The steady and calm approach
Business View interviews Luke Rickertsen, President of Flatwater Bank, for our focus on Community Banks in Nebraska
Since 1902, Flatwater Bank has been proudly providing top-quality banking services from its community of origin in Gothenburg, Nebraska. Prioritizing customer relationships, employee satisfaction, and community outreach have been the standard for the family-owned bank since the beginning. The goal of H.L. Williams, the original founder, was to help finance local farmers, and 120 years later, agriculture remains a primary driver for the institution, not only at the Gothenburg location but also in the two additional branches in Brady and Ansley.
Originally called Gothenburg State Bank, the name was changed to Flatwater Bank in 2019. The name Flatwater was chosen to honor the past, as the word Nebraska derives from the American Indian term “Nebrathka” meaning “flat water”. It also represents the bank’s approach to serving customers, steady and calm.
As a family-owned bank, relationships are the foundation of Flatwater Bank’s business model. Positive relationships with customers, communities, and employees can be attributed to the bank’s success for more than a century. “We’ve had customers that have been here since they started their business or farming operation,” relates bank President Luke Rickertsen. The willingness to help others is made evident when reflecting on the pandemic. At the beginning of COVID, Flatwater rose to the challenge of understanding available assistance for customers and how to get the community the resources it needed.
Bret Tiller, Vice President Lending, recalls, “When the COVID situation happened and the CARES Act came out there were a lot of questions from our community, our customers, and their accountants, about how relief was going to get allocated to the businesses that desperately needed it at the time. There was a lot of uncertainty, so our team really stepped up with interpreting what type of services were available. We really dug into that.” During that time, the bank took on a leadership role in the community, leading a weekly town hall series on Zoom, with local health departments, doctors, and the community, offering guidance and information. Virtual meetings with other financial institutions, accountants, and customers established Flatwater Bank as a source of knowledge and support through the uncertainty.
Amber Burge, Flatwater Bank Marketing Officer, suggests, “Our goal as a bank is that if our customers and our communities are successful, then we will be successful. We play a big role in our community. Regardless of customers or non-customers, we reached out and did a lot throughout the community to make sure that everybody was aware of the programs that were being offered. We wanted them to know that our door was always open to help them.”
Flatwater Bank approached COVID challenges with an effort to aid any local businesses that needed support. The bank became an expert resource for businesses and accountants looking to learn about not only the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), but also other programs and tax credits, and how those might benefit them. “They all fell into a couple of different buckets, mainly on the loan side,” says Tiller. “The first one was PPP. The second one that we helped customers with was a direct loan with SBA called the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL). Then, we really looked for any opportunities we could find to help businesses stay open. Whether it was extending terms on a loan or sharing information on programs like the Employee Retention Tax Credits, we really looked for any way we could get resources to those in need. It was a lot of long hours of research, education, and doing the right thing for customers.”
Helping a local nursing home to secure the funding needed to keep its doors open is one of the many success stories Flatwater Bank can share. Tiller reports, “That was one of many customers who really needed it. That industry was hit as hard as any from COVID, with the care level that is needed for their residents and a lot more overall requirements for PPE, testing, and masking. All that type of stuff cost the business quite a bit of money. The Paycheck Protection Program was a vital tool to help them through a difficult time. While they were navigating how to operate during COVID we went to work figuring out how to get them funding. That really expedited the process so they could get the working capital and liquidity that they desperately needed.”
When residents of this nursing home were isolated, the bank participated in an adopt-a-resident program. Rickertsen recalls, “It just worked out so well, because we’d already been helping them financially, but we also saw the toll the pandemic was having on their residents. Our employees adopted their residents and sent them care packages and those who could presented the gifts at their windows. It was a fun way to do a little bit extra.”
Flatwater Bank provided 588 PPP loans; the largest nearing $3 million. Near the end of the Paycheck Protection Program, the bank was no longer able to submit applications due to it not being in an underserviced community. However, Flatwater had several customers that still needed help, so it partnered with another bank in Gordon, Nebraska to submit loans on behalf of those customers. There were no financial incentives for Flatwater Bank for this effort, but the willingness to assist and service their local businesses and the new relationships developed in the process is a point of pride.
At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, Flatwater Bank opted to keep their doors open, putting the team on a rotating schedule, with half working from home and half at the branch. In keeping with their reputation as a caring workplace, Flatwater Bank continued to pay all staff, whether they could work from home or not. An employee-only website was established to keep team members engaged with one another when apart. “Something we have been really talking about is the teamwork of our staff. We had all areas of the bank help with PPP loans, even if they were on a split shift and not at the bank, they all found ways to help. It was a complete team effort. We definitely wouldn’t have been able to do it without the effort of the entire bank,” Tiller adds.
With 40 full-time employees, Flatwater Bank endeavors to be a workplace of choice with low turnover and attracts new employees as required. Rickertsen describes, “We try to be as competitive as possible when it comes to paying our team members, but we also focus on other benefits as well. Bottom-line, we treat our employees right. When we think of our core values, family is the very first one. We want people to enjoy working at the bank, but we also want them to take advantage of time away and time with family.” Flatwater encourages a community spirit, both within the workplace and in the neighborhoods they serve. Rickertsen adds, “We really encourage people that work here to do great things in our community, do great things with the people that work here, and do great things for our customers. I think that really fills people’s cups and makes them enjoy working here.”
When looking back, Flatwater Bank acknowledges the COVID pandemic was a stressful time, yet it provided great experiences for team members and quick adoptions of technology. Although technology features were already in use prior to the pandemic, COVID required more frequent use by the bank and its customers. Seminars offered to customers via Zoom provided financial education during a financially trying time while digital banking features supplied easy access to manage funds. Today, Flatwater regularly uses Zoom to schedule meetings with customers and has seen a dramatic uptick in digital banking usage.
Looking ahead, Rickertsen says Flatwater Bank is always on the lookout for possible growth opportunities. He shares, “We have never been a bank that has overstepped in our growth. It has always been very thought out and planned. We’re not a bank that would try to grow to get big enough to sell. As our history has shown, we are in it for the long haul.” He adds that an important focus for the bank is the “why”, explaining, “We exist to enhance the lives of our customers, our team members, and our community, and we do that because we care. I would say, as long as we are enhancing lives, enhancing our communities and our team members, I feel that we will be extremely successful.”
Tiller offers his hopes for the future, stating, “I’d like to see us continuing to serve the communities we currently have, possibly expanding that footprint a little bit in neighboring communities, whether that be with an acquisition, or just organic growth, and continuing to spread the word of Flatwater and how we help our communities and our customers. I’m excited to get back to real banking and get our employees and products in front of as many people as we can to help them succeed.”
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AT A GLANCE
What: A family-owned community bank, established in 1902
Where: Headquarters in Gothenburg, Nebraska