Bank owner hires No. 2 from Park National

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By Josh Adams

Jerry Vainisi, the owner and longtime face of Forest Park National Bank, says he's going to become a fixture on the golf courses near his vacation home in Wisconsin now that he's got someone to manage the day-to-day operations.

Dan Watts, the new president and chief operating officer at Forest Park National, was most recently working under Mike Kelly, the quietly philanthropic Oak Park banker who's been making headlines since October, when his franchise of nine banks was taken by the feds and sold to U.S. Bank.

Watts' first day on the job here was Monday. Both men say the discussions to bring him west of Harlem developed quickly.

In his new role, Vainisi will remain chairman and chief executive officer of Forest Park National.

"I really wasn't thinking about doing that until Dan became available when Park was shut down," Vainisi said. As a former general manager of the Chicago Bears, Vainisi used a football analogy to explain his incentive in hiring Watts. When there's a player available who can make your team better, he said, you go get them.

Vainisi's son, Jack Vainisi, may have seemed the logical successor, having been groomed to steer the bank when the elder Vainisi retires. In fact, Jack Vainisi relinquished his title as chief operating officer of the bank to make room for Watts. The younger Vainisi will remain as executive vice president, and the torch will indeed someday be Jack's to carry, said Vainisi.

"If the unfortunate thing that happed to Park hadn't happened, this wouldn't have come together," Vainisi said.

Watts was just one of the longtime employees ushered out the door in late October when the FDIC brought in U.S. Bank to run Park National and Kelly's eight other banks,. The feds' decision has been chastised by public officials and local activists familiar with the deep and critical role Kelly's banks have played in community development. To the potential advantage of Forest Park National and its customers, Vainisi said Watts' experience at Park National can help raise the profile of another locally owned bank in a region where lenders and depositors are "somewhat territorial."

Watts was raised in Oak Park and lives in River Forest, but for 12 years he made his home in Forest Park. During the late 1980s and early '90s, he served two terms on the village council and said he has warm memories of living affordably while commuting into the city.

He acknowledged being courted by larger financial institutions in recent months, but Watts said there's an undeniable attraction to community banking and Forest Park National has a similar culture to that of his last job. Watts described the philosophy as "high touch" banking where customers want to see their bankers as opposed to dialing 1-800 numbers. It's becoming rare that lending decisions are made locally, he said, but it is a goal for Forest Park National to extend its homegrown style to neighboring communities. That growth would include additional branches, said Watts.

"The decisions are made right here," Watts said. "There's no calling Seattle or waiting for somebody in Minneapolis to make a decision."

In managing locally owned banks, which he did for Kelly at three different branches, Watts described strong relationships both within the company and with customers. Those types of connections helped make the decision to join Forest Park National an easy one, he said. However, the cold and sudden end of Park National has not been easy to absorb. In very plain language, Watts said the FDIC should not have ¡ª and didn't need to ¡ª shut down Park National.

A hearing last week on Capitol Hill investigating the FDIC takeover of Kelly's banks was prompted by the swift and vocal reaction of a coalition of community activists, ministers and business owners in the Oak Park and Austin. Watts said he followed the hearing closely, and hoped that federal regulators understand why there has been such a strong reaction from the community.

"You didn't see that kind of grassroots support for any of the large banks that got help," he said.

Watts' office at Forest Park National is at the front of the lobby in the Madison Street location. He says passersby are welcome to stop in and say hello.¡¡

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