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James R. Popp has a new office at the headquarters of Johnson Financial Group in Racine, but don't expect to find him there every workday.

To Popp, the best part of being the new chief executive officer of Wisconsin's second-biggest banking firm is going out to Johnson Bank customers and branches and listening to people. He counts himself among leaders who believe communication — listening as well as talking — is at the top of the list of duties for a CEO.

“I think it's communication. I think it's clarity. I think it's focus. That's a big part of what your leadership team has to bring to the table,” Popp said. “Communication is such a two-way street. It's not just communicating in one direction.”

Popp, 54, this month succeeded Thomas M. Bolger as CEO of Racine-based Johnson Financial Group, a financial services company owned by the Johnson family and chaired by Helen Johnson-Leipold. Bolger led a turnaround of the bank after it was weakened by loans that went bad during the Great Recession and its aftermath.

Today, Johnson Bank is well-capitalized and lending to credit-worthy businesses and consumers. Through Sept. 30, the bank's 2017 net income was about $26.4 million, up 21% from the same period a year earlier, regulatory records show. With assets of about $4.7 billion, Johnson Bank trails in size only to Green Bay's Associated Bank among banks headquartered in Wisconsin.

“Tom was the right person at every level for that spot. His style, his skill set were absolutely right,” said Popp, who was the Wisconsin market leader for JPMorgan Chase before going to Johnson as president last year. “Now as Tom has made this decision to retire, there is this great opportunity for me.”

Almost all of Popp's banking career was with Chase or banks Chase acquired. He left briefly to help run a family business before he was called in 2001 to head up the Milwaukee office of Bank One, a future Chase acquisition.

Popp has become a familiar face with local charitable and civic organizations ever since.

Johnson Financial Group has investment and insurance divisions in addition to Johnson Bank. In 2016, the company made headlines by acquiring longtime Milwaukee investment advisory firm Cleary Gull Advisors Inc.

Popp sat down with the Journal Sentinel recently to discuss his background, his new role and the industry. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

Question: What was your boyhood like?

Popp: I grew up in Libertyville, Ill. I grew up in a household where my dad came home between 5:29 and 5:31 every day. We'd (Popp and two brothers) be sitting on the porch with our mitts waiting to play catch. My dad is probably my biggest influence, because he's just a solid, grind-it-out kind of guy. He just does what he does. He's a low-key guy. He takes care of things. Just a really steady, stable, solid-as-the-day-is-long kind of guy, which is great.

Sports was big. We played anything that had a ball. Back then, that's just what you did.

Q: You played tight end on the Vanderbilt University football team?

Popp: I wound up having a nice career there. I was drafted by the 49ers. I was in San Francisco and Chicago and had about an hour and a half with the Houston Oilers.

It's something to understand how to win, and it's something to understand how to lose and get back up and keep going again.

What I always tell people — I tell my kids this — I don't care whether you play sports or whether you're in the band or you're in drama or you're in the play. It doesn't matter. Do something, and do it really well. To be part of a team, to be where your piece is part of a bigger whole, is really compelling.

Q: How did you get into banking?

Popp: As I tell people, I got tired of being fired from my first three jobs — the 49ers, the Bears and the Oilers.

So I started to interview. Actually a friend of a friend introduced me to a banker at American National Bank and Trust of Chicago (since merged into Chase). Thirty years later, American National felt a lot like Johnson Financial Group feels today. It was a place that oozed culture. It was all about the customer. It was about relationships and customers.

My first role was as a credit analyst, which was kind of the lowest role on the food chain in commercial banking back in 1987. I did a lot of things there.

I've spent the bulk of my career in the commercial banking business. The fundamental piece of the commercial banking business is understanding risk. It's fundamental in the financial services business.

Q: How did you end up coming to Milwaukee?

Popp: I was in the middle of the family business when I got a phone call out of the blue from a guy running Bank One's business up here. At the time I was living in Libertyville and had just built a house. It would have been an easy commute for me to this job. But he said, “We want you to take this job running our Milwaukee business, but we have one caveat. And that is, you have to move here because you can't do this job if you don't live here.”

Truly, you can't become a part of this community unless you live here and spend time here and you get involved here.

It's one of the great things about Milwaukee: All you have to do is show up and grab the rope and start pulling. You can be part of the solution here.

Q: What does the commercial market for bankers look like right now?

Popp: The bulk of our business is in the state of Wisconsin. One of the great things about Wisconsin is it's a pretty stable, steady market. The highs don't get too high, and the lows don't get too low.

You don't get this meteoric growth. But at the same time, companies are changing and evolving, just like our business is changing and evolving. They are buying other companies, they are investing in technology, they're investing in buildings and infrastructure, they're going global.

Q: Banking definitely is changing. You've got millennials who do their banking via apps on their smartphones, but you still have lots of baby boomers who want to visit a branch. How do you deal with that?

Popp: We have to be great on a face-to-face basis on the one side, and we have to be great on a digital and technology basis on the other side. And they're meeting in the middle, too.

Everybody in our industry has got that as their top priority. We're all working really hard on it.

Q: Branches aren't dying?

Popp: Twenty-five years ago they said brick and mortar was dead. Now what banks are doing is retrofitting them. They are turning them into places where people can come in and use their technology in the branch.

Q: Foxconn Technology Group has plans for a mega-factory in Racine County, your home base. Do you expect it to be a boon for the bank?

Popp: It's exciting. What I personally think about Foxconn is that if it becomes even half of what we all think it can become, it will be great. It's always great to have more jobs, more opportunities, more business.

Q: A number of banks have announced they're moving to a minimum hourly wage of $15 now that the corporate tax rate has been reduced. Is Johnson Bank doing anything like that?

Popp: We, too, are increasing our minimum wage to $15 per hour. This impacts a small percentage of our people. JFG has a longstanding commitment to providing market-competitive compensation, and we believe this is the right thing to do.

Q: Do you keep your eyes open for acquisitions?

Popp: We'll always keep our eyes open. In our wealth business, we had the acquisition of Cleary Gull. In insurance, we've had a handful of acquisitions that make a lot of sense.

The banking business is a little different. There's plenty for us to do in the banking business in the footprint that we have. We'll keep our eyes open if something compelling comes around. But we're not on the prowl necessarily. We're just focused on being great for our customers in the markets we're in today.

Article by Paul Gores | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel