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Tom McAulliffe Featured

11:44am EDT July 22, 2002

One of Tom McAuliffe's biggest personal challenges involves keeping his family on the same page of a situation rife with human issues.

His parents are both 81 and suffering from Alzheimer's. His task: "Trying to orchestrate six siblings and myself to help them navigate the process and all stay friendly and loving to each other," he says, noting his parents live in Chicago and his siblings are scattered geographically. "It's been very successful so far.

"Relationship issues are always the hardest because they're the most important."

It's a philosophy McAuliffe also advocates with his clients at Commerce National Bank, a niche bank catering exclusively to business customers.

McAuliffe's idea for the bank stems from his experience growing up in Chicago, where he says bank branches are the exception to the rule of neighborhood and niche banks.

"They knew all their customers," he says. "Ultimately it led to, I thought, good banking."

The consolidation of banks in Central Ohio in the late '80s and early '90s, McAuliffe figures, left the community ready for his niche bank. He was ready, too; he didn't enjoy the fact that his job as president of Fifth Third Bank, Central Ohio, kept him away from customers.

He thought business customers would be able to relate better to an independent bank.

"I think people that run their own businesses are unique. They take great pride in what they do and put their heart and soul into what they do," McAuliffe says. "They have a hard time relating to the big banks."

"This bank was started when other banks were starting to go into a tailspin," says Mark Corna, president of Corna/Kokosing Construction Co. and a member of McAuliffe's board.

"Savings and loans were going out of business. This was definitely a case of swimming upstream, or so it appeared at the time," he says, pointing out Commerce National Bank has tripled the return of the original investors in its growth to 500 customers, 75 employees and more than $3 million in earnings since its 1991 opening. In December 2000, the bank crossed the $250 million line in assets.

McAuliffe's skills at relationship building have paid off; all of his business comes through personal contacts and customer referrals. To maintain those relationships, he uses the $200,000 he would have spent annually on advertising to invest in educating his clients through seminars and presentations by such business authors as Harry Beckwith, who wrote "Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing."

Even through his sons, McAuliffe practices the importance of relationship building; as a soccer coach, he got to know some of their classmates -- who later gave him their business.

"Some of the kids I coached with my first son now own businesses and are customers," he says, joking about the oddity: "You're the guy I used to bench for swearing all the time and now I'm lending you money?"

McAuliffe surrounds himself with positives. Take, for example, the Wrigley Field photo directly across from his desk, which reminds him of Ernie Banks, a shortstop, first baseman and coach for the Chicago Cubs known for saying, "What a great day for baseball. Let's play two!"

"I admire people who have great attitudes," McAuliffe says, "instead of being at the mercy of their lives."

Thomas C. Sawyer, chair of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce's Small Business Council, where McAuliffe is chairman for small business advocacy, has seen McAuliffe's positive attitude at work.

"He's very focused, very intense in the good sense of the word and, I thought initially, very, very serious about everything -- both his business and the council work," says Sawyer, who is also president of Opinion Strategies Inc. "But I soon realized he had a wonderful sense of humor."

Still, McAuliffe is reserved in many ways. The 1993 Emerging Business Entrepreneur Of The Year makes it his first job every day to fill the bird feeder outside his office. He listens to classical music, and his office is a makeshift gallery where art by his wife, Andrea, and three sons -- ages 24, 19 and 12 -- adorns shelves and walls right alongside works from the Columbus Museum of Art.

McAuliffe is active in his parish, Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church, where he runs the finance committee and his wife of 28 years runs a religious education program. He's also a member of the finance committee of the Catholic Diocese of Columbus.

"I think faith-based elements in your life are very important," he says.

"So much of life is just luck. Everybody has great plans, great theories, great schedules for their lives, but you know what? There's a greater power in life." How to reach: Tom McAuliffe, 848-8700 or Tom.McAuliffe@cnbcbank.com

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.