The lessons learned through youth sports often benefit a person later in life, but Michael Schrage says it’s important they're mitigated.
“There can be coaches, teams, sports that just go over the top and do whatever it takes and anything to win,” he said. “I went through that. That was very much a part of my life, win and take no prisoners.”
The CEO of Centier Bank and Whiting native wrestled and played soccer at Culver Academy. He’s a member of the school’s athletic hall of fame.
Schrage says he sought and took advantage of the competition’s weaknesses. He was a self-described workaholic.
“Being obsessed with something is a dangerous route to go,” Schrage said. “You see people who are addicts, whether it be gambling, alcohol, drugs, for me it was work. With most addicts, there’s a point that you fall. I needed to hit bottom.”
When he was about 45, he contracted the Epstein Barr virus which led to chronic fatigue syndrome. He was out of work for five full months.
It was painful time but it gave him a new perspective. He realized what was important.
“I have found a much more fulfilling and fruitful career in the second half of my career by being more giving. Sports play a great role for people, but it can’t be all-consuming,” he said. “I think that the people that I see in business that have a sports background, it is an advantage for them but it need not be an obsession with them. People who are obsessed with winning oftentimes have difficulty finding genuine fulfillment in their lives.”
His great grandfather, Henry Schrage, founded First Bank of Whiting, now Centier, in 1895. Michael Schrage started at the bank in 1972 and took over control from his father, Walter E. Schrage Jr., in 1977.
“It’s somewhat unique in that respect, to grow a company to our size (and keep it in the family),” Schrage said. “It’s been a challenge for me to continue to focus on keeping our roots in place, that family is foremost here. When I look at decisions I want to be sure that I’m taking into account all of the extended family, which includes all of the associates.”
Schrage was a regional champion in wrestling in high school. He went undefeated during both his junior and senior seasons.
In those days, private schools weren’t allowed to advance beyond the regional. He said he topped eventual state champs on the mat every time he got the chance.
“In phys-ed class, we had wrestling and the coach saw my tenacity and grit and said he needed a little bitty 95-pound wrestler,” Schrage said. “He took me under his wing and I developed over a four-year period.”
That coach was Colin Stetson, one of the many mentors Schrage says helped mold him into the person he is.
“He certainly instilled in me tenacity, grit, resilience, giving it all and then giving it more, going beyond your perceived physical or mental limits to pursue perfection and pursue accomplishment,” Schrage said. “He was instrumental in stretching me from just being a kid to being something much bigger in my scope, in seeing myself not as the little feral kid but seeing myself as being able to accomplish amazing things.”
Schrage has three daughters: Melissa Contrucci, Laura Campbell and Stephanie Schrage. All three work for Centier, representing the fifth generation to go into the business.
Stephanie Schrage remembers her dad giving her soccer instruction in the front yard. That coaching often featured pointy elbows and conditioning runs up and down the sandy hills at Indiana Dunes State Park.
“He told me that in order to be the best player that I could be, I had to choose to go up against the player that no one else wanted to go up against, the player that everyone avoided when we were told to pair off in twos for competitive one-on-one drills,” Stephanie said. “It’s easy to choose a partner you know you have better odds of beating, but he preached that I had to intentionally choose to compete against the best and strongest if I ever wanted to excel beyond my natural abilities. While scary at first — and I was definitely taken to the cleaners multiple times — after a few weeks I got to learn her tricks and how she moved and I started to excel not only in competing against her but in competing against others.”
Schrage says he drove his daughters harder in athletics than he would now. It was still his winner-takes-all period. But his girls learned things that would help them in adulthood.
“My father taught me how to become a leader and captain by remaining disciplined and keeping drills timely and on schedule,” Stephanie said. “He told me I was to lead by not only being the most prepared player, but I was also expected to lead by example by working harder than everyone else on and off the field.”
Schrage says that his position has become more “strategic and visionary” as Centier has grown to become the largest family-owned private bank in Indiana with 850 employees, 60 locations and over $4 billion in assets. The bank had 40 employees when he started in 1971.
“I spend a lot of my time looking at opportunities for the bank’s future and then having people vet those opportunities,” he said. “My role is very internal. Other CEOs are very much external CEOs. They do the country clubs, the entertaining, other things out there. I tend to spend my time internally pretty much to make sure I’m the keeper of the culture.”
That culture is one of servant-hood, he said. Centier tries to separate itself from other banks with its values.
“We do all of these things locally with local people who understand the needs of the people who live and work here,” Schrage said. “That Centier culture is something that I want to leave as my legacy, not how large the bank grows or the multitudes of people or earnings.”