Garms retires from FreedomBank

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Keith Garms

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

“I will miss the people the most…the staff and the customers.” With that, FreedomBank President and Chairman of the Board Keith Garms has officially retired, bringing to an end a career path that started on May 14, 1974, in Farmersburg. 

A small town kid, Garms grew up on a dairy farm near Monona and graduated from MFL High School. Life then took him to Iowa State University and on to a stint in the Army as a medical records clerk in 1970-1971. During this time, he married a former Miss Elkader, Kathy Gossman, and the two forged a union that is still going strong today. 

But their future was not without adversity. In 1972, Garms suffered a serious accident that left him in a body cast. The injuries effectively ended his farming days, so he returned to college, graduating from Luther College in 1974. 

It was at this point Garms reached a fork-in-the-road moment that would impact the rest of his life, and perhaps many others in the process. It was a decision between attending an expensive law school or taking a job at the bank in Farmersburg, where he’d be in charge of all loans. As Garms confessed, it was the mounting medical bills that necessitated taking the job at the bank, but after almost five decades, there are no regrets. 

At some point, there was a driving ambition to open a bank in Elkader, and as Garms reminisced, “Elkader’s been fantastic.” In 1978, Peoples State Bank opened and, like Garms, it has never looked back. Eventually, in 2006, it became known as FreedomBank, a name Garms credited the staff for coining. 

In addition to its office in Elkader, FreedomBank has grown to include offices in Monona, Postville, Waukon and Decorah. This growth came about because of the merger with Union State Bank and Postville State Bank in 2006 and a merger with Farmers and Merchants Savings Bank in 2019.

In 2008, FreedomBank was tested by the financial crisis and a flood that decimated Elkader. In the aftermath, Garms drew up new plans, hired all the help and had the Elkader building rebuilt into his dream bank—the one standing there today, which survived another flood in 2016. Now, the bank is 100-percent employee owned, a fact Garms said “gives me pride.” It’s something that gives the staff pride as well, and creates greater efficiency and oversight, boosts employee morale and cultivates motivation. 

In terms of why customers should choose FreedomBank, Garms was passionate about the bank’s ability to provide for its customer base. The small, local bank has given Garms and the employees access to the intimate knowledge necessary to understand the customer base, local economy and needs of the community. 

In fact, “keeping the local feeling” has been a goal of Garms’ throughout his tenure with the bank. This has given FreedomBank the ability to exercise more freedom and flexibility in providing to the community. This flexibility also promotes a decision-making process that views people as people, takes the human factor into account and doesn’t rely so heavily on the basic numbers and cold calculations which can dominate decisions made by bigger, impersonal banking institutions. At FreedomBank, every customer is treated as an individual who matters and they’re not reduced to a number on a computer screen. 

This does not mean the last few decades have not brought changes Garms finds slightly unsettling. One noticeable change Garms mentioned was the size of loan documents. What used to be accomplished in a few pages now requires Tolkien-length documents. Everything from interest rates to credit scores to the introduction of IT has changed the way banking is done and how decisions are made.

Beyond surviving floods, Garms really only had one challenge, and it deals with customers who don’t accurately inform him or others at the bank of their situation. As Garms stated, “I can’t help people who don’t tell me the truth, and I want to help, regardless of the situation.” There is a life lesson in that challenge, and it’s one of honesty, because as the saying goes, “the truth shall set you free,” and it might just get you that loan or other financial service you need. 

As for what Garms finds unsettling, it is, as he often tells local clergy: “Over the years, my biggest disappointment is that I get to talk to people about their one true God more than you do.” Though it is often said in jest, there is some resonance behind it. 

It’s clear Garms is a success story—success he credits to perseverance or “sticking with something until you get it right,” he said. He also credits trusting the people he hired, putting them in charge and not micromanaging their existence. As he explained it, “You have to hire people who are smarter than you and put them in control.” Lastly, he credited his family because, without their support, none of it would’ve been possible.

So why retire? Why now? Well, actually, Garms has been trying to retire for years, but circumstances have delayed the inevitable. To put it succinctly, he cited his age as a primary reason. 

“It’s time. It just feels right. Just time for me to slow down and give younger people the same opportunity I had,” he said. 

It should be noted that Garms, while stepping down as president and relinquishing control of day-to-day operations, will remain chairman of the board and stay on as a consultant through the COVID-19 crisis. However, it will be Kathy Mueller, who Garms never missed an opportunity to heap praise on, who will be in charge. 

In retirement, Garms had hopes of traveling, but COVID-19 has nixed those plans for the time being. Instead, he will have a hip replacement, rehabilitation after the procedure and see what the world looks like after that. 

Until he and the family can travel to far-away destinations, he will drive around the community and the countryside and reflect. He will look at all FreedomBank has done for the community and view the farms, families and businesses it financed. He will drive by the hospital and reminisce fondly about how he helped save and keep it in the place he calls home—the place where FreedomBank has promoted “economic vitality.” He will drive around and bask in all the bank has given to the community, not to self-congratulate, but because it reminds him—and is proof—that a small town kid and small town bank in rural Iowa can make a difference in the lives of the community and preserve a way of life.

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