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Latest News / Centier's 125th anniversary highlights 'not-for-sale' promise

Centier's 125th anniversary highlights 'not-for-sale' promise

August 31, 2020


Published in the NWI Times Aug. 28, 2020

Whiting pioneer Henry Schrage, the first postmaster of the "little city on the lake" and a municipal official who kept chickens in his backyard, started the Bank of Whiting in 1895 with just $35,000 in capital.

Schrage, who served in the Union Army during the Civil War, opened Whiting's first store, sold land to Standard Oil for its refinery and established a bank on the east end of 119th Street that brought in $5,600 in deposits on its first day.

The Bank of Whiting, now known as Centier Bank, has amassed more than $5 billion in assets 125 years after its founding. The Merrillville-based bank, the largest privately owned financial institution in the state, employs 900 people at more than 60 branches across the state of Indiana.

Centier had been planning festivities to commemorate its 125th anniversary in April, but those were postponed by the global coronavirus pandemic. A gala marking the milestone is now tentatively slated for next April, and Centier started this month rolling out an old-time trolley to its branches to highlight its lengthy history in the Region. It was supposed to appear in many community parades that ended up being cancelled.

"It's something I've looked forward to since the 100th anniversary," CEO and Chairman Michael Schrage said of the anniversary. "It's the last major anniversary I will have in a leadership position; it's highly unlikely I'll reach the 150th as a leader. To me personally, it's very significant, but it's been a little bittersweet." 

'Not for Sale'

Now led by its fourth generation, Centier is known for its "Not for Sale" promise that features prominently in its marketing. Schrage has been ingraining that lesson into the fifth generation of leadership, his three daughters and two sons-in-law, and in his grandkids who will take the reins after them.

"It's a family commitment and the shortest way to say it is that I've taken on the role of stewardship of the bank," Schrage said. "A lot of community banks have disappeared in my 48 years here. We want to preserve the uniqueness of a community bank that serves local people. Homegrown banks have sold out to mega banks left and right, but we're here for the long-term. We feel we needed to exist as a viable opportunity for clients of small size, and to build relationships over the long term."

The family-owned bank has expanded across the state, including to Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, South Bend, Lafayette, Elkhart, Carmel and other cities. It's focused on growing its footprint in Indiana but has expanded its digital reach to other states across the country via its Billinero game-like savings account, in which people who stash away enough in savings can win cash prizes.

"Very early in my career, in the 1970s, maybe the 1980s, when banks were disappearing left and right, I would be asked frequently at community events at different social organizations when I was going to sell my bank. I just told them it's not for sale," he said. "They retorted, 'come on, what if you were offered a billion dollars?' I'd tell them it's not for sale and I can't put a price on it. It's non-negotiable. We felt a family-owned community bank was worth preserving for the small businesses in Indiana."

125 years of growth

Henry Schrage was succeeded by his son Walter E. Schrage Sr., who also served as mayor of Whiting for 16 years. His son Walter E. Schrage Jr. took over in 1941. He changed the name to First Bank of Whiting in 1960, and ran it until 1977.

When Michael Schrage joined the bank in 1972, it had $32 million in assets and 40 employees at two branches in Highland and Crown Point. Under his leadership, it began to grow, expanding into Porter County and buying the First National Bank of Crown Point. By the 1990s, it had gotten big enough geographically to have outgrown the Whiting moniker. So it was rebranded in 1991 as Centier, a portmanteau that derives from its founding on Center Street in Whiting, the century it had been in business, and its aspiration to be the premier bank in Northwest Indiana.

"I've been blessed to steward it for the past 48 years, as it's something I feel is worth preserving," Schrage said. "It's culturally unique and value-driven where our decisions, strategies and objectives are driven by our purpose and mission, not shareholders. It's a huge advantage for us that we don't have to worry about our quarterly earnings falling 2 cents short."

Centier has soldiered on as an independent community bank while the number of banks nationally has shrunk from about 14,000 when Schrage began his career to about 5,000 today.

"It was very restrictive when I started as to where you could start a branch," he said. You had to stay in the same county and couldn't open in a city or community served by another bank. Now it's wide open to where and how you can do business and what other means you might use to build your client base."

Centier is now the largest bank by market share in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties, having surpassed Chase, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. It's tried to grow by a moderate 8% to 10% every quarter and has put off opening new branches this year and likely next year, given uncertainty about how long the pandemic will last and what shape a recession will take. Centier likely will start opening new branches again in 2022 and 2023, expecting to grow again when more local community banks get swallowed up in mergers and acquisitions.

'Servant leadership'

He implemented a "servant heart" leadership culture at the bank after suffering from fatigue syndrome.

"My leadership in the 1970s was autocratic, dominant, Napoleon-ish," Schrage said. "We expanded but had our ups and downs. We didn't have a group of loyal employees. The traumatic health experience was the best thing to ever happen to me. In the first half of my career it was just growth, growth, growth. It wasn't very rewarding. I was climbing mountain after mountain without ever celebrating."

Centier has relied upon the servant leadership philosophy to determine who it will hire, senior partner Chrisanne Christ said.

"We make sure who we hire in the bank naturally cares about others," she said. "It's part of the fabric of who we are. The servant heart leadership will make us or break us. Rather than individual skills and experience, we look for a cultural fit. We can teach you everything else but it's our culture that keeps us alive." 

Centier is very active in the community, giving employees time off to participate in blood drives and take part in charitable causes, such as the Lake County United Way, the American Cancer Society and Pets N Vets out of Hebron, Christ said.

"People rally around us more than a big bank because we're a neighbor in the community," she said. "We try to meet the needs of our community, whether it's the unbanked, financial literacy or how we treat our associates, who we refer to as associates and not employees because we care about the people we work with. They become family and are treated like it."

The bank takes care of its employees, whether through a cafe at the corporate center or company health care clinics that have helped employees discover undetected threats to their health. Other companies have even approached Centier to find out how it has achieved such high employee satisfaction, Christ said.

"We make sure who we hire in the bank naturally cares about others," she said. "It's part of the fabric of who we are. The servant heart leadership will make us or break us. Rather than individual skills and experience, we look for a cultural fit. We can teach you everything else, but it's our culture that keeps us alive." 

Centier is very active in the community, giving employees time off to participate in blood drives and take part in charitable causes, such as the Lake County United Way, the American Cancer Society and Pets N Vets out of Hebron, Christ said.

"People rally around us more than a big bank because we're a neighbor in the community," she said. "We try to meet the needs of our community, whether it's the unbanked, financial literacy or how we treat our associates, who we refer to as associates and not employees because we care about the people we work with. They become family and are treated like it."

The bank takes care of its employees, whether through a cafe at the corporate center or company health care clinics that have helped employees discover undetected threats to their health, she said. Other companies have approached Centier to find out how it has achieved such high employee satisfaction, Christ said.

A different culture helps to continue to draw customers from across the Calumet Region.

"Other businesses have also been around a long time, but you don't get the same feel while walking into them," she said. "We have 8% turnover per year. We've seen some people stay with us for 25, 30, 40 years. Many customers have banked with us for generations. We feel we've been true to who we were 125 years ago."

The bank has been committed to the community, for instance maintaining branches in Northwest Indiana downtowns whose economies have been depressed for years.

"We put offices in downtown Hammond, East Chicago and Gary even though they've been ravaged over the years and are at early stages in their rebuilding," he said. "We don't just put banks in the new suburbs. We purposefully support the downtowns because we're a community bank that has different priorities than the bigger banks."

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Centier has given out 2,500 Paycheck Protection Loans totaling $335 million to help struggling small businesses in Northwest Indiana and across the state.

Schrage hopes future generations of leadership will carry on Centier's legacy as an independent community bank.

"It's been ingrained in us to help the community, so it's only natural we give back at the levels we do," Senior Partner Christopher Campbell said. "The team and the culture have a desire to serve the community and be part of the community."

See the story, plus photos and a timeline of Centier's history at nwitimes.com.

Photo courtesy NWI Times


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