The Elbert Files: Waukee’s ‘Sunshine Bank’

Installing solar panels on the roof of Peoples Bank in Waukee made sense. 

 

“The panels are environmentally friendly,” said John Rigler II, the bank’s chairman and chief executive officer, and they supply affordable power for electric vehicle charging stations for customers. 

 

But, he added, “being environmentally friendly only goes so far. You still need a strong financial reason.” 

 

Like a 14-15% return on equity.

 

That’s what the bank’s solar energy investment penciled out at, once federal and state tax credits are included, said Rigler’s son, John Rigler III, president and chief operating officer of the $400 million family-owned bank. 

 

Most bankers are conservative, cautious people, as are the Riglers. 

 

The father-son team are the third and fourth generations of an Iowa banking family that began in 1937 when the first John Rigler started a bank in New Hampton. 

 

Family lore is that Rigler opened the bank after being fired from a job as a federal bank liquidation expert for refusing to contribute to the reelection campaign of President Franklin Roosevelt. 

 

New Hampton’s Security State Bank grew from nothing to become the largest bank in Chickasaw County and helped launch the political career of the founder’s son, Robert.

 

As well as being a banker, Robert Rigler was a powerhouse in the Iowa Republican Party for more than three decades, serving 16 years in the Iowa Senate during the 1950s and ’60s, where he rose to Republican floor leader. Later, he was appointed as chair of the Iowa Highway Commission by Gov. Robert Ray and as Iowa superintendent of banking by Gov. Terry Branstad.

 

Robert’s son, John Rigler II, spent two decades in Des Moines at Iowa’s largest bank – now Wells Fargo – before returning to the family bank in New Hampton in 1995 and continuing its growth with acquisitions. 

 

At one point, the family controlled 17 bank offices in northeast and Central Iowa with assets of more than $740 million. But in 2018, they sold the offices in northeast Iowa, including the original bank in New Hampton, to pay down debt and buy out a family member.

The family’s nine remaining banks have assets totaling $400 million with offices in four growth counties west of the metro area – Dallas, Boone, Guthrie and Greene – and a headquarters in Clive.

 

Before the bank sale, John II began experimenting with alternative energy, connecting the New Hampton bank to solar panels in 2014 and adding rotating solar panels, which moved with the sun, at a bank in tiny Janesville (population 981) south of Waverly.

 

The experiment, John II said, was spurred by a renovation of the New Hampton office and a desire to install heated sidewalks to eliminate a winter hazard – sidewalks that were shaded and frequently icy. 

 

“I did not want to burn carbon for that purpose but was happy to do so with solar,” John II said. 

 

He was pleased with the result, and once the current configuration of nine Central Iowa banks was in place, Rigler asked Todd Miller of 1 Source Solar in Ankeny to explore adding solar power at eight of the family’s nine bank offices.

 

“I looked at their last 12 to 36 months of electric bills and came up with plans,” Miller said. 

 

He suggested adding Tesla Powerwall batteries at two bank locations, the main office in Clive and the Waukee branch, which is where the most growth is occurring. 

 

The Tesla batteries, which are designed for use in residential and commercial installations, cost around $12,000 each. They come in various configurations that store electricity at night and other times of low power use. 

 

The batteries also provide a disaster recovery function and have replaced diesel generators as a backup power source at many businesses, Miller said. 

 

John II said that several aspects of solar power appeal to him. “Being self-sufficient has always been a hallmark of mine,” he said.

 

Plus, it’s allowed Peoples Bank to rebrand as “the Sunshine Bank.”