Alice Dittman retired as CEO and president of Cornhusker Bank in 1992 and from an active role on its board in 2013, but she remains connected to the institution that opened as Farmers State Bank in 1903. The 86-year-old is an opinionated trailblazer with a number of firsts next to her name, including first female president of the Nebraska Bankers Association.
Recently, Dittman agreed to answer a few questions posed by the Journal Star. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
Tell us about your parents and their influence in your career?
They were both active in banking. (George A. Frampton and Cecil M. Frampton had two children, Alice and Robert). My mother was from Lincoln and my father was born in a farming community near Louisville, Nebraska. My father and mother bought the Farmers State Bank in Davey --12 miles north of Lincoln -- in 1949 and I began working there as a cashier in 1953 following a postgraduate year at the Harvard-Radcliffe Program in Business Administration. (Harvard did not admit women to its business school until about 1959.)
Now, the former head of Radcliffe is president of Harvard as the first woman in that position.
Were you happy to go into the family business?
I’ve always loved banking and I still do. You have to put in a lot of time and homework, but you don’t mind the time when you’re doing something you enjoy. I received my master's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in business and management and wrote my thesis on the challenges of small banks.
The bank in Davey could not have survived the changes in technology and continued burden of complicated regulation as in the Dodd-Frank legislation -- 2,350 pages plus over 10,000 pages of implementation regulation and by no means completed. It is a joy to have retained customers from Davey and now to anticipate in the first quarter of 2017 reaching over $500 million in assets with seven locations in Lincoln plus three legacy locations.
The excitement of the bank staff and our customers with the new headquarters building at 84th and O streets was very evident in the opening week activity. Tours are still being offered daily and the former headquarters, which we outgrew, seems as busy as ever. I know my parents would have been proud of the growth and continuity of the family leadership and passion for responsible banking.
When did you take over as president of the bank in Lincoln?
I started on the first of July 1975.
My husband Mark and I had started two new banks, one in Central City, Nebraska, and one in Richmond, Missouri. We had three kids by then and I really felt like I needed to take a less active role, but then Mark got cancer. He had two kinds of cancer and it was not possible to overcome them both. It was extremely helpful to me and my family that I had this opportunity at the bank when it had grown to something over $8 million in assets.
What describes your banking philosophy?
It is essential to treat customers with respect and value them for trusting Cornhusker Bank to take good care of the assets and loans on both sides of the bank's balance sheet. This attitude only happens when management, stockholders and staff have the same goal of providing excellent, caring service and employment.
The bank's motto, "Committed to Your Success," is great and I wish I had thought of it. It means respect on BOTH sides of the desk or counter. As Chairman Emeritus I'm proud that this commitment continues.
What are the benefits of running a small bank?
Starting off in a small bank, you really do it from the ground up. A good year in banking would be a 1 percent profit margin on the money you take care of. We provide an accounting service as well as a caring environment for borrowers to achieve their goals. Small banks don’t always survive, but if they have the right market like Lincoln and the progress of Lincoln, they have the opportunity to continue their growth.
Innovation is important, too. I was involved when the bank was the first bank in the state to have imaging of your checks in your bank statement. I always loved my checks for the record they provided but that was a huge benefit to our customers when they could retain their records in a three ring binder.
We also had a leadership role in the development of the ATM statewide network. Another advantage a small to mid-sized bank has is that with prior thought, you could make a policy decision at 8 a.m. and implement it at 9 a.m.
You’ve said, “progress for women and progress for the bank to me are synonymous.” Can you talk about that?
A long time ago, the president of a major bank in Lincoln said to me, "I’d love to have a woman on the Board of Directors, but Alice, there aren’t any." He wasn’t looking very hard, because half the people in Lincoln are female. What he really meant was there aren’t any CEOs.
Our bank has given opportunities to women as well as men, and maybe I had a small role in seeing that some of those opportunities happened. I not only had the title of president of the bank but I had the necessary background in education and experience.
We have always had women on our board. Our board has diversity in its makeup and is a "classified board" with four of the 10 positions rotating to a limit of four years each, giving us outreach in the community. A rubber stamp board is not a virtue. Discussion and occasional disagreement is a strength. My daughter Dawn is on the board. She was full vice president of a major bank in Houston by age 30, and son John is chairman of the board.
I heard a story about being a woman on the golf course. Can you share it?
Who told you? (Laughs.) In 1994, I was president of the Nebraska Bankers Association, and the president gets to hold a golf outing wherever they choose and I chose the Lincoln Country Club. When you tee off, the president usually goes first. So you check in and pick up your box lunch and other things, and the man behind the counter said, “I’m very sorry, Mrs. Dittman, you can’t go off until 1 o’clock.” (The Country Club didn’t allow women to tee off during prime morning hours). And I said, “I’m sorry, but this is my group and I’m going to tee off."
Guess who reported me: a woman.
Did you spend a lot of time worrying about the bank business?
If you don’t have a sleepless night or two over some kind of worry, it’s not normal. We took a chance moving the bank from Davey to Lincoln, but I wasn’t worried. When the millennium came and everyone was worried about the computer systems shutting down, I went to India to be out of the country and show I wasn't worried about our bank.
When you stepped away from day-to-day operations of the bank, was that hard for you?
We had qualified people and there is a time when you need to do that. I was active in banking for 60 years and that’s quite a while. Retirement takes advance planning too and I haven't run out of things to do.
I always say if you work for free you get to work longer. I’m still very interested in the bank and in the opening of our new 55,000-square-foot bank building at 84th and O, which coincidentally is exactly the same size as The White House in D.C.
I’ve read about "Alice’s Integrity Loan Fund.” How did that come about?
I wanted to do something as kind of a payback to the community. It has helped maybe 150 people so far, and that’s a good thing.
I understand you have an affinity for farmers?
My grandparents on both sides farmed and did some other things, too, but I grew up knowing the importance of a farm.
We’ve had some wonderful farm directors. We never lost sight of our farm origins.
I support the concept of “Buy Fresh, Buy Local.” Do you remember Crane River? I think our bank was one of the first to help Crane River Restaurant, and the ladies who ran that did a great job. (Dittman’s youngest son, Doug, has run an organic dairy farm and is an owner of Hub Café, a farm-to-table restaurant in Union Plaza.)
One of your former employees told me you were a great mentor and a great leader and that you were also demanding, “but never more so than on herself.” Does that sound accurate?
I think it’s true. I used to try to read an hour in the evenings, things I’d brought home from the bank. The opportunity to head up a small bank that is 113 years old now and has never been closed is a responsibility I took seriously.
The devil is in the details -- true or false?
Here’s a little story I heard one time about a man who came in and wanted to close his account at his bank. And the banker said, “May I ask you why?” And he answered “Because your plants died and it makes me wonder how are you taking care of my money.” That’s a little story but it’s important. One day I saw John (Dittman’s oldest son and Cornhusker Bank board chairman) picking up a piece of trash in the parking lot. You have to care about the little things to show people can trust you with the big things. It’s a simple example, but it’s true.
What do you think about the current lending/borrowing climate?
When you have low-interest loans, sooner or later that creates an artificial environment, and the banks get blamed when rates go up. The government also has an incentive to keep rates low on their borrowing and with $20 trillion in debt that is a huge concern. Rates since 2008 have not been favorable to savers, many of whom are living on a fixed income. I'd hope for a more favorable balance in the future. Student loans are also a concern for their ability to repay. Debt is a tool and it can warm you or burn you.
Do you balance your checkbook to the penny?
Don’t ask me that question.
Any movie recommendations? (Actually we didn’t ask this question, but Dittman offered this advice.)
Have you seen the movie “Hidden Figures?” (The true story of three African-American women at NASA whose contributions to the space program were ignored.) It’s from a woman’s point of view about how things used to be, and how things have improved but not enough. You really have to see it!