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By Jodi Schwan
It was a dangerous time to be a banker in May 1980 when Cathy Clark started in agriculture lending at First Bank in Worthington, Minn.
Interest rates spiked at 21 percent as farmers struggled to hold on to their land, and some failed.
“They were shooting bankers, and I was doing a farm sale every weekend,” said Clark, who grew up on a dairy farm in Cresco, Iowa. “It was tough.”
It was tough being a woman in a male-dominated field. It was harder telling farmers she was there because they could no longer keep their land.
“It was the faces of my dad in those farm sales,” Clark said. “They tested you all the time to see what your knowledge was. The good news was I knew the difference between a boar and a sow and a steer.”
The years that followed would bring Clark – who grew up milking cows and showing cattle – to Sioux Falls, where she would rise to become bank president for Wells Fargo & Co. before being promoted to regional vice president of middle-market banking.
She retires this month at 59 and said the time feels right.
“I want to leave when it’s doing well and I have a great group of people. I want to feel good about my accomplishments,” she said. “I feel good about it. There are great people here to keep commitments to the community and to our customers, and that’s really important to me, because reputation is everything.”
Clark’s star in the Sioux Falls banking community rose at time when women had “to work twice as hard to prove you had the ability and were capable,” she said. “You were there when your manager showed up and stayed until your manager left. You made sure you had things done well before the deadline.”
She was inspired to go into the industry by a trip to Europe to study business in college. Her dad sold a cow to afford the trip, and she became infatuated with the European economic system.
The dream was to become an international banker.
Her career in Sioux Falls started at First Bank, now U.S. Bank. She was recruited by Rob Oliver of Norwest Bank, which became Wells Fargo.
“As you interact in the marketplace, you take note of your competitors and who you seem to have difficulties moving customer relationships away from, and certainly she was one of those,” said Oliver, who is retiring as president of Augustana University. “Her customers all really loved her and appreciated her professionalism and her good work.”
Under Oliver’s leadership, Clark was tapped to lead 14 retail locations in Sioux Falls. She later became manager of private and business banking before serving five years as bank president. As regional vice president of middle-market banking, she works with companies with annual revenue between $20 million and $1 billion.
“She’s a very competent person and capable of doing a lot of different things,” Oliver said. “She’s technically good. She’s a good manager. She’s good with people. She’s good with clients. She just has a wide range of really strong skills.”
Clark became the third woman to chair the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce and the second to chair the Sioux Falls Development Foundation.
Her expanded regional role at Wells Fargo has taken her away from the community as travel has demanded, and she said she looks forward to reconnecting.
“People tell me, ‘We don’t see you.’ And that’s kind of bittersweet,” she said. “I’ve had such tremendous learning experiences and had a voice for the Dakotas as well as within the (Wells Fargo) group. I’ve been so fortunate to work with such a great company that’s dedicated to its team and community.”
Within Wells Fargo, Clark is known as a “pillar of the community” who has worked to ensure Sioux Falls’ prosperity, said Laura Oberst, head of business banking, who worked with Clark for many years.
“She is a terrific business leader who cares deeply about people and is passionate about helping customers succeed,” Oberst said. “She has a longstanding track record of growing our business in every role, from community banking to business banking and most recently middle-market banking. We thank her for the many contributions to our company, our community and to all the people’s careers she touched.”
Business banking is uniquely rewarding, Clark said.
“It’s our responsibility to ask the right questions and make observations and see how we can help them through our products and services,” she said. “And you get to know them personally. You celebrate the wonderful things in their life. You go to the children’s weddings and you go to the funerals. Those are the things that make a difference.”
She has watched the industry evolve in the past 37 years to the point where she said career paths don’t need to go straight up to lead to greater opportunities and where values of diversity, inclusion and work-life balance increasingly are embraced.
“It is not easy to achieve that balance, but I have been so fortunate to have the tremendous support of my husband, which gave me the flexibility in my career and commitment,” Clark said.
Reading an article about “living in the present” helped her decide the time was right to discover her next professional step.
“I want to answer a question in the back of my head that’s nagged me for a while: ‘Is there something else?’ I’m so focused on my job all the time that I don’t take the time to think about it,” she said. “I don’t have a plan, and the beauty of it is I’m unburdened by everything. I’ve been so focused on what’s going on and what the schedule looks like and not ever spent enough time in the present.”
Opportunities will surely emerge, Oliver said.
“One thing about Cathy Clark is she’s always been involved in the community in one way or another, so I think an opportunity will come where she can continue to be of service to the community,” he said. “She’s one of those people I have the utmost respect for. She’s done good work and has created success pretty much everywhere she’s been.”
Her last day at Wells Fargo will be June 30. And wherever work takes her, home will be here, she said.
“I love Sioux Falls. I love what I do here, and I love the people here. There are too many great opportunities here, personally and professionally or volunteering. So it’s home.”
Well-known Wells Fargo banking leader Cathy Clark retires this month and plans to see what other opportunities arise.