Family roots run deep at community bank

2013-08-25T07:30:00Z Family roots run deep at community bankJoseph S. Pete joseph.pete@nwi.com, (219) 933-3316 nwitimes.com

MUNSTER | Peoples Bank's new chief operating officer was standing atop a peak in the Carpathian Mountains above the village in Poland where his great-grandfather was raised when it all clicked.

Benjamin Bochnowski, the newly appointed COO and executive vice president of the 103-year-old family-run bank, looked out over cottages and wooden barns amid the wheat fields. He could see the origin of the Munster-based bank's founder and his place in the family history.

He could picture how his great-grandfather John Bochnowski made his way to Germany, crossed the ocean, came to East Chicago as a teenager with $13 in his pocket and went to work in a foundry that repaired locomotives before starting Peoples Bank.

John Bochnowski worked his way up to foreman and later to owning a dance hall and saloon. He was the only saloon-keeper in the neighborhood with a safe, and ended up taking deposits. Current chief executive officer David Bochnowski can remember his grandfather working late into the evening at his rolltop desk while wearing a visor and sleeve garters.

Over the last century, the financial institution he founded has grown into a $697 million community bank that had record revenue last year. Peoples Bank – founded in East Chicago in 1910 – now has a dozen locations across Northwest Indiana, including a corporate office in Munster.

Since 1981, David Bochnowski has served as CEO of Peoples Bank, which was run by his father, Ben Bochnowski, and his grandfather, John Bochnowski. He is also chairman of the bank and CEO and chairman of holding company Northwest Indiana Bancorp.

Now his oldest son is assuming greater responsibility at the bank as part of a planned succession process. Benjamin Bochnowski oversees the day-to-day operations in his new role, and will become the fourth-generation Bochnowski to lead Peoples Bank whenever his father decides to retire.

Family, community bonds

Only 3 percent of family-run businesses ever make it to the fourth generation, according to the Family Business Institute.

"The important thing for community banks is the presence of a family member that wants to continue to be in the business, so the bank isn't sold," David Bochnowski said. "That's just the history of how it goes. We're very fortunate that Ben has shown a real fire in the belly to make this bank continue to work on behalf of the community."

Peoples Bank has extended billions of dollars worth of credit to the community over the years, getting people in homes and helping put them to work at small businesses. Relationships with local merchants stretch back generations.

Around the late 1950s or early 1960s, a simpler time when the banking industry was less heavily regulated, second-generation CEO Ben Bochnowski bumped into a small business owner who told him he needed a $5,000 loan to buy inventory at a good price. Ben had worked with him before and trusted the business owner enough to drop off the money later that Friday night, telling him he could come in Monday morning to fill out the paperwork.

"It would be illegal today, but he knew the customer had a solid character and a history of performance," David Bochnowski said. "They both knew each other, so who was going to cheat who?"

Community banks matter in an age of consolidations and mergers in the financial industry because they know their customers and know how to best help them meet their financial goals, he said. Community bankers see the people they do business with in church pews, grocery aisles and football field bleachers.

David Bochnowski has gotten called at home when an ATM is out of order.

His oldest son, Benjamin Bochnowski, spent much of his childhood at the bank. After school, he walked from Munster High School to the corporate office, where he did his homework in the boardroom. He went on to earn a degree from the University of Michigan, a masters degree from the internationally renowned ESADE Business School in Barcelona, Spain, and a leadership certificate from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

He has had bank-wide responsibility in project management, strategic planning, enterprise risk management and credit quality since joining Peoples Bank in 2010. He is also surrounded by senior managers who collectively have more than 200 years of banking experience.

Benjamin Bochnowski said he is ready for challenges, such as changing consumer preferences and keeping Peoples Bank's mobile banking ahead of the technological curve.

At this point, there is no timeline for the transition.

Benjamin Bochnowski better understands the role he will be called on to fill, after seeking out his family heritage during a 2008 trip to the rural Polish village his great-grandfather hailed from.

"I wanted to understand where the family and bank had come from," he said. "I have to imagine it looked pretty similar to the way it looked in the 1890s with cows wandering the streets and wood barns."

The village – which is at the foot of the Carpathians – is so remote that he had to pay a man to borrow his car and find his way around unmarked roads to get there. Brzyska, in Jaslo County, has little more than a general store, but Benjamin Bochnowski managed to track down the church where his great-grandfather was baptized, as well as a family plot in the cemetery.

"I could see what he went through, and my place in the history," he said. "It's really the history of the immigrant in Northwest Indiana, and in America. You have this recent mythology of start-ups in garages, but immigrants before the early 1900s truly started with nothing and created all sorts of stuff after coming here for a better life." 

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