The interview: John Borgen

John Borgen
John Borgen Credit: Andrew Feller

In early December, Catholic Financial Life announced plans to sell its 18-story office and residential tower near the Marquette University campus. Then in January, John Borgen took over as part of a planned leadership transition. Borgen joined BizTimes associate editor Arthur Thomas on the BizTimes MKE Podcast recently to talk about the decision to sell the building and about taking over the top job. Listen to their full conversation at biztimes.com/podcast.

From a process perspective, how did you reach the decision to sell the building?

“It wasn’t so much about the ‘Well, you know we’re thinking about this’ – we’ll solicit input, even though that’s generally how we approach decision making, very process driven. It was ‘Hey, there’s demand, and we know it’s changing.’ I don’t pretend to have some crystal ball, but what I do know is maintaining maximum flexibility is in the organization and therefore our members’ best interest. And if we can take advantage of the robust demand for this type of a piece of real estate and couple that with preparing ourselves, giving us options, giving us maximum flexibility so that if the world of remote (work) continues and becomes more of a dominant trend, we can adjust accordingly.”

A little more than a year ago you were named the next CEO. How did you use the time knowing you were going to step into a bigger role?

“I’ve worked very closely with Bill (O’Toole, previous CEO of Catholic Financial Life) for 12 years, and so I’ve been at his right hand during that time and so some aspects of this were second nature to me. However, I would say focusing on board governance, working with regulators and rating agencies, things that I had done before, but now had a different degree of responsibility for, were areas of focus. … We met weekly, every Friday morning, and we would take a topic and we would just talk. Sometimes it was tactical, other times it was very strategic or big picture, and I benefited immensely from that. …. There’s a lot of truth in what they say that you can’t fully understand or appreciate the responsibility until you’ve sat in the chair, and that’s been the case, but fortunately I’ve been able to go through a very smooth transition.”

On decision making, a lot of CEOs will say they get the hard, 50/50 decisions. What’s your approach to decision making, especially on those tough ones?

“You talk to a lot of people, you read a lot, you get their perspectives. You ask them one of the most powerful questions you can ask anybody: What do you think? And you do that throughout the organization. You pose a situation or question … and you wait, and you listen. You take all of that and then in seeking to understand, you reflect on it, you sit with it. In my case, and in the case of this organization, we’re faith based, so the spiritual plays a role in our decision making, and then you do what you think is right.” 

How do you go about thinking about building something internally versus looking externally, especially when large companies can out-compete with scale?

“They have scale advantages, but what we have are size advantages. Now that sounds potentially contradictory, but what it takes to get some things done in a large organization, we can do much quicker. So how we approach that decision making kind of goes back to what I said at the beginning of our conversation about the building. Being a landlord is not our core business. Building technology, not our core business. Integrating technology is something where we’ve had to invest and get good and get better. … That’s been our approach to technology, so the folks that we hire and the skill sets that we seek to bring on board are those that lend themselves to integration.”

What skills lend themselves to integration?

“One of the things is how the world of IT has evolved, especially in the last 10, 15 years, where you’re thinking a lot more like a business person and integrated in terms of solving particular business problems. … I think the folks today who are really doing some exceptional work are the folks who are understanding the core challenges and then are figuring out how to apply and research and bring to the organization different pieces of technology and serving them up as options and then integrating them.”

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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