BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Three decades of local banking has brought joy and fulfillment to MidwestOne’s Market President Cindy Roberts, but Monday when she locked the doors for the day, Roberts handed the keys to someone else.
But not before holding an appointment with a customer who couldn’t get to the bank on time. On Roberts’ last day, she waited for one more customer.
Of all the things in banking that have changed, including technology, the Internet, the 24/7 news cycle, Roberts said a few things have remained constant – customer and community service.
“I was 19 years old right out of high school when I started with Fort Madison Bank and Trust. This was like an apprenticeship program. The people that made sure the work got done explained to me debits and credits and what happens to a check when you cash it, and how it goes to the fed and how we get it back,” she said.
“These were all great people who taught me customer service and how to deal with customers. We had one lady who was very wealthy and had a purse full of money and would lean over and dump it on the counter, and she was very private and didn’t want you talking about her transaction. Those nuances were explained and I still do those things today. The faces have changed and the process has changed, but the basic things we do have always been the same.”
Roberts started at that bank as a part-time teller and quickly moved to an inside counter teller, “which was a really big deal.” She then worked her way through the loan departments and got to understand consumer lending and real estate and commercial lending. Then she moved into the marketing program and she said the whole process was a collaborative effort where people that did the work took you under their wings.
She left the industry for a while to raise two daughters, who are now professional musicians, a turn that Roberts almost took herself. She said if banking didn’t work out for her, she would have gone into teaching music. Roberts still plays flute and piccolo for the Fort Madison City Band.
“When you hear a clunker during the National Anthem…..that’s me,” she said holding up her hand.
But her joy over three decades in banking service has been helping people find financial success.
“I think it’s really rewarding to see someone that I helped a long time ago as a first time buyer, move into a bigger house and have their children. Then watch their children grow and come back to me and I can make them a mortgage,” she said. “When you can see the joy in someone’s face when they thought they could never own a home and you work with them to make that happen, that’s amazing. It really is.”
A retirement reception was held for Roberts at the bank in honor of her service.
“I had so many people in here Friday to say, ‘where are we going to go’. You can imagine over 18 years here…how many customers, there’ve been thousands and that’s great. I couldn’t help them all, but when you can it’s a really good feeling to know you actually made a difference in someone’s life because you were able to help them with their finances.”
She said her ascent to president of the bank kind of came in a rush after coming aboard in 2000 as a mortgage lender.
“The managers here left and I started picking up the slack. And all of a sudden I was the face of the place and when the chamber needed something, they called me. If someone needed a volunteer, they called me. So it blossomed to more than lending, to all of a sudden being involved in the community and making sure MidwestOne’s name was out there.”
She quickly realized there was more to being the leader of the office than just banking.
“I came in one day and the ceiling tiles were on my desk and I was like ‘How did this happen!’ So I get a maintenance person in and they looked around on the roof and came back and said, ‘You have 12 inches of water on your roof. Your downspouts are clogged and you’re lucky the whole ceiling didn’t come in’. And I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, no one told me I had to worry about building maintenance’. That was my introduction.”
Roberts was born and raised in Fort Madison, and aside from moving away from the community for just a few months, she said Fort Madison has always been her home. She’s seen the transition of the community and thinks Fort Madison is on the upswing.
“When I graduated from high school, this was a town of 18,000 and (President Jimmy) Carter’s grain embargo shut down a lot of our industry. The 80s and 90s were tough years and we were pretty stagnant then,” she said.
“But then in the late 90s things just started happening again. We had a real active chamber, the Lee County Economic Development Group formed, and then, nationally, interest rates fell and banks were busy refinancing. People then found money to remodel the garage or buy the car and things started to come around.”
She said the rush of Internet banking has provided people with other options, but she said it’s also driven some back to the local bank.
“You used to have to go into a bank and have someone explain everything to you, but now you can get information online or on your phone. It’s everywhere and people have so many choices right now. But I also think sometimes that technology has driven the business back to the local bank. People want convenience and ease and want that personal touch and be made to feel they’re No. 1 in someone’s daily business, and they can be taken care of when they have a problem. That’s a huge deal.”
Retirement will probably involve a lot more time visiting her daughters. She said her husband retired from ISP several years ago and the two will probably travel and may end up someday moving closer to her children, but right now she’s loving Fort Madison and excited for the fall.
“I loved my job, but sometimes I feel like I’m tied to my phone and it will be nice to not be tied to the phone,” Roberts said. “I love the fall and it’s a beautiful time of year and we live in such a beautiful community. It’s an exciting time now with the PORT trail and how Larry Driscoll and Rachel Benda have run with that idea. We just have a great community.”