­nal Sen­tinel USA TO­DAY NET­WORK – WIS­CON­SIN AN­GELA PETER­SON/MILWAUKEE JOUR­NAL SEN­TINEL

James R. Popp has a new of­fice at the head­quar­ters of John­son Fi­nan­cial Group in Racine, but don’t ex­pect to find him there ev­ery work­day.

To Popp, the best part of be­ing the new chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Wis­con­sin’s sec­ond-big­gest banking firm is go­ing out to John­son Bank cus­tomers and branches and lis­ten­ing to peo­ple. He counts him­self among lead­ers who be­lieve com­mu­ni­ca­tion — lis­ten­ing as well as talk­ing — is at the top of the list of du­ties for a CEO.

“I think it’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion. I think it’s clar­ity. I think it’s fo­cus. That’s a big part of what your lead­er­ship team has to bring to the ta­ble,” Popp said. “Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is such a two-way street. It’s not just com­mu­ni­cat­ing in one di­rec­tion.”

Popp, 54, this month suc­ceeded Thomas M. Bol­ger as CEO of Racine-based John­son Fi­nan­cial Group, a fi­nan­cial ser­vices com­pany owned by the John­son fam­ily and chaired by He­len John­son-Leipold. Bol­ger led a turn­around of the bank af­ter it was weak­ened by loans that went bad dur­ing the Great Re­ces­sion and its af­ter­math.

To­day, John­son Bank is well­cap­i­tal­ized and lend­ing to cred­it­wor­thy busi­nesses and con­sumers. Through Sept. 30, the bank’s 2017 net in­come was about $26.4 mil­lion, up 21% from the same pe­riod a year ear­lier, reg­u­la­tory records show. With as­sets of about $4.7 bil­lion, John­son Bank trails in size only to Green Bay’s As­so­ci­ated Bank among banks head­quar­tered in Wis­con­sin.

“Tom was the right per­son at ev­ery level for that spot. His style, his skill set were ab­so­lutely right,” said Popp, who was the Wis­con­sin mar­ket leader for JPMor­gan Chase be­fore

go­ing to John­son as pres­i­dent last year. “Now as Tom has made this de­ci­sion to re­tire, there is this great op­por­tu­nity for me.”

Al­most all of Popp’s banking ca­reer was with Chase or banks Chase ac­quired. He left briefly to help run a fam­ily busi­ness be­fore he was called in 2001 to head up the Milwaukee of­fice of Bank One, a fu­ture Chase ac­qui­si­tion.

Popp has be­come a fa­mil­iar face with lo­cal char­i­ta­ble and civic or­ga­ni­za­tions ever since.

John­son Fi­nan­cial Group has in­vest­ment and in­surance di­vi­sions in ad­di­tion to John­son Bank. In 2016, the com­pany made head­lines by ac­quir­ing long­time Milwaukee in­vest­ment ad­vi­sory firm Cleary Gull Ad­vi­sors Inc.

Popp sat down with the Jour­nal Sen­tinel re­cently to dis­cuss his back­ground, his new role and the in­dus­try. Here is an edited ver­sion of that con­ver­sa­tion.

Ques­tion: What was your boy­hood like?

Popp: I grew up in Lib­er­tyville, Ill. I grew up in a house­hold where my dad came home be­tween 5:29 and 5:31 ev­ery day. We’d (Popp and two broth­ers) be sit­ting on the porch with our mitts wait­ing to play catch. My dad is prob­a­bly my big­gest in­flu­ence, be­cause he’s just a solid, grind-it-out kind of guy. He just does what he does. He’s a lowkey guy. He takes care of things. Just a re­ally steady, sta­ble, solid-as­the-day-is-long kind of guy, which is great.

Sports was big. We played any­thing that had a ball. Back then, that’s just what you did.

Q: You played tight end on the Vanderbilt Univer­sity foot­ball team? Popp: I wound up hav­ing a nice ca­reer there. I was drafted by the

49ers. I was in San Fran­cisco and Chicago and had about an hour and a half with the Hous­ton Oilers.

It’s some­thing to un­der­stand how to win, and it’s some­thing to un­der­stand how to lose and get back up and keep go­ing again.

What I al­ways tell peo­ple — I tell my kids this — I don’t care whether you play sports or whether you’re in the band or you’re in drama or you’re in the play. It doesn’t mat­ter. Do some­thing, and do it re­ally well.

To be part of a team, to be where your piece is part of a big­ger whole, is re­ally com­pelling.

Q: How did you get into banking?

Popp: As I tell peo­ple, I got tired of be­ing fired from my first three jobs — the 49ers, the Bears and the Oilers.

So I started to in­ter­view. Ac­tu­ally a friend of a friend in­tro­duced me to a banker at Amer­i­can Na­tional Bank and Trust of Chicago (since merged into Chase). Thirty years later, Amer­i­can Na­tional felt a lot like John­son Fi­nan­cial Group feels to­day. It was a place that oozed cul­ture. It was all about the cus­tomer. It was about re­la­tion­ships and cus­tomers.

My first role was as a credit an­a­lyst, which was kind of the low­est role on the food chain in com­mer­cial banking back in 1987. I did a lot of things there.

I’ve spent the bulk of my ca­reer in the com­mer­cial banking busi­ness. The fun­da­men­tal piece of the com­mer­cial banking busi­ness is un­der­stand­ing risk. It’s fun­da­men­tal in the fi­nan­cial ser­vices busi­ness.

Q: How did you end up com­ing to Milwaukee?

Popp: I was in the mid­dle of the fam­ily busi­ness when I got a phone call out of the blue from a guy run­ning Bank One’s busi­ness up here.

At the time I was liv­ing in Lib­er­tyville and had just built a house. It would have been an easy com­mute for me to this job. But he said, “We want you to take this job run­ning our Milwaukee busi­ness, but we have one caveat. And that is, you have to move here be­cause you can’t do this job if you don’t live here.”

Truly, you can’t be­come a part of this com­mu­nity un­less you live here and spend time here and you get in­volved here.

It’s one of the great things about Milwaukee: All you have to do is show up and grab the rope and start pulling. You can be part of the so­lu­tion here.

Q: What does the com­mer­cial mar­ket for bankers look like right now?

Popp: The bulk of our busi­ness is in the state of Wis­con­sin. One of the great things about Wis­con­sin is it’s a pretty sta­ble, steady mar­ket. The highs don’t get too high, and the lows don’t get too low.

You don’t get this me­te­oric growth. But at the same time, com­pa­nies are chang­ing and evolv­ing, just like our busi­ness is chang­ing and evolv­ing. They are buy­ing other com­pa­nies, they are in­vest­ing in technology, they’re in­vest­ing in build­ings and in­fra­struc­ture, they’re go­ing global.

Q: Banking def­i­nitely is chang­ing. You’ve got mil­len­ni­als who do their banking via apps on their smart­phones, but you still have lots of baby boomers who want to visit a branch. How do you deal with that?

Popp: We have to be great on a faceto-face ba­sis on the one side, and we have to be great on a dig­i­tal and technology ba­sis on the other side. And they’re meeting in the mid­dle, too.

Ev­ery­body in our in­dus­try has got that as their top pri­or­ity. We’re all work­ing re­ally hard on it.

Q: Branches aren’t dy­ing?

Popp: Twenty-five years ago they said brick and mor­tar was dead. Now what banks are do­ing is retrofitting them.

They are turn­ing them into places where peo­ple can come in and use their technology in the branch.

Q: Fox­conn Technology Group has plans for a mega-fac­tory in Racine County, your home base. Do you ex­pect

it to be a boon for the bank?

Popp: It’s ex­cit­ing. What I per­son­ally think about Fox­conn is that if it be­comes even half of what we all think it can be­come, it will be great. It’s al­ways great to have more jobs, more op­por­tu­ni­ties, more busi­ness.

Q: A num­ber of banks have an­nounced they’re mov­ing to a min­i­mum hourly wage of $15 now that the cor­po­rate tax rate has been re­duced. Is John­son Bank do­ing any­thing like that?

Popp: We, too, are in­creas­ing our min­i­mum wage to $15 per hour. This im­pacts a small per­cent­age of our peo­ple. JFG has a long­stand­ing com­mit­ment to pro­vid­ing mar­ket-com­pet­i­tive com­pen­sa­tion, and we be­lieve this is the right thing to do.

Q: Do you keep your eyes open for ac­qui­si­tions?

Popp: We’ll al­ways keep our eyes open. In our wealth busi­ness, we had the ac­qui­si­tion of Cleary Gull. In in­surance, we’ve had a hand­ful of ac­qui­si­tions that make a lot of sense.

The banking busi­ness is a lit­tle different. There’s plenty for us to do in the banking busi­ness in the foot­print that we have. We’ll keep our eyes open if some­thing com­pelling comes around. But we’re not on the prowl nec­es­sar­ily.

We’re just fo­cused on be­ing great for our cus­tomers in the mar­kets we’re in to­day.

James R. Popp, shown at the 24th floor of­fices of Milwaukee's Cleary Gull Ad­vi­sors, an in­vest­ment unit of John­son Fi­nan­cial Group, be­came CEO of John­son this month.

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