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Once in the NFL, Orchard Park banker now signals for independent banks

In his job, John J. Witkowski speaks up for community banks. As a former NFL quarterback, he is used to commanding attention.

Witkowski, 55, is president and CEO of the Independent Bankers Association of New York State. He followed an unusual path to get there.

Witkowski grew up on Long Island and played football at Columbia University. Wins were rare, but the economics major set school passing records that still stand, more than 30 years later. Witkowski was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the sixth round in 1984, joining a team that included star running back Billy Sims and starting quarterback Gary Danielson.

John Witkowski as a Detroit Lion. (Photo provided by Detroit Lions)

Witkowski's pro football career also took him to the Houston Oilers, the London Monarchs of the World League of American Football, and the Detroit Drive of the Arena Football League. "Any time they were going to pay me to play football, I was going," he said. "I was trying to hold off my real career for as long as I possibly could."

When his playing days did end, he took a job as director of Columbia's national alumni program. He had always considered a career in finance, and Fleet Bank hired him in 1992 for a position promoting an incentive program to its employees. That role introduced him to a variety of people and business lines. Witkowski also led a bank initiative that reached out to small business customers.

Bank of America bought FleetBoston in 2004. The following year, Witkowski made a big change, moving upstate to become president and CEO of Wyoming County Bank, just before it was rebranded by its parent company as Five Star Bank. Witkowski stayed with Five Star as a retail banking executive.

His community banking credentials were a plus when the Albany-based independent bankers group hired him in 2014. The group has 66 members statewide and advocates for banks with $10 billion or less in assets.

The Orchard Park resident reflected on pro football, making a career transition to a small bank and how community banks can still compete.

Q: Could you apply experiences from football to banking?

A: I think athletics, especially team athletics, you need to understand how to work with others, you need to understand how to be a leader. I was a quarterback. People were looking to for you direction, to kind of take charge. It helped a lot. I think sports is a great transferable skill into the business world.

John Witkowski as a college quarterback. (Columbia University photo)

You're not going to get along with everybody. But when you need somebody, you need to figure out how to pull everybody together. On the field, just like in a business day, at the end of day, we don't have to go out and have a beer, but during the day, let's work together, let's make sure we do the best we can for the team, the company. I think that's an important part of it.

Q: How did you adjust to working at a small bank like Wyoming County Bank coming from big banks?

A: I looked at it as a very positive experience. I think I'm a people person. The great thing about going to a community bank is that you get to know people and you work with people, to really understand what their business is all about and how important it is for them to have someone they can trust at the bank.

I knew it was going to be different for me. I was a guy from Long Island, going to school in New York City, now going to Wyoming County. ... It was an agricultural setting and I knew I had a lot to learn. But I wasn't afraid of that. You go out, you get to talk to people and you get to know more about them.

A Five Star Bank branch in Warsaw. (Matt Glynn/Buffalo News)

Q: What are the independent bankers group's top issues?

A: We talk about regulatory issues, the regulatory burden that's on community banks. Sometimes bigger banks and smaller banks don't see eye to eye on what the regulatory issues are, and people making legislation don't really see a difference between the two. They just look at it as being banks.

Credit unions – I want to say credit unions are great, don't get me wrong, but there's a little bit of a battle. They don't pay any state or federal taxes, and here are banks going out competing against them.

Q: Is it hard for smaller banks to remain independent competing against larger banks?

A: Community banks are doing very well. I think they're doing well because they know their communities, they know their comfort zone. Is it becoming more difficult? Yes, it is, because of all the other ancillary things that are going on. The competition with credit unions. The regulatory compliance [rules] that keep coming down that keep costing money. It's taking away from them going out to expand the business.

Q: What are your goals as leader of the group?

A: I try to think of ways that community banks can continue to work today in ways that will help them be more efficient and bring value to  looking at partnerships. ... If you all have the same vendor that you're using for compliance or you're using for core systems, there's a way for us to think about working together.

A lot of things that I'm trying to do now is bring more innovative fintech ideas to the table. Not that they have to buy into them, but they have to know what's coming down the pike.

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