At just 33 years old, Luke Yaeger has climbed more rungs on the professional ladder than most. This summer he was named president of Commerce Bank, an organization he helped to build just eight short years ago, one with a small-town mentality but big dreams to go with it.
Today, Commerce Bank has more than $90 million in assets, 23 employees, and its philanthropic fingers are widespread.
Yaeger, however, is quick to downplay his personal success. The product of a large military family, his definition of leadership is somewhat different from most.
“I get that comment quite a bit from people that I’m a bank president at just 33 years old,” he says. “But the fact of the matter is that what I do, while it does affect people’s lives, if we make a mistake here at the bank, nobody dies.
“There are kids, 18 to 20 years old, halfway around the world in Iraq or Afghanistan whose leadership abilities are tested every time they leave the base with their squad. So am I young? Yeah, but there are younger people than me in more significant leadership roles, doing more significant things everyday. That perspective keeps me very grounded.”
Yaeger’s father, grandfather, and uncle all retired as colonels from the U.S. Army, and that military mindset extends to Yaeger’s professional and personal life. Leadership and teamwork are the fabric by which he has weaved his success.
A military brat, Yaeger had lived in 12 different cities by the time he graduated high school. He attended Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, where he earned a degree in business management.
He went on to receive a master’s in business administration from the University of Southern Indiana, and he also earned a degree from Louisiana State University’s Graduate School of Banking in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Yaeger was drawn to the banking industry after seeing a great-uncle achieve success working for financial institutions in central and northern Illinois. Not only did he see the success banking afforded his great-uncle but also how he was instrumental in helping the communities in which he lived and worked.
“That was always a bit intriguing to me,” says Yaeger.
His first job came upon graduating from Austin Peay after a group of fraternity brothers started a financial institution in the 1990s, one that would eventually be bought out by Old National Bank.
In 2004, Old National Bank promoted Yaeger to bank officer and relocated him to Evansville, a community in which he said he saw great promise. Just two years later, he joined the team of eight led by Tom Austerman that would launch Evansville Commerce Bank.
“He is a very disciplined person,” says Austerman of Yaeger. “I think being in the military, moving from place to place year after year, that exposes you to a lot of things an ordinary person doesn’t get to see. I think that was to his benefit, because that discipline allows him to do whatever is necessary to achieve a particular goal.”
Commerce Bank opened its doors in May 2006, and Yaeger’s primary responsibilities included product development, investor relations, commercial loan and deposit production, and, in general, building the bank’s reputation through civic and philanthropic involvement.
In 2008, he was promoted to vice president of commercial banking, and in 2010, he was promoted again to senior vice president and senior lending officer. That same year, his team was successful in raising $4.6 million to buy out the bank’s 51 percent owner, making Evansville Commerce Bank a locally owned and managed bank.
He climbed the ladder once again in 2012 when he was promoted to executive vice president and chief operating officer and again this year when he was named bank president.
“He is appropriately driven, and that drive has given him a business maturity that is beyond his calendar age,” says Austerman. “I’d say he is probably 10 to 15 years older, business wise, than he is chronologically. I hear that over and over again from people about Luke, from people he has worked with to people he has served in the community.”
The bank has doubled in size in the last two years, says Yaeger. The bank also has expanded its philanthropic contributions. Most notably, Yaeger, a past president of the Wesselman Nature Society, assembled a team that raised $1.5 million for the Wesselman Woods Nature Center. Yaeger says the money was used for the ongoing renovation of the building, outfitting it with state-of-the-art exhibits, a nature playscape for children, and a totally new public entrance.
“Being in this role at the bank gives me a lot of opportunity to get out in the community and make a difference,” he says. “And Evansville is a community that is very warm and inviting, a community with a lot to offer.
“I call myself an Evansville cheerleader,” he says. “I figure, wherever you are, you have a choice. If you don’t like it, pick up and leave. But if you do, we all have an obligation to make it the best place in the country to live.”
Yaeger says he is thankful for the opportunity to jump on board with a “grassroots” organization. He wanted to learn it all, he says, “not just steer the ship but chart its course as well.” And being a part of the Commerce Bank team, he says, has already afforded him a lifetime in banker’s years.
“They’re like dog years,” he says with a laugh. “I remember when Tom Austerman brought me on board. He said I could work somewhere for seven years and really only get one year of experience. Or I could work here and in one year get seven years’ experience. I might have more gray hair than I would have had otherwise, but I know those experiences are what will add value to my career.”
Moving into the future, Yaeger says he wants to see the bank continue to grow, of course, but not lose its small-town, locally-owned feel. In a world full of bank mergers, consolidation and fewer risks, Yaeger wants Commerce Bank to stand out as an organization that wants the best for its community and the people striving to make it better.
“We all wake up everyday trying to be the bank that locally-owned businesses want to bank with,” he says. “We want to be a place where numbers matter but people count. That is something that has always been innate in the fabric of the American way of life. You work hard, build a good reputation, do the things you say you are going to do, and the baking system has traditionally rewarded that by stepping out on that ledge with them.
“We want to continue to be that incubator, the catalyst that is taking care of the American businessman and woman.”
For more information about Commerce Bank, call 812-492-1800 or visit bankwithcommerce.com.