DES MOINES — Don Coffin vividly recalls the first farm auction he worked during the 1980s farm crisis.
Tractors and farm implements were lined up in the driveway. The Iowa farmer and his wife desperately worked the crowd urging them not to bid on their possessions.
“I can still see their faces,” said Coffin, now the president of Bankers Trust in Des Moines. “That’s the nonglamorous, ugly side of banking.”
But that auction, one of his earliest assignments at his first full-time banking job, has stuck with him for 30 years. And it’s influenced his approach to running a community bank.
Coffin will become the 11th CEO of Bankers Trust in January.
His impending promotion would be notable of its own right: Bankers Trust has grown into Iowa’s largest independent bank. With assets of nearly $4.5 billion it’s among the nation’s 200 largest community banks.
But he’s also taking over for larger-than-life Suku Radia, who was celebrated as much for his community involvement as his business acumen.
For his part, Coffin plans to maintain his own robust level of community involvement as CEO. But he has no illusions of matching the role his predecessor played.
“It is my job to be out and about and part of the community,” Coffin said. “But there’s only one Suku. So to try to replicate that is not going to happen.”
Coffin grew up in Waterloo, the seventh of 10 children.
“So I’m pretty strong at negotiating,” he joked.
In their two-bedroom home, the boys slept in one room, the girls in another. His parents slept on a pull-out bed in the living room. His father worked in Waterloo’s John Deere plant.
A longtime banker, Coffin arrived at Bankers Trust in October 2008 just as the economy was unraveling. John Ruan III, chairman of Bankers Trust, credited Coffin’s work for keeping the bank afloat as business borrowers were struggling to keep their heads above water.
As other lenders froze credit, Bankers Trust doubled down and even increased lending to some of its customers, helping to keep their businesses from folding during the downturn.
Coffin “was instrumental in saving the bank’s loan portfolio when he arrived and then turning the commercial lending division into the bank’s crown jewel,” Ruan said at a late November retirement celebration for Radia.
His praise was echoed by Radia: “Don is absolutely the right person at the right time to head up this organization that both of us so dearly love,” he told the crowd.
In 2017, the Small Business Administration dubbed Bankers Trust as its top lender in Iowa, top lender to export businesses, and the leading lender for business acquisitions and start-ups.
Coffin says he favors a “common-sense” approach to banking. That means borrowers who on paper may seem like too much of a financial risk fare better at Bankers Trust than large lenders, he said. Rather than looking at just the numbers, he said the bank should look at the stories behind the data.
“We’re going to listen whatever that story is,” Coffin said from a 33rd-floor boardroom in the Ruan Center. “If it makes sense, we’re going to make that happen.”