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Nowak ends 45 year banking career

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 03/20/2013 9:05 AM

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FREEBORN, Minn. – Mark Nowak has plenty of tales to tell from his 45 years in banking.

"It's been a great career," he said. "I've been blessed."

Nowak graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1968 and was hired by the Farmers Home Administration hours before a hiring freeze went into effect.

He was assigned to Todd County where he observed, watched and learned for a year before moving to Litchfield for 18 months. From there, he went to Warren in Marshall County to help with an Emergency Loan program. In the spring of 1970, 70 percent to 80 percent of farmers in the county couldn't plant a crop because of excessive rainfall, he said. They needed emergency loans from the government to plant a crop in 1971.

There were weeks they put in 80 hours in order. Appointments were daily at 8 and 10 a.m. and 1 and 3 p.m. By the time he left in August 1971, the work was done and farmers were readying to harvest an excellent crop.

Nowak moved south to Austin where he worked for one year before moving to Albert Lea in August 1972.

The move to Albert Lea was serendipity. Nowak was upset that he was passed over for a job in Olivia, but the FmHA human resources person knew he would want to go to Albert Lea instead and he knew the supervisor there was retiring. He couldn't offer him the position until all the paperwork was signed.

Once it was signed, he called Nowak and offered him the job in his home county of Freeborn. The move in 1972 began what became a 41-year career in agricultural banking in the county.

Nowak returned to the family farm near Wells and started buying sows and gilts. He bought the farm he and his siblings were raised on in August 1973. His parents had raised their children on the farm, but never owned it. They continued to live on the farm after Nowak acquired it.

He farrowed and sold feeder pigs for 20 years. In 1992, he sold the sows and purchased ISO-wean pigs to finish. He raised hogs for 36 years, retiring from the hog business four years ago.

"I loved farrowing pigs," Nowak said.

He married Lea in August 1980 and they raised four children. They have six grandchildren with a seventh on the way. Lea retired last year from teaching at St. Casimir's in Wells.

Farming while working as an agricultural lender has always been an asset, Nowak said. He felt the exhilaration of the good times and the pain of the bad times right along with his clients.

The 1980s farm crisis was definitely a low point. Paul Volcker, chairman of the Federal Reserve, raised interest rates to stop inflation. Interest rates doubled overnight, Nowak said. Things were tense in farm country as farmers struggled with interest rates that rose to 21 percent.

He remembers exactly where he was when he heard that two agricultural bankers were killed in Ruthton in September 1983. He was harvesting beans and hauling a load to town when he heard the announcement on WCCO Radio. All agricultural bankers felt like targets, Nowak said.

A year later a local farmer started a protest against him. The man was a super salesman who took his story to the media, claiming Nowak was out to eliminate family farms. Others believed the attack was unfair and circulated a petition of support for him. They garnered 267 signatures. His job remained, but he decided it was time to pursue other opportunities.

In July, he received a call from Americana State Bank in Alden. He started as a community banker the day after Labor Day, 1984.

It was a switch for him from public service where he primarily worked with younger, beginning farmers or farmers in some sort of financial difficulty to making money for the bank. At the community bank, he was challenged to bring in more business.

"It's been great, I just love community banking," Nowak said.

It was during this time that the hedge-to-arrive problem developed. He testified on hedge-to-arrive contracts before the House agriculture committee at the request of then-Rep. David Minge. Several elevators failed before this crisis abated.

In April 2001, he joined the staff at Farmers State Bank of Hartland, which has offices in Hartland, Freeborn and Albert Lea.

"This has been a great place for me to finish my career," Nowak said.

Customers followed him and the bank has grown from $4 million in agricultural loans to $50 million today. The bank's assets have also increased from $30 million to $100 million.

Nowak smiled when he talked about his early days in banking, when his tools were a pencil and eraser. He used carbon paper to make a copy for his clients.

He was an early adopter of FINPACK, seeing the potential it had for his clients. Nowak said it was 1975 or 1976 when Dick Hawkins brought something called computer software to do farm financial statements to a district FmHA meeting. The printer was the size of a desk.

He piloted FINPACK when he was with FmHA and has continued to use it since, calling it one of the top agricultural financial software programs in the nation.

Nowak was an early believer in the ethanol industry, helping to finance the plant in Glenville through a stock as collateral loan offering. It was fun to be part of that, he said.

As Nowak leaves one career behind, he will continue the other.

"As long as I can load a planter and climb a bin, I'll keep doing it," Nowak said of farming.

He hopes to harvest a 300 bushel corn crop before he retires. He first weighed a 200 bushel corn crop in 1989. His highest yield so far is 254 bushels per acre. He will also operate a financial consulting business from his home.