A native of Germany, Oliver Buechse joined Associated Bank as the chief strategy officer in 2010, after spending 10 years in California, where he worked with current Associated CEO Phil Flynn. The skills he used to help reinvent Associated Bank are now being shared with the New North. He sat down with Insight Editor Margaret LeBrun to talk about strategy for the bank – and the region.
In 2010 when I first arrived, Associated Bank had just survived the largest scare in its history: The realization that at the end of 2009 it was facing daunting losses that threatened its survival. Under Phil Flynn’s leadership, and with the hard work of many colleagues, that survival was secured. But what remained to be done was to chart a course forward.
At the surface, we had to reinvigorate the growth engine. We started new lines of business such as oil and gas and power and utilities lending. We strengthened the talent base. At a more profound level, we had to bring Associated together to become truly one organization. Associated is the result of a string of mergers and acquisitions. In this rapid growth era, the formation of a single culture that can carry an organization through tough times had fallen short. We also had to strengthen the processes that make a bank function, from introducing more advanced strategic and financial planning, talent management, investment into our infrastructure such as systems, or the very visible changes to our footprint, the way our branches look and feel. Today we feel very comfortable that Associated has become a strong and sustainable organization.
New North was the first board that I had the opportunity to join. I wanted to help the board create a strategic plan that not only focused on the next chapter but also illustrated the purpose and the power of the New North model in a way that was easier to grasp.
The concept of the New North strategy was based on separating our activity into four categories. The first one is promoting the regional brand, both within and outside the region. New North is the marketing arm of Northeast Wisconsin and many great tools have been developed to support that regional marketing. The second is impact strategies, which include, for example, the formation of business clusters which allow sectors of the economy to operate more effectively and identify new opportunities for their products and services. The third element is collaboration strategies. The final element of our strategic plan is foundation strategies, which aim at increasing the sophistication of New North as an organization and to bring resources to the organization that allow us to support the work of the other strategies.
New North operates with a very slim core staff. So, imagine what New North could accomplish if we increased that resource pool. For any investor in New North there are multiple opportunities to become involved beyond a financial contribution. When I first saw a copy of the Business Locator document, it was one of those moments where you say, “Wow, am I glad to be here!” a feeling that I had known growing up in Germany, but I had not had that sense of community and identity during my time in California.
I am a member of the fundraising group of New North but I don’t think of it as fundraising, I think of it as advocacy. When I sit down with business leaders, I share my belief in the uniqueness of our region and I find that belief is universally shared.
My key message to potential investors is, you are already a part of New North. Your leadership, your business success is forming this region every single day. And we are looking to do exactly the same. Let’s jointly identify in which ways we can make a positive impact. Sometimes that is providing financial resources, sometimes providing unique capabilities.
We have many in-kind investors and sometimes it is helping make a connection to individuals within those companies or to individuals and resources beyond the boundaries of our organizations, the skills and perspectives that can bring value to New North.