FARGO - Steve Swiontek has earned a lot of awards and kudos in a long career leading Gate City Bank.
But to hear the Chamber of Commerce’s 2019 Legacy Leader tell it, leadership is a lot less about piling up attaboys, than making a difference.
“I was raised with the idea that you try to make a difference in the world. You know, when you leave this world, you want people to be able to say, he was a difference maker,” Swiontek said Tuesday, Aug. 6. “You know what, you just do your job. You help out and do some philanthropic volunteerism or whatever. It’s not because you want to get attaboys for it. You just do it because that’s part of our culture here.”
Swiontek is currently the executive chair for Gate City Bank and chairman of the board after serving nearly two decades as chair, CEO and president.
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The Edgeley, N.D., native and North Dakota State University graduate, is humbled by this latest honor.
Leadership, he says, comes down to creating an organizational culture where people can succeed, helping people live better lives, innovating, and bringing passion and creativity to the job.
“When it comes to leadership, it really boils down to those principles of high standards. Making a difference. Actually being a leader, not a manager. Embracing innovation. The sense of urgency,” Swiontek said.
“And be a servant leader. And what I mean by servant leader is being a servant leader for your fellow team members, for the communities that you serve and for your customers. And a servant leader really makes a difference when you look at the idea of being brilliant at the basics. We always talk about world class as being brilliant at the basics,” he said.
By empowering people to do their jobs, and maintaining high ethical stands, “you can accomplish a lot,” he said.
Swiontek started at Gate City Bank in March 1978 as an intern. At that time, they had about 140 employees in 16 offices, with $500 million in assets.
Gate City now has 710 employees in 38 offices with about $2.4 billion in assets.
Swiontek had started serving in the North Dakota Legislature in 1976 and he stayed on for eight years. When he arrived at Gate City, the bank “was very gracious in allowing me to continue serving. But I had to make a decision in ’83 about whether or not I run again in ‘84.”
It was politics, or business.
He stuck with business.
He took an unusual path to becoming Gate City’s top dog. He started in human resources, rather than climbing the ladder through accounting or being a financial officer. He said he was fortunate to be able to serve in multiple posts to learn the banking business.
Along the way, he learned several lessons about leading.
“What is important is the willingness to accept change. If you don’t accept change, you better like your relevancy event better …. And that’s really hard for people to accept - change.”
There’s also a need for strategic or “implication thinking,” he said.
“You really need to think about what’s going to happen three doors down,” Swiontek said.
For example, when Rocket Mortgage advertised that it could close a loan in 15 days, Swiontek challenged his team to put together a loan that could be closed in 10 days.
“Because we don’t wan’t Rocket Mortgage to take over any of our business in North Dakota. We’re going to keep it,” he said.
The team beat his deadline, he said.
“That’s a credit to ... innovation, being creative, thinking differently,” Swiontek said. “my biggest fear is making sure I don’t get stuck in a rut.”
Gate City has an Emerging Leaders program, to train and guide its next generation of leaders, Swiontek said.
While some young people might think they want to be the next CEO of Gate City, Swiontek said the program gives them a better idea of whether that is the path they want to pursue.
It’s a long way to the top if you want to bank and loan, he said.
“It’s patience. Also, being flexible in what you want to do. Learn from others,” Swiontek said.
It’s hard to miss Swiontek’s connection to NDSU. He was the student body president, before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in economics and military science.
His office is full of reminders of his love for the Bison.
Swiontek and his wife, Mary Anne, who he met at NDSU, are co-chairs of the NDSU Capital Campaign. He also serves on the Board of Trustees for the NDSU Foundation and served as chair of the Executive Governing Board from 2015 to 2018.
“NDSU really offered me the opportunity to be able to grow as an individual. Meeting people from all walks of life, from all over the world,” he said.
Their involvement with NDSU is part and parcel with his belief in the importance of philanthropy.
“Here is an opportunity where we can make a difference for other individuals that are getting their degrees. And also with the idea that, hey, North Dakota and western Minnesota, west central Minnesota are great places to work, raise families, and if we can do everything possible to help them (NDSU students) understand that,” Swiontek said.
“When you’re asked to do those things. You just do it. I would not be in my position at Gate City, if it hadn’t been for my experiences, involvement at NDSU. That’s one of the factors. So, it’s important to give back to make a difference,” Swiontek said.
Philanthropy in general is important to making Gate City the place it is, Swiontek said.
It is part of the company’s culture.
Gate City sets aside about 5.5% of its pre-tax earnings annually for philanthropic giving, he said.
Last year. Gate City employees donated more than 14,000 hours of their time to various causes, he said.
“It really comes from the heart and from the culture,” Swiontek said. “I believe we have an obligation as organizations, as businesses, to give back, because it’s important to make that difference, you know, creating that better way of life.”
Swiontek says he wants his legacy to be having created opportunities for women at Gate City, and to see the bank he helped build, grow even stronger.
“Sixty-four percent of our workforce team members are women. Seventy percent of the leadership roles now are women. I’m very happy about that, because when I started, or when I became president, that was not there at all. That wasn’t the case,” Swiontek said. “We’ve opened doors.”
He expects those young leaders “to really take this organization to the next level. And they’ve earned it and they got the job because of their skills. ...They did it because they’re qualified and competent. We just opened the doors,” he said.
He encourages Gate City team members to stay aggressive in getting people the services they need.
“I always tell the team, ‘Let’s watch the clock, not the calendar. Let’s get things done now. Let’s keep things moving,” Swiontek said.
“I want to make the current team to make this bank 10 times better than it is now. Not 10%, but 10 times better. I want them to blow it out of the park and make it even more significant than where it is today.,” he said. “And they’ll do it. They’ll get it done.”
A select society of leaders
Gate City Executive Chair Steve Swiontek will be the 16th Legacy Leader honored by the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce.
He was selected based on his involvement in North Dakota’s business climate and will receive the award in September.
Swiontek has been a member of The Chamber’s Board of Directors since 2014, and also served as chairman from 2017-18.
Swiontek has received many awards. including the NDSU Development Foundation Service Award, the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce Community Leadership Award and Prairie Business Leaders & Legacies award.
Previous Legacy Leader winners include:
2007 Legacy Leader William C. Marcil, Sr.
2008 Legacy Leader Frederick B. Scheel
2008 Legacy Leader Edward Stern
2009 Legacy Leader Dr. Roland Dille
2009 Legacy Leader James R. McLaughlin
2010 Legacy Leader John Q. Paulsen
2011 Legacy Leader Ronald D. Offutt
2012 Legacy Leader Bruce Furness
2013 Legacy Leader Margie Bailly
2014 Legacy Leaders Alexander Macdonald and Darrol Schroeder
2015 Legacy Leader Morrie Lanning
2016 Legacy Leader Roger Gilbertson
2017 Legacy Leader Bernie Dardis
2018 Legacy Leader Judy Lee