At first glance, any comparison of the late Steve Jobs, guru of Apple (and Pixar) and Bill Cooper, TCF Financial Corporation’s longtime and legendary chairman and CEO, is about as implausible as it gets. Jobs, a product of the Bay Area counterculture, built an empire by marketing the design of revolutionary consumer products as an attribute that made its users special. Cooper, from Detroit, the rusting epicenter of traditional manufacturing, built an empire by making modest but shrewdly focused changes to an industry as old as time itself, scaling up from street-level connections to lower-to-middle income consumers.

But Apple and TCF are, for all intents and purposes, the creation of the two men with whom they are most identified. Each has been alternately described as a visionary and a tyrant. Both have proven themselves extraordinarily adroit at seeing voids in the marketplace where others didn’t.

Each devoted his professional life to his company, demanding performance from employees, delivering solid-to-extraordinary value to shareholders, taking a guerrilla warfare–like attitude toward obstacles and competitors, and never wasting much time in self-satisfied contentment.

Both grew up far from privilege, buffeted by personal and family challenges. Both exercised unique forms of leadership, and styles outside industry norms, but both were unequivocally successful. Both also left their companies, but ultimately returned, needing to reinvent the respective business models.

In Cooper, we have a routinely outspoken, larger-than-life character in an industry that generally prefers sedate-and-circumspect. Cooper, now 67 and in the final year of his current contract as TCF’s boss, achieved no small part of his credibility by taking the fight to whatever forces stood as obstacles, while maintaining a top management team remarkably in synch with his strategies and tactics.

Cooper joined TCF (as CEO of TCF National) in 1985 and retired from the bank in 2005, remaining on the bank’s board. He returned to the CEO’s chair in 2008. He works out of a handsome but not sprawling, dark wood-trimmed office in downtown Wayzata. On a recent afternoon he looked out and noted a multimillion-dollar road project that, as I was meant to understand it, served to improve traffic flow to the city-owned liquor store, thereby providing yet another example of government using taxpayer money to apply an unfair advantage over privately owned competitors.

Such a comment is classic Cooper. The self-made man perpetually prepared for, if not locked in, battle with conniving public officials.

 “Vince Lombardi,” Cooper says, “was an asshole. But the guys who played for him loved him. Why? Because he won! They knew he was an asshole. But their attitude was, ‘He’s our asshole.’ ”

There is caricature to the public perception of Cooper. That Lombardi business pretty well describes it. And while it’s very likely that Cooper is a more modulated and relaxed character when there’s no money on the table, it comes as a surprise that one can have a rambling chat and find a thoroughly interesting, good-humored guy. A bona fide character. In the parlance of personality politics, “Coop” is someone you wouldn’t mind having a beer with.

Much is made of his days working part-time as a cop while going to college at Wayne State in Michigan. Talking with Cooper is a lot like talking with a wily beat cop. Tilted back in one chair, his legs up on another, he’s sizing you up, searching for the holes in your game. He’s scanning the perimeter as he exchanges jokes and opinions about the news and characters of the neighborhood. The game is on, and it is entertaining.

“You do have to get used to Bill,” says Neil Brown, TCF’s president and chief risk officer, with a chuckle. “He can be very intimidating. I tell people, ‘If you’re not prepared for a meeting with Bill, postpone it. Otherwise he will eat you up like sausage. He has a pretty big bark when he needs to.
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