2015 Midlander of the Year: Bruce Lauritzen

By Steve Jordon / World-Herald staff writer

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Twenty years ago Bruce Lauritzen was ready to build First National Bank’s operations center and headquarters on a 25-acre field at 140th Street and West Dodge Road.

Then-newly elected Mayor Hal Daub called with a sales pitch: What would it take to keep you downtown?

There followed a decision by Lauritzen that helped spark a wave of redevelopment in the city’s central business district that has washed past $2 billion and is still flowing.

Past Midlanders of the Year

Since 1965 The World-Herald has recognized individuals and groups as Midlanders of the Year to honor their contributions to the city and the region. Those recognized:

2015: Bruce Lauritzen, First National Bank
2014: Nebraska Ebola fighters
2013: Evonne and Bill Williams, honoring veterans
2012: Tom Osborne
2011: Missouri River flood fighters
2010: Harvey Perlman, UNL chancellor
2009: Daniel Neary, Mutual of Omaha CEO
2008: Don Smithey, Omaha Airport Authority
2007: Connie Spellman, Omaha leader
2006: Maj. Gen. Roger Lempke, Nebraska National Guard
2005: U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel
2004: Dr. Harold Maurer, UNMC chancellor
2003: Gary E. Moulton,
2002: Charles W. “Chuck” Durham, HDR Inc.
2001: Military personnel
2000: Walter Scott Jr., Kiewit
1999: Volunteers
1998: Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad
1997: Tom and Nancy Osborne
1996: U.S. Sen. J.J. Exon
1995: Lied Foundation and its trustee, Christina Hixson
1994: Jack Diesing Sr. and Jack Diesing Jr.
1993: Teachers
1992: Foster care families
1991: Dr. Lee Simmons
1990: Men and women in Operation Desert Shield
1989: Harold W. Andersen
1988: U.S. Sen.-elect Bob Kerrey
1987: Northwestern Bell President Jan Stoney
1986: Kay Orr and Helen Boosalis
1985: State Sen. Jerome Warner
1984: Families of the Land
1983: Nebraska football players Irving Fryar, Turner Gill, Mike Rozier and Mark Schellen
1982: UNL Chancellor Martin Massengale
1981: Eugene T. Mahoney
1980: Builder Peter Kiewit and Creighton President Carl M. Reinert
1979: Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne
1978: Nebraska Sen. J.J. Exon and Iowa Gov. Robert Ray
1977: Year of the Educator: Omaha Superintendent of Schools Owen Knutzen, classroom teacher Sammye Jackson, Creighton President Joseph Labaj and UNO Chancellor Ronald Roskens
1976: University of Nebraska President D.B. Varner
1975: Year of All the People: survivors of drought, blizzards and the Omaha tornado
1974: Nebraska Gov. J.J. Exon
1973: Educator Anne Campbell and Omaha Councilwoman Betty Abbott
1972: Omaha Mayor Eugene Leahy
1971: Environmentalists James Malkowski and Deanie Anderson
1970: Nebraska football coach Bob Devaney
1969: Youth of the Midlands
1968: Clifford Hardin, NU chancellor and U.S. secretary of agriculture-designate
1967: Nebraska Gov. Norbert Tiemann
1966: Midlands farmers
1965: Omaha Mayor A.V. Sorensen

“With an affinity for downtown and a love for the riverfront and the core of our city, there has been and still continues to be a goal to make it a more attractive part of our community,” Lauritzen said. “I remember when it was deteriorating badly and people were leaving downtown and businesses were going elsewhere.”

For his role in downtown’s rebirth, for contributing to the success of one of the nation’s largest family-owned banks and for his leadership as head of a family dedicated to Omaha since the city’s founding, The World-Herald today names Bruce Lauritzen as its 2015 Midlander of the Year.

The actions of Lauritzen, chairman of the bank’s holding company, First National of Nebraska, have been as visible as construction of the region’s tallest office building, the First National Tower — the centerpiece of more than $300 million invested in the downtown core — and as subtle as the sidewalk plaques outside the tower that honor Omaha’s earliest settlers.

Among those pioneers: Lauritzen’s maternal great-great-grandfather, Thomas F. Davis, who came across the Missouri River from Kanesville (now Council Bluffs) for a picnic on July 4, 1854, and liked the view from the western shore.

Since that day, the Davis-Lauritzen family has been instrumental in Omaha’s growth and improvements in its quality of life. Now Bruce, with his son Clark, 39, next in line, remains focused on keeping the city on track.

“First National really was the torchbearer for making commitments to downtown,” said former city planner Steve Jensen. “I can’t imagine what downtown would be like if they hadn’t done that. I don’t want to imagine it.

“I give Bruce all kinds of credit for recognizing how important it is to make that commitment to downtown. First National made a major statement, a major commitment to downtown. It isn’t just an office building for their company. It becomes a point of pride for the community. It says we’re a big city, too. We can have a tall building in our downtown.”

Marty Shukert, an earlier city planning director, said building in the countryside would have been cheaper.

“The bank’s heart, and Bruce’s personally, was really downtown,” Shukert said. “He understood rightly that a great city has to have a great downtown, and he was very devoted to doing everything he could to make that happen.”

Beyond the First National Tower’s dramatic visage, Shukert said, it created a sense of confidence in downtown’s future that encouraged more developments — convention center, corporate offices, concert hall, baseball stadium, hotels, residences and, most recently, HDR Inc.’s planned downtown headquarters.

“The Lauritzen family made decisions based on using the power and the energy and the financial strength that they have that benefits Omaha as well as themselves,” Shukert said. “They’ve always seen that commonality of interests.”

From his 40th-floor office in the tower, Lauritzen, 72, can see Ninth and Jones Streets, where Grandpa Davis opened a lumber mill and built a house. Another ancestor, Robert Clarkson, lived at 20th and St. Mary’s and became the region’s first Episcopal bishop and namesake of the hospital he founded.

With that kind of family history, Lauritzen said, “I’ve been interested in seeing that our downtown continues to thrive.”

April 1970: Construction underway on the First National Bank at 16th and Dodge Streets. The bank moved its offices across the street to First National Tower in 2002.

The First National Bank building at 16th and Farnam Streets now houses apartments and condos.

More than 2,550 First National employees come downtown each workday, out of its 3,500 metro-area staff. The bank has 1.9 million square feet of office space and property downtown, plus 1.1 million square feet on West Dodge Road and elsewhere in the city.

Lauritzen also graced downtown with one of the world’s largest bronze sculpture displays, a collection of buffalo, geese and settlers spread over five city blocks in park settings open to the public.

Installing sculptures and creating parkland isn’t the typical investment by a bank, and part of the reason is the Lauritzen family’s control of the company.

“There is more freedom to make decisions that might not be conventional but might be a little bit extraordinary,” Lauritzen said. “It also gives one the opportunity to look long-term and see what you’d like to create over a period of years and even decades.”

The bank’s business benefits from having an attractive downtown, he said, especially when the alternatives are decay and abandonment, which was starting to happen in the 1980s.

“Building the buildings and the parks was our contribution to try and make it more attractive so people would come back downtown,” he said. “To do that is a monumental task, so you need a lot of help, not only from private enterprise but also from public resources.”

City government cooperated in assembling enough land for the expansion, but it wasn’t always easy or pleasant; lawsuits and other obstacles had to be overcome.

Lauritzen remembers lunches at the Capitol Bar & Grill and, as a child, going to the dentist’s office in the Medical Arts Building. Both are gone, along with dozens of other structures, replaced by the First National buildings and city-owned parking garages for commuting workers. (The terra cotta molding salvaged from the facade of the Medical Arts Building, also known as the Professional Tower, is today the centerpiece of the bank’s three-story glass Winter Garden at the base of the tower’s north side.)

Lauritzen, with exceptional help from top executives at First National, also managed to steer the bank away from the economic challenges and mergers that swallowed up other large regional banks over the years.

Under Lauritzen’s leadership the bank bought out nearly all of its public shareholders so that today it is considered privately owned, with nearly all shares held by family members.

“I don’t see that changing,” Lauritzen said. “But as (former ConAgra Foods Chairman) Mike Harper used to say, all plans are firm until changed.”
Still, buyers have been interested.

“We were approached over the years many times, but we never had a desire to see the bank headquartered anywhere but in Omaha,” Lauritzen said. “Our goal was to maintain it and have it as an important part of the city.”

Economic crises in First National’s history include bank panics in 1857, 1893 and the 1930s, the farm crisis of the 1980s and the 2007-2009 near-meltdown. The farm crisis was especially serious for First National, which, with its affiliates, is the fourth-largest agricultural lender in the country.

In the latest economic downturn, First National didn’t take part in the federal government’s troubled asset program, even though some loans soured and profits dropped by nearly two-thirds.

“We were strong enough so that selling or changing our operation was not a concern,” Lauritzen said.

But to meet new capital requirements put in place by federal regulators, the bank had to come up with several hundred million dollars in added capital, as well as shrink the size of the company by about 20 percent.

The increased capital came from selling assets Lauritzen wanted to keep — 3 million shares of Visa International stock and an operating division that processed credit card transactions for merchants.

“Frankly, the banking industry is just now getting back to where it was before that crisis,” he said. First National is back to the size it was seven years ago, with earnings of $192 million in 2014 and headed for a record this year.

Profits over the six years since 2010 total more than $1 billion.

Lauritzen retired from many of his executive duties at the bank in early 2000 when his wife, Kimball, became ill, remaining as chairman of the holding company and the parent company Lauritzen Corp.

Others took over management of the company, and Lauritzen credits them, especially current CEO Daniel O’Neill, 62, with leading the bank through the recent Great Recession.

First National Bank CEO Daniel O’Neill

“Nothing I’ve done the past eight or nine years would have been possible without Dan,” Lauritzen said. “He’s done a wonderful job, assembled a terrific team and has been a fabulous leader.”

First National has 124 offices in seven states — Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, South Dakota and Texas — and $18 billion in assets, up from $1.1 billion when Lauritzen became president in 1987.

He joined the family business in 1967 after earning a master’s degree in business from the University of Virginia.

Lauritzen said his son, Clark — actually, Clarkson, named after the bishop — is the sixth generation of the family in a leadership position at the bank. Now executive vice president, Clark, his father and O’Neill are the bank’s executive committee.

“At some point, when Dan decides to retire, then Clark is perhaps the successor,” Lauritzen said. “They work together as a team. The company’s big enough that we have a team of professionals who run various aspects of the business. We definitely are reliant on a significant group of people outside of the family and outside of Omaha.”
He’s comfortable passing on leadership of the company.

“I’m chairman of the board, which means I get to run the holding company meetings and I get to be the cheerleader,” he said. “I enjoy that role. There are some large and important loans that I would have an interest in and therefore be consulted on.

“Dan’s office is next door, and Clark’s office is 20 feet away, so it’s not hard to get a meeting here. ... The last thing I want to do is get in the middle of it and gum it up.

“I’m happy to supply advice or some historic, institutional memory, but I definitely have no problem leaving the day-to-day management to the younger generation. They do a great job.”

Lauritzen said his son already is doing important work for the downtown. As chairman of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, Clark Lauritzen is helping with discussions about HDR’s new headquarters and Omaha Performing Arts’ plan to expand the Holland Performing Arts Center.

“I’m very proud of what he’s accomplished in that regard, and I’m very hopeful that it will get done,” Lauritzen said. “I think that a critical element is having someone in the younger generation helping to boost your town. I think it’ll be a huge benefit for downtown.”

Bruce Lauritzen graced downtown with one of the world’s largest bronze sculpture displays, a collection of buffalo, geese and settlers spread over five city blocks in park settings open to the public.

Clark Lauritzen, left, is First National Bank's Executive Vice President of Corporate Banking, Wealth, Investments. Bruce Lauritzen is the bank's chairman. KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD

Bruce Lauritzen was king of Ak-Sar-Ben in 2001.

He and other family members have supported a long list of civic and charitable groups in the city, the state and the region. He is the lead donor for the $70 million Lauritzen Outpatient Center being built at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The family’s gift to the Omaha Botanical Gardens resulted in today’s Lauritzen Gardens, a center of community activity and tourism.

Another sign of the family’s philanthropy: 11 members of the Lauritzen and Davis families have been kings or queens of the charitable group Aksarben. Bruce Lauritzen was king in 2001.

His civic involvement includes serving for more than four decades on the Clarkson Hospital and Nebraska Medical Center boards. He also is longtime honorary consul representing the government of Denmark, where a grandfather was born.

Nearly seven years ago Kimball, his wife of 43 years, died of cancer. “I still talk to her every day in some way, shape or form,” Lauritzen said.

Lauritzen married Gerry Morrow in 2011.

In 2011 he married Gerry Morrow, whose husband also had died of cancer, after being introduced by mutual friends. “It’s nice to be able to go on,” he said. “It’s not a lot of fun to be alone.”

From his office, Lauritzen can see ConAgra Foods’ corporate campus, which also was a spark that lit downtown’s redevelopment. He said he’s not happy that the company’s headquarters is moving to Chicago but sees possibilities for the land and buildings ConAgra now occupies.

“The campus is sparsely used,” he said, gesturing to the scenic riverfront office campus. “It’s beautiful, which is what Mike Harper wanted. I think it’s great. I love the lake and the fountain.

“But if you’re a hard-nosed real estate developer, you probably wouldn’t have that (lake). You might have a smaller pond. But you’ve got a bunch of basically three-story buildings. You could intersperse that with 15-story condos and have a beautiful setting.
“Two developers that I was chatting with, both of them (were) just salivating because this is a beautiful piece of property.”

In a few years, he said, that property could be bustling with more people, adding to downtown’s excitement.

“I guess that’s the way I’ve learned to look at things,” he said. “Change begets opportunity, and so you try and take advantage of the opportunity whenever it appears.’’

Contact the writer: 402-444-1080, steve.jordon@owh.com, twitter.com/buffettOWH

Lauritzen, shown in the Hall of History in the First National Bank Tower. Portraits of past bank presidents hang behind him, from left: Edward Creighton, John R. Lauritzen, F.H. Davis and Herman Kountze. KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD

Share your thoughts