By Nick Moroni
You could say Dan Watts is old fashioned — and he likely wouldn't take offense. Although he didn't overtly express an aversion to technology (in particular the threat the Internet poses to brick-and-mortar commerce), he definitely prefers conducting business in person.
That's because this veteran banker and former commercial litigator is steeped in the community. The River Forest resident lived in Forest Park for 12 years, served as a village commissioner, and also sat on a number of other non-governmental boards. And the institution he heads now, Forest Park National Bank, has a lot to do with the village's commercial viability.
"It can't be all computerized," Watts said, as he affirmed the importance of the human element to small business. And that personal touch can be found up and down Madison Street, he said.
"I'm looking out my window and I see people walking up and down Madison talking to each other, waving at people," said Watts, interviewed by phone from his Madison Street office. "You don't get that sitting in your bedroom in front of your computer screen."
Towns, especially ones the size of Forest Park, need the independent grocer, the baker, and, in this burg, the bars, to thrive and also maintain some individuality, he said. (Watts co-owns O'Sullivan's Public House.)
"Keeping these brick-and-mortar stores is essential," Watts said. "Communities need gathering places."
Forest Park National Bank's lending has helped prop up many of the businesses on Madison Street, and the local institution (it has two branches in Forest Park, and plans to open another in Oak Park) counts many of these store owners as its clients.
"As far as our penetration on Madison Street is concerned," said Watts, "we're batting very well."
Noel Eberline, co-owner of the recently opened Yearbook home design store, 7316 Madison St., and his partner, Jef Anderson, went to Forest Park National for a small business loan when they were looking to open up earlier this year.
Eberline noted that he and Anderson were initially going to seek a loan at a larger bank, but when they could not meet the bank's terms, the two opted to borrow from Forest Park National instead. Both the institution and Watts came highly recommended from players in the local business community, such as commercial realtor David King (who introduced Watts to the partners), Eberline said.
"Dan was great in making that happen," said Eberline. "He took an interest in our vision."
The Yearbook owners' experience is a testament to Watts' emphasis on the importance of strong community ties: They met over beers at O'Sullivan's while dining with King, who ended up brokering the deal that landed Yearbook on Madison Street.
"How cool is that?" Eberline said, adding that Watts' concern for the community was evidenced by his periodic visits to Yearbook to ask about the business.
"It's always really encouraging," the shop owner said.
"Forest Park National Bank is truly a community bank and understands what that means. Dan Watts truly understands it," said King, who has known Watts for nearly a dozen years.
Since being hired by bank owner Jerry Vainisi back in February 2010, Watts has seen the bank increase assets by 4 percent (from $179 million on June 30, 2010, to $186 million a year later), according to data compiled by MSNBC and the American University School of Journalism.
Prior to being hired as president of Forest Park National, Watts worked at Park National Bank in Oak Park, which was seized by the FDIC in 2009 for toxic stakes in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Watts was critical of the takeover at the time, as were many who claimed it could have been prevented had the institution been given more time to raise money to prevent seizure. Before that, Watts worked as a commercial litigator, then took a job at the former American National Bank, in Chicago.
In spite of recent federal reporting regulations that Watts claims hinder the growth of small banks (specifically the Dodd Frank Bill), Watts said that if Forest Park National is able to continue lending and collecting aggressively, the bank will be fine.
The institution seems to be on the right track: Forest Park National ranked fifth on a list of 83 lenders that gave the most loans to Chicago small businesses, as of June 2011, according to the financial Web database Multifunding.
And Watts sees no reason why Forest Park National and, likewise, local business and the community can't continue to grow.
"I think Forest Park is a real vibrant place to do business. ... There are some vacancies, but businesses are going in regularly," Watts said, adding that Forest Park National wants to have a hand in that by continuing to lend.
"Being a participant," he said, "means helping these businesses survive."