Opinion
Why We Need More Bill Coopers
Open Letter

Why We Need More Bill Coopers

To: Gov. Mark Dayton, State Capitol, St. Paul, Minn.

To: Gov. Mark Dayton
State Capitol
St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Gov. Dayton:

As governor, you have a role to play in maintaining a business-attracting state, and so I hope you will have an eye out for the next Bill Cooper. Here’s what to look for.

Bill Cooper was born into a humble household in Detroit in the middle of World War II (1943). His mother later worked as a clerk and was widowed when Bill was 14 years old. In those days in Detroit, the hard-scrabble higher education institution open to students of modest means was Wayne State University. Bill had been unable to read in third grade (self-described as “the dumb kid”), but he’d done well enough to get into Wayne State and graduate four years later. He worked his way through his education by working all four years as a cop. By 1985, Bill had been hired to lead Twin City Federal Savings and Loan (TCF) in Minneapolis.

That year was the beginning of the savings and loan crisis, which saw the failure of more than 1,000 such institutions (of 3,000 nationwide). The other big S&L in the Twin Cities, Midwest Federal, lapsed into insolvency and criminal fraud, which cost the taxpayers $1 billion. In contrast, Cooper raised money, changed TCF’s business plan, became a bank holding company and listed on the New York Stock Exchange. In what would become a recurrent theme in Bill’s career, he neither wanted nor needed a taxpayer bailout. What he did want and need were small depositors. Lots of them.

Lots of depositors were attracted by Cooper’s introduction of free checking, convenient bank hours on Saturdays and late evenings, debit cards and later, branch banks in supermarkets. He truly became the “Joe Lunch Bucket” of bankers. The bank and shareholders prospered.

During this time, the Minnesota GOP was a floundering financial mess. Bill took over as chairman. He fixed the affairs of the GOP, raising a record $5.3 million for the successful 1998 elections. As at TCF, the party continued to prosper.

TCF (ticker symbol TCB) prospered to the point that in 2006, Bill retired. This column published an Open Letter at that time, asking Bill to come back. And after a year and a half, and at the request of the board, he did. He came back to save the bank in the middle of the worst banking crisis since the Great Depression. During this time, I sparred publicly with Bill Cooper on matters of politics. That we had those differences was not a surprise.

What was a surprise was when he asked me to join the TCF board in 2009. Several years later, becoming chair of the compensation committee, I got to set, with the consent of the board, Bill Cooper’s salary and bonus. As Bill would say: Isn’t America a great place!

TCF was plunged into an even greater crisis with the regulatory overreach that was the inevitable backswing of the pendulum occasioned by the banking collapse of 2008-2009. New regulations cost TCF $100 million, as costs of compliance went up dramatically. As Cooper often pointed out (sometimes on TV), TCF was being forced to pay for the sins of its less competent competitors. Then, with the full support of the TCF board, Cooper sued the Federal Reserve to raise “swipe fees.” In 2011, after an unfavorable early court opinion, TCF dropped the lawsuit. The Federal Reserve increased the cap on swipe fees.

Cooper’s were the steadiest bank hands in a crisis, and immediately set about remaking the bank again. By the time Bill retired at the end of 2015, TCF had, in the words of one analyst, left all its competitors in the dust. It had grown a $21 billion asset base, with a national franchise in inventory and equipment finance, a profitable and expanding business in Canada and a profitable, growing business in the secondary mortgage market.

And something else: During the most tumultuous years of banking since the Great Depression—through the S&L crisis, the inflationary 1990s, the dot.com bust of the early 21st century, and the Great Recession of 2008-2009—due in large part to Bill Cooper’s leadership—TCF had compiled a record of 88 consecutive profitable quarters! Not a dime of taxpayers’ money was ever expended on TCF.

Bill could motivate and get the best out of people to a degree that even Wild coach Bruce Boudreau would envy.

He was the founding chairman of Friends of Education and supported a number of charter schools. Many kids, not just relatives, are in college on a scholarship paid for by Bill Cooper. There are a number of small businesses in our community that got their start with a personal loan from Bill Cooper.

Very few business leaders who were founders and lauded as such are able to leave the stage quietly and successfully. Bill did. With the board of directors’ involvement, Bill chose Craig Dahl, a 16-year TCF veteran, to take over as CEO. The transition was successful, and done with a class rare among departing CEOs. We had learned to expect nothing less from Bill.

Principled, blunt-speaking business people who passionately believe in our community are few and far between.

Our state badly needs more Bill Coopers.

Sincerely yours,
Vance K. Opperman
Admirer and Friend

Vance K. Opperman (vopperman@keyinvestment.com) is owner and CEO of MSP Communications, which publishes Twin Cities Business.

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