A Valued Leader
By Melanie Coffee
and Effective Change Agent
Mike Lewis likes to see himself as a catalyst for change.
The executive vice president of BMO Harris Bank serves on several notable boards, has been recognized by Chicago United as a Business Leader of Color and is listed in Who's Who in Black Chicago. But he's not big on accolades and recognition. It's about getting things done.
"You have a chance to make a difference as a leader, in particularly as a leader of color, to really step in situations, facilitate and help something good to happen," the 62-year-old said. "And not necessarily wanting to take credit for it. It's not about getting personal recognition, it's about doing good."
At a formidable 6'2" and with the large hands of a defensive end, Lewis is easily imposing. But once he starts to speak, with his ever-present polite smile, it's clear he's kind. No nonsense and direct sure, but he didn't get where he is by being any other way.
Lewis' journey began in Ferndale, Michigan, near Detroit. He was child No. 2 out of eight for the Lewis family.
His parents came to Michigan from Alabama. Neither of them finished high school. His mom was a homemaker, while his dad worked in the auto industry before he was laid off. After awhile, his dad got a job as a custodian.
The family of 10 lived in a three-bedroom house. The four boys had their own room and the four girls had theirs.
At the time, he was unaware of his family's financial hardships. "I didn't know I was poor until I got older," Lewis said.
As a kid, he loved to read, especially Greek stories and those about history. Lewis enjoyed reading so much that he'd often finish his schoolbooks before the semester was over.
"From time to time, when the teacher was either absent or wasn't prepared, I would have the chance to teach the class because she knew I would read ahead and so that was always kinda fun," he said.
After high school, Lewis went to Western Michigan University on a football scholarship.
"I didn't go to college to be educated," he said. "I simply wanted to continue to play sports, so that's what the motivator was. I had my priorities all turned around, but fortunately I got them squared away."
What helped him prioritize his responsibilities was the Vietnam War.
It was 1969. The nation was in turmoil. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing and scores of young Americans regularly had demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Lewis, like many young men, was sizing up what the war meant for him.
"In my last year (of college) I realized that the only draft that was going to be available for me was not the NFL, but Uncle Sam," he said.
Lewis had a right to be concerned about going to war, after all he had a low draft number: 113. The Vietnam War draft started in 1969 and lasted until 1972, and during that time the Selective Service used a lottery to determine which men aged 18 to 26 would be called up for duty.
At the time, the draft ceiling was 125, which meant everyone below that number could be called to serve. Lewis said he wanted to graduate from college within the four years that the military allows for deferment so that he could possibly have a better tour of duty.
After leaving the gridiron, he became a real student.
"I learned that if you study and do your homework, you actually get good grades!" he said.
As his graduation date drew closer, "I figured that I wasn't going to make it and that I would be drafted and I'd have to go straight into the service."
But then in 1971, the draft ceiling was lowered to 95 as President Richard Nixon was de-escalating the very unpopular war. No. 113 was never called.
Lewis was grateful, but knew he needed to figure out his next move. He didn't have a job lined up. That was largely because he had such a low draft number and recruiters who visited campus scouting for job candidates didn't interview him out of concern he'd soon be shipped off to Vietnam.
Like any good Detroit native, he applied to the automobile companies, but they weren't hiring and neither were the companies that served the automobile companies.
One day, he put on his only suit and headed into the local branch of the bank that held his savings account, Detroit Bank & Trust. He told the teller he wanted a job, she laughed and directed him to the bank's main office downtown.
Once there, he filled out an application and had an interview. His interviewer told Lewis that he seemed like a nice enough guy, but wondered why Lewis didn't have a job by then.
"What's the catch?" Lewis said the interviewer asked him. "Do you have an arrest, DUI or drug situation? You must have a flaw. I don't want to waste my time or yours."
Lewis explained how recruiters considered him off-limits because of his low draft number. The interviewer understood and asked Lewis how soon he could start working at the bank.
At the 2011 Volunteer Recognition Breakfast, Lewis was recognized with
Yasmin T. Bates-Brown Award for Volunteering. (From left), Judy Rice, Head of Community Affairs
and Economic Development, BMO Harris Bank; Mike Lewis, and Yasmin Bates-Brown.
Lewis later decided to become a corporate banker and went back to school for an MBA at Indiana University in Bloomington.
To polish up his interview skills, he sat down with a recruiter from Harris Bank to do a practice interview run. Turns out, Lewis liked what he heard from the recruiter and began working for Harris Bank as a commercial banking trainee in 1976.
That year, another star at Harris Bank began her career, Yasmin T. Bates-Brown. She became the first woman appointed regional president of Harris Bank and the first African-American woman to become an executive vice president at Harris.
Bates-Brown remembers her first impressions of Lewis and feels they still hold true.
"Mike was outgoing, had a gift of gab and seemed to be comfortable with everyone he would encounter," said Bates-Brown, who has since retired. "This trait, along with his solid business acumen, made him an excellent banker and allowed him to develop solid relationships with clients."
About three years after joining Harris Bank, Lewis was promoted to a commercial banking officer. The rungs on his ladder include: Assistant vice president in 1981. Vice president in 1983. (He still has the old school-like name placard with the VP title sitting in the back of the credenza in his office.) Team leader in the Special Industries Group in 1987. Senior vice president and market executive in 1994. Executive vice president in 1998 and president of Harris' City Region in 2003. District executive of the Chicago central region in 2006.
"I think he's probably one of the great business leaders of our city," said Jim Reynolds, Chairman and CEO of Loop Capital, an investment bank and broker dealer. "That he's so low key and understated, a lot of people may never realize this. He doesn't seek the spotlight and he doesn't want the limelight, but he's below the surface of a lot of successes."
Lewis says one of his proudest endeavors was the LaSalle Street Bank Project that lasted from 1998 to 2003. During that time, he worked with a team that looked at diverse markets in terms of how to be more relevant to communities of color and give businesses marketing or product support to help them grow.
He's also very involved with BMO Harris Bank's affinity groups, which are comprised of employees of various backgrounds and experiences. Among the groups are the Asian American Coalition of Employees, African American League of Professionals and BMO-Harris Latino Alliance.
"I think that people in leadership positions have an obligation to give back in some way, shape or form," he said. "What I've found is that I'm probably most effective in being able to be a catalyst for change in situations where my vocation gives me access to either assets or influence or support that others might not have and I enjoy being able to do that."
Giving people such support is "important to Mike because that's the kind of person he is," said Frank Clark, chairman and chief executive officer of ComEd. "He knows how difficult it is for young African Americans and women to have the kind of success that he's had."
Though Lewis doesn't seek the spotlight, it sometimes finds him. In 2010, he won the Yasmin T. Bates-Brown Community Leadership Award, the company's highest volunteer honor.
"It caught Mike off guard because he works so hard to ensure that others receive the spotlight for the good work that they do," said Ellen Costello, CEO and U.S. head of BMO Financial Corp.* "It was refreshing to see him truly surprised and to be at the center of this celebration."
Supporting Community, Pride In Family
Lewis' support doesn't stop at the business community. He takes out time to help the community overall.
"(The Black) community needs role models that aren't just the best athlete, singer or dancer," Clark said. "Our people need to see people who are good in math and science, people who are business leaders and not the symbols that are most associated with our community."
An example of that is Lewis' participation in R.E.A.L. Men Read from 2006 to 2009. It's a mentoring program where men go into schools to read to children.
"All of a sudden they (the students) begin to see different possibilities," Lewis said. "In terms of, wow, if this person can be in the business world and he started out like we did, and I can think about that instead of thinking about the fact that I'm disadvantaged, then maybe there's hope for me."
Lewis wants to inspire people to pursue their dreams.
"I think that a lot of people who come from disadvantaged circumstances give up before they begin," he said. "There's nothing that makes me feel sadder than that."
The R.E.A.L. Men Read program also spoke to Lewis because it was his mother who instilled in him his love of books. At the time she had a ninth grade education, but would regularly read to her children.
"She is a very smart woman, but just in her own unique way," he said. Years later she got her GED.
"I was out chasing a deal and didn't take the time to go to her graduation, which I regret to this day," he said quietly.
But make no mistake, family is very important to him. His wife of 38 years, Jacqueline, has been a great sounding board through out his career. And he's so proud of his 28-year-old son who works at a marketing company in Chicago and his 31-year-old daughter who works at a large financial holding company.
And his daughter has a son, Zachary Michael, who turns one in February. "I'm really proud of him," Lewis said beaming. "He's a good little guy."
There's also all of his brothers and sisters. Out of eight, six of them have undergraduate degrees and four have MBAs, including one from Harvard University. Also, one of his sisters has a Ph.D.
Lewis credits his parents for his and his siblings' success.
"From two parents who didn't get an education, what they did say was that the key for you to get out of your circumstances is education," he said. "They drilled that into us."
When Lewis was younger, he had three wishes:
¥ I want to always have a dollar in my pocket.
¥ I want to always have food on the table.
¥ I want to live in a house where there are more bedrooms than there are people.
"Those are very simple, and I've achieved those," he said. "But you have to really have a vision to achieve your goal; don't let your circumstances dictate your future.
"Focus on what your vision is, what your belief is, then let that be your beacon and it'll pull you through."