Northwest has been a sponsor of 40 Under 40 since the program began 20 years ago. That was when the bank was fewer than three years old itself.
In 1998, John Bothof — the bank’s current president — joined with Neal and Dwight Conover, owners of Northwest Bank in Spencer, Iowa, to open Gateway Community Bank in a double-wide trailer at 144th and Arbor streets in Omaha. Mike Eck joined as a founding partner in January 1999. They rented the trailer from an organization that rents bank-like facilities. The double-wide, remodeled with a teller line and offices, served as the bank’s home for the first year while its 144th Street headquarters was under construction.
The organization, which took the Northwest Bank name in 2009, has grown to more than $2 billion in assets today and has three Omaha locations.
“Bob Hoig came to us and gave us the opportunity to be a sponsor,” Bothof said of the late Midlands Business Journal founder. “At that time the focus was on business startups and [small business owners], and it just fit our niche as a community bank and lender to owner-operated businesses. It was a good message for us. The focus [of 40 Under 40] has moved toward professionals under 40 who perform at a high level who are nominated by their peers. We’ve felt all along that those are the people who are future leaders.”
As 40 Under 40 grew and became a recognizable event in Omaha, it put Northwest Bank on the map.
“We became relevant, you might say, because all of a sudden people realized that we were participating in the community,” Bothof said. “We were recognizing businesses, entrepreneurs, and professionals in the community.
“I’ve seen some wonderful people and some wonderful successes go across that stage in the past 20 years. I anticipate that this program will continue to recognize future leaders of Omaha, and it’s been a real pleasure and an honor to be part of the program since its inception. I think it’s one of the community’s great ways to recognize young professionals and high performers.”
This year for the first time in the program’s history, one of Northwest Bank’s employees, Kelly Grefe, won a 40 Under 40 award. Being a sponsor, the bank has never nominated its own people because of the perceived conflict of interest.
“[Grefe] was recognized by his peer,” Bothof said. “We are happy that he is getting the award this year. If you own or run an organization, no one person can do it by themself. They have to be surrounded by great people, and that’s who we recognize at the 40 Under 40. I think it’s a real honor. I have several of them that work for me that have helped grow this bank locally.”
Northwest’s support for young professionals goes beyond 40 Under 40.
“We encourage them to become involved in organizations they find an interest in, like young professionals groups and networking groups,” Bothof said. “We encourage our people to participate in community activities as well.”
Four years ago, Northwest started a management trainee program for people interested in banking. Since 2017 the bank has hired 10 young college graduates and taught them banking. They learn every function within a bank, including customer service, commercial banking, portfolio management, mortgage lending, operations, compliance and audit, commercial analysis, internal loan reviews,and human resources.
“They go through all of those departments over a 12- to 18-month period,” Bothof said.
“Our promise to them is that we will give them a job at the end of the program [although] we don’t guarantee that it will be in any particular area. When we introduced this program they asked me to mentor those people, so I had an opportunity to mentor and get them through the program over the past four years. Nine of the 10 who [ started the program] are still with us. One left to go into Creighton Law. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Bothof grew up in Minnesota. After graduating from Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, with an education degree, he taught school and coached. He entered the banking industry in Storm Lake in 1978, and in 1981 he and his wife moved to Omaha so he could take business and finance classes from University of Nebrask at Omaha while working at Commercial Federal.
In 1987 Bothof was recruited to the west coast where he spent the next five years. A community bank recruited him back to Omaha in 1992.
“I left there to start a community bank in 1998,” Bothof said. “I met the Conovers, and we built a business plan. It’s been a great 23 and a half years. They’re a great organization that has an excellent culture and values the human resource. It’s been a real pleasure to be part of their organization.”