Iowa banker one of many Vietnam vets to rise high in business world -
Published Monday, November 11, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 9:13 am
Iowa banker one of many Vietnam vets to rise high in business world

If you want to find the banks with the highest metro-area deposit growth in the past five years, don't forget the small one in Iowa run by the former Vietnam combat helicopter pilot.

Treynor State Bank, about 25 miles east of Omaha, is near the top of the pack. In June 2008, it had $67 million in metro-area deposits, according to FDIC figures; by June 2013, the number had more than tripled, to $221 million.

The four-branch outfit is headed by Chief Executive Michael “Mick” Guttau, whose family owns the bank. Almost 10 years ago, the bank began an aggressive campaign in Omaha. The hook: appeal to high-earning professionals, such as lawyers, accountants and investment managers.

“We started with law firms,” Guttau said. “My daughter is a lawyer; she said no one ever brings lawyers lunch.”

Guttau did, and says he rarely walked away from a noon get-together without a deposit or trust account. Since 2004, the bank's trust department, which administers money on behalf of others, has mushroomed from $10 million in 2004 to $280 million now.

At age 67, Guttau says he has no plans to retire. And he wouldn't be where he is, he said, without having served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, flying combat missions 25 days a month.

“I definitely think it was my military service that best prepared me to lead a company as CEO,” said Guttau, who graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in farm management.

Vietnam veterans such as Guttau are a notable aspect of the U.S. business community: old enough to have ascended to the top of the executive suite, with many still young enough to continue climbing for years to come. The same can't be said about the nation's other 20th century wars that were fought via drafting men for combat.

The youngest veterans of World War II, 18 years old in early 1945, would be about 87 today; not too old for a stout business career, but probably somewhat of a rarity. For young Korean War vets, the ones who turned 18 in mid-1953, they are about 78 years old; while there are undoubtedly many 78-year-olds leading companies, it is not the rule.

Not so with Vietnam vets. The average age of the 7 million Vietnam veterans is about 65 years, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, meaning there are millions who have yet to reach traditional retirement age; some of the youngest Vietnam veterans are in their late 50s. And some, like Guttau, plan to eschew retirement regardless of age.

Mark Moyar, author of “Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965,” said Vietnam veterans such as Guttau for the most part returned from their service and dove into civilian life. Reports of high unemployment, homelessness, crime and substance abuse have been debunked, Moyar said. That many veterans of the Vietnam War have ascended to the boardroom is no surprise.

“Military experience tends to teach people responsibility and how to get things done on time, and to do them well.”

Guttau came to his business career in an unusual way. A Treynor native, Guttau was working at the bank as a loan officer in 1978, seven years removed from his adventures flying Cobra attack helicopters. His boss, the owner of the bank, offered to sell him the business.

His parents took a second mortgage on the family farm — the Guttaus have been farming in and around Treynor since the 1870s — and the rest was paid to the old owners on an installment plan. Guttau said the challenge was one he needed.

“Here I was cooped up in this little office evaluating loans all day after having come off the adrenaline rush of flying in combat.”

Guttau said that is one thing many combat veterans share, and one that drives some of them in their careers: that despite the death and injury and danger, many get mustered out in their early 20s, firm in their conviction that at such a young age they have already done the most interesting thing they will ever do in their lives.

“I remember a buddy from my outfit telling me about going home and getting a ride from the airport from a friend, who was going on and on about who was dating who and who was working at Burger King,” Guttau said. “I remember him telling me later, 'I wasn't even there. I just didn't care about any of that.' ”

Guttau says it was the same for him. His habit was working 100 or 120 hours a week. He said he finally toned it down when he recognized it was just another form of avoidance, like drugs or alcohol.

“Post-traumatic stress disorder is unavoidable,” he said. “We all have it in one form or another.”

Dick Swanson, CEO of the Des Moines Federal Home Loan Bank and a Guttau confidant, says he has never picked up on any conflict, internal or external, his friend might be harboring over the rigors of combat; Swanson was hired while Guttau was a director of the bank in 2006.

“The aftermath of the Vietnam War has such negative connotations,” Swanson said. “Napalm, Agent Orange, post-traumatic stress disorder. But with Mick it was different, it was transformative. It really shaped who he is.”

Guttau said the work was hard in the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, with which he served in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971, eventually reaching the rank of captain. The mission was search-and-destroy, meaning flying into the jungle or countryside, looking for the enemy, shooting them up with machine guns and grenades, and covering the infantry brought in to fight it out on the ground.

Guttau said about one-third of pilots in his unit were killed or seriously wounded; he never was in his 1,000 hours of aerial combat missions. His skill and bravery earned Guttau two Distinguished Flying Crosses for “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”

Guttau returned to Vietnam for the first time recently.

“I believed in what we were doing,” Guttau said of the attempt to thwart the North Vietnamese communist regime and allies in South Vietnam from taking over South Vietnam.

“Now, you should see it flourish. It is communist in name only. Businesses are thriving, there is freedom of religion, a capitalistic attitude.”

Contact the writer: Russell Hubbard    |   402-444-3133

Russell Hubbard covers banking, financial services, corporate finance, TD Ameritrade, business lawsuits, bankruptcies and other economic and financial topics.

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