A Q&A with Wintrust Community Banks Founder Ed Wehmer

Ed Wehmer, the founder of Wintrust Community Banks, grew up working in his father’s Wilmette grocery store alongside his four siblings until the onset of competition from “big box” grocery stores eventually killed the family business. I grew up working in my dad’s independently owned grocery stores, alongside my four siblings, too. Big-box competition eventually killed both family-owned businesses. In fact, my dad died of a stroke while fighting a legal battle with one of them. I was pregnant with the fourth of my six kids while I sadly shepherded those stores through bankruptcy and foreclosure.

Ed started his own business, a community bank in Lake Forest, while raising seven kids. Soon thereafter, he bought the building where his dad’s store had been and opened the North Shore Community Bank (NSCB). (Read more about Ed’s background and his tips for success in work and life.) I founded Make It Better along with the “Kitchen Cabinet” of co-founders and one employee, in a small office across the street from NSCB. Wintrust was an important early partner. NSCB President Cathy Pratt wanted to present Best Money Practices For Teens and we promoted this through our email newsletter the “Better Letter” and print magazine. On a school night, their conference room was standing-room only. 

Ed with his family

Ed kept adding banks to his brand, expanding the Wintrust footprint. I kept adding activities and new titles to mine, expanding our footprint too. Wintrust even hosts our Make It Better Foundation Philanthropy Awards Celebration in their magnificent LaSalle Street flagship lobby. As Ed kindly said in the launch video for Better last year, “Wintrust and Make It Better grew up together.” 

I checked in with Ed to see how he, his family and the bank have fared during the pandemic and this time of social unrest. I was happy to learn that not only are all fine, the bank has been incredibly helpful to the community during these trying times too. Wintrust facilitated over 12,000 businesses and organizations receiving PPP loans, totaling nearly $3.5 billion. More than 500 were for local nonprofit partners. I also learned that—once again—our businesses have been on parallel tracks, with Better having supported many of the organizations that Ed specifically names below too.

How have you, your family and the bank fared during the past six months of pandemic and social unrest?

The family’s been great. We spent five weeks back in May together in Georgia with 17 of us in one house. It was a crowd, but we managed to have a pretty great time all together. Nothing like a pandemic to encourage everyone to be cooped up together! These days, I head into the office two or three times a week and find it pretty strange to be one of 50 or 60 people walking our campus that usually has 1,600.

Ed with his family

As for the business side of things, overall, things have been pretty good. It’s a challenging time in a lot of ways, but we’ve managed to have some pretty good growth amidst it through our Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) lending and our mortgage business. Obviously, it hasn’t all been great, but we’ve focused on being there for our customers and communities, just like we always do, and that has served us well, all things considered.

Obviously, with all that everyone is navigating right now—between the pandemic and the social unrest—we’ve been just trying to be something reliable for our communities to count on. We’ve been very lucky to be able to provide stability amidst so much uncertainty.

What has been the silver lining of these complicated times?

As I’ve already mentioned, more quality time with the family has been a big one.

Celebrating together

From a business perspective, the silver lining is that I’ve watched our team do what they do best, particularly with the PPP loans for our local businesses, and I couldn’t be prouder. We had employees from across our organization come together to deliver when it mattered most. 

Our IT department pooled resources to build a system to accept PPP loan applications within a week of hearing that these funds were going to be available through the SBA. Employees from all different departments worked around the clock to help process applications. Our business bankers were communicating updates and verifying information at all hours when people were telling us we were the only bank to answer their calls. Our staff came together to deliver a 10-day turnaround on PPP loans when our clients were depending on those funds to get their employees paid. Overall, we lent more than $3.4 billion to assist more than 12,000 local businesses and secured more than 114,000 jobs. It was incredible to see.

How has Wintrust pivoted during the pandemic?

Our preference is always to connect with our customers in person, so when we got the shelter in place order, it was a challenge, but we knew we could still provide the service we’re known for no matter the circumstances. We’ve had to lean a lot on our technology and service customers virtually where possible, but we’ve done it while staying true to who we are. Our mission is always to put our customers first, so we’ve managed to find other ways to support them from afar. 

We’ve obviously transitioned from the initial lockdown and most of our locations are now open, but we’ve also been leaning on things we know will keep our customers, employees, and communities safe. People can go online to make an appointment to come in and meet with a banker or open an account online. When they do come in, we’re taking all the proper safety measures. We had to adjust quickly to this new normal, but we were able to do that because of our culture and our principals as a company. We keep it high tech, but also high touch, so our customers are always supported, especially right now.

Social distancing precautions at a local Wintrust Bank

So far, it’s been working out. I just heard a story recently from one of our bankers about a customer who came into the bank after we opened back up and gave our staff a round of applause she was so appreciative of the service she received. Those are the stories I hear that make me extremely proud of our staff and their agility.

What is your best advice for individuals and for businesses trying to help or serve their communities well?

Adapt, but also remember what you should be focused on. For us, it’s all about our customers and shareholders. That’s who we are delivering for and, no matter what happens around us, that’s our guiding light. This time has taught us well: It’s important to be flexible and be able to pivot when necessary, but you have to have a solid foundation to fall back on. 

What are some of the most impactful nonprofits or civic institutions Wintrust has supported during the pandemic?

Economic/Neighborhood/Community Development

Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC): LISC connects communities with valuable resources to help build homes, businesses and schools among other public needs. Since 1979, LISC has invested $22 billion in local neighborhoods. LISC is a strong reflection of Wintrust’s support of economic development in Chicago communities. 

Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives (CNI): Focused on distressed Chicago neighborhoods like Pullman and Englewood, CNI collects resources to help build economic activity. In total, 117 small businesses have received micro loans through CNI. Wintrust and CNI have had a long-term partnership to aid South Side individuals and businesses. 

My Block, My Hood, My City: My Block, My Hood, My City is a grassroots organization that teaches underprivileged youth awareness of the world and opportunities beyond their neighborhood. The organization has a newer, emerging partnership with Wintrust. On this year’s Juneteenth, My Block, My Hood, My City was the highest grossing organization of Wintrust employees Match Pilot Initiative. 

Children/Youth/Education

Boys Hope Girls HopeMore than a college-readiness program, Boys Hope Girls Hope helps high school students break through the vicious cycle of poverty. Wintrust’s collaboration with Boys Hope Girls Hope reflects the company’s strong support of education and anti-poverty among youth.

Metropolitan Family Services: Serving more than 93,000 families across the Chicagoland area, Metropolitan Family Services advocates for healthy familial relationships. A Wintrust board member, Metropolitan Family Services reflects Wintrust’s values of supporting families and children.

HFS Chicago Scholars: HFS Chicago Scholars provides underserved Chicago high school students rich academic resources to succeed beyond high school. HFS Chicago Scholars implements a lifelong mentorship and college readiness programs and provides financial aid to Chicago colleges.

City Year Chicago: City Year Chicago knows that many Chicago Public School students lack access to the right educational tools due to systemic inequality. Wintrust is a proud partner of City Year, helping support equal education for all students.

Metropolitan YMCA: YMCA Chicago is the recipient of a large grant through the Federal Home Loan Bank COVID funding and a Wintrust board member. Additionally, Wintrust is a strong supporter of the YMCA Chicago for serving first responders during the crisis.

What your hopes and your predictions for the coming year?

It feels hard to predict anything right now. Who could have seen any of what this year has brought us? I will say, it’s going to be interesting. And, likely, challenging for a while longer. I’m predicting a vaccine, hopefully soon, but it will probably still take a year to get it out. A lot will depend on what happens with the election in November. That will have a big impact on where we go from here, but if there’s one thing I know for certain, it’s that America is resilient. My hope is that we’ll come out of this stronger than ever. 

Cubs or White Sox?

Wintrust on display at the White Sox

You know, I have a strong allegiance to the Cubs, but that doesn’t mean I dislike the White Sox. They’re having a great year. My picture is in one of the seats behind home plate, so I think I must have given them some good mojo! 

Bernie’s Book Bank!

We love that Wintrust is a lead sponsor of this winner too!

Bernie’s decorates their space with Make It Better Orange, too! Looks great!

bernie's

I can make a differenceA book on display by Marian Wright Edelman. It is filled with inspirational stories, poems, quotations, and folktales.