Tom Welle remembered for dedication to family, friends and First National Bank Bemidji
Tom Welle, chairman of the board of First National Bank Bemidji, died on Dec. 9 at the age of 71. His funeral will be held at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 16, at St. Philip’s Catholic Church in Bemidji.
BEMIDJI -- Tom Welle won a prize at the Minnesota Bankers Association convention one year when he answered a trivia question correctly. The question was: who was president of the MBA in 1952?
Tom’s answer: “Grandpa.” It was his grandfather, Nick Welle, who headed the MBA in 1952.
That’s just one example of Tom Welle’s sense of humor and legacy that friends and family members are sharing after learning of Tom’s death from prostate cancer on Dec. 9. He was 71. His funeral will be held at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 16, at St. Philip’s Catholic Church in Bemidji.
Welle retired as president of First National Bank Bemidji last year after 35 years, and he continued as chairman of the board after retirement.
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“He was a tough boss, but he was also a kind boss,” said Sue Engel, retired sales and marketing director who worked with Tom for more than 30 years. “He challenged all of us to be our best. As humans, we make errors sometimes, and he would call us on it. But he also would be supportive of us to fix it and to make us all better.”
Tom was managing Bremer Bank in International Falls in 1985 when he was recruited to First National by his uncles, Joe and Bob Welle, along with cousins Paul and Hugh Welle. After growing up in Roseville, Tom’s love of fishing and hunting had brought him to Bemidji State University and he began his banking career with Bremer after graduating from BSU.
First National Bank Bemidji traces its history back to 1897 when it was the Bank of Bemidji. The Welle family has been part of First National since 1945 when Nick and Rudy Welle acquired it. Joe and Bob were the next generation, followed by Tom, Paul and Hugh. Tom’s son Ryan and daughter Becky Bentfield, along with Hugh Welle's son Christian, and Paul Welle's daughter Georgia Del Favero, are fourth-generation bank employees, and Becky’s son Carson Liapis is the fifth generation.
“His family was awfully important to him,” Engel said. “Having Ryan and Becky in the bank was something he was really proud of.”
Jerry Pickett, one of Tom’s closest friends, agreed.
“He was very dedicated to his family, to the bank and to his friends,” said Pickett, who spent time hunting, fishing and curling with Welle. “If you were a friend of Tom’s, he would do anything for you. I have many great memories of the man. We were good friends ever since he came to town.”
Cousin Paul Welle, retired vice president of the bank, said Tom was especially proud of the way First National weathered the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.
The year he was president of the MBA (2009-10) was probably one of, if not the worst in our industry in 60 years,” Paul Welle said. “But our bank didn’t really suffer through that much. A lot of that was due to Tom. He was the chief credit officer.”
Paul recalled the time when Tom attended a meeting in Washington, D.C. and was seated next to Sheila Bair, chair of the U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. It was in the aftermath of the banking crisis, and the topic of conversation was mortgage regulations.
“They started talking about some regulations, like the 28 documents you have to sign,” Paul said. “So Tom says, ‘Well, that’s not really the way I like to do it. By the time you get to about page 10 my customers’ eyes are glazing over. So I want them to know the most important parts of those first.’ Sheila Bair was arguing, and Tom was not holding back.
"That’s the way he was. It’s the customer who’s most important. So even though she was the most powerful person around, he was not backing off. That kind of says something about him.”
Engel added, “As president and board chair, he still wanted to work with customers. He didn’t want to be just a manager or an executive.”