Photo above: Bank of Whiting Associates in front of the new drive-up window in the 1950s
Anyone who knows The Region has heard the phrase “That’s My Bank!” a time or two. That phrase was born out of Centier Bank, a Northwest Indiana institution founded and owned by the Schrage family. Centier Bank, Indiana’s largest private, family-owned bank, is celebrating 125 years of history, family legacy, and community banking this month.
More than 150 years ago, a family of first and second generation German immigrants led by Cristoff Schrage, settled in what would eventually become Whiting, Indiana. While they invested in land around the area, their son Henry Schrage joined the Union Army during the Civil War.
He returned and got married to Caroline Wustenfeldt. Together, the couple opened Whiting’s first general store. Caroline ran the store while Henry worked on the railroad. In 1889, Standard Oil bought a large portion of land from the Schrage family and they used the capital to found the Bank of Whiting, which opened its doors in 1895. At the time, banking still seemed like something of a luxury, but Henry Schrage saw something else.
“He was one of the first pioneer citizens of Whiting and he noticed what the community’s needs were,” said Kirsten Markusic, Corporate Historian at Centier Bank. “Though banking was kind of novel, many still needed it, but before the Bank of Whiting, they’d have to go all the way to Chicago, which wasn’t easy at the time.”
Bank of Whiting opened on April 21, 1895, with a first day’s deposits totaling $5,968—which would be approximately $177,000 today.
“People weren’t sure what to do with their money or where to put it, so they were just holding onto it,” Markusic said.
Over time, the bank and the Schrage family became part of Whiting’s core. Henry Schrage served as postmaster, and later as a councilman, while his son Walter Sr., was later elected Mayor. Business and community service were always tied together for the Schrage family, even as the bank grew and Walter Schrage Sr., took over as president.
In 1929, the stock market crashed, which led to the Great Depression. Banks around the country failed in staggering numbers as people pulled out their savings in a panic, but the Bank of Whiting never missed a day of business. Henry Schrage created a trust fund in his son’s name, which transferred the family’s personal assets over to the Bank, keeping it stable even through the worst of the Depression.
“People were losing jobs, their homes were at stake,” Markusic said. “Henry did not want anyone to worry about their livelihoods, or having a roof over their head. He was not going to foreclose on anybody. In a day when people were only looking out for themselves, he put his entire estate into the bank to help the community – leaving none of it for his family and kids.”
Walter “Wally” Schrage Jr., took over the bank in 1941 after Walter Sr. suffered a stroke and passed away. He changed the bank’s name to First Bank of Whiting and oversaw expansion into Highland, Dyer, Merrillville, Schererville, and Griffith. Despite the growth, Wally Schrage was perhaps the most jovial president the bank ever had.
“He was a people person and wanted to chat with everybody, so he had his desk right in the middle of the bank’s operations,” Markusic said. “He’d play Cubs games in the lobby, and you’d hear stories about how he started up Christmas caroling in the lobbies of the branches. It was really feel-good for him.”
The bank changed its name to First Bank of Whiting in 1960
His son, Michael E. Schrage, stepped in as president in 1977, and brought with him a competitive spirit.
“When I came into the bank, I’d always voice that my goal was to be the biggest bank in Lake County,” said Schrage, CEO and Chairman of Centier Bank. “This was a $32 million bank with about 40 people working in it. The Gary and Hammond banks were about 10 times our size. It was all about growth, all about winning, and succeeding – and that can catch up with you.”
Catch up it did, as Schrage quickly found himself facing the crisis of the early 1980s recession. The damage to the bank was severe, and he even feared he might lose it entirely. He took a loan from the government, stabilized the bank, and put it back on a path toward growth. In 1991, First Bank of Whiting officially became Centier Bank, named so for a century of premier service, and in honor of the original Center Street location in Whiting.
Still, Schrage was a self-admitted workaholic competitor until a health scare caused by chronic fatigue syndrome in 1993.
“I couldn’t function by myself, I could not walk, it just totally took my whole system down and I was out of the bank for five months,” he said. “It was the best and worst thing to happen to me. In some of the biggest holes you fall in, there’ll be a silver lining – but you have to reach out to other people for help.”
Religion and strong mentorship from others in his life shifted his perspective.
“I learned some of those softer skills, the value of loving, caring, and giving,” Schrage said. “I embraced all of those softer things that had never really been a part of my life, and it changed the whole bank around as we transitioned into what we call a Servant Heart Culture.”
Caring, loyalty, integrity, friendship, and fun are all at the core of the Servant Heart Culture Centier Bank lives by. Those values reflect the 125 years when Henry, Walter, Wally, and Mike Schrage, as well as every member of the Centier staff, helped it stay a family-focused, community-first bank.
“We’re different than those public organizations that are all about stockholder returns and profits,” Schrage said. “That’s not us at all, it’s all about the culture here.”
Centier Bank’s milestone 125th anniversary is a celebration of family legacy, community service, and continued success in the years to come. Schrage, along with Centier’s associates, were gearing up to observe the company’s birthday on April 21, 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic has put the bank’s celebrations on hold.
“Anyone who knows Centier knows that we love to have fun and celebrate,” Schrage said. “Right now, our focus is on our communities and letting everyone know that we will continue to be there for them just as we have been for the last 125 years. When we are able to all be together again, we look forward to including everyone in our 125th anniversary celebration—and I really believe that we will be even more grateful for it when the time is right.”