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Irwin Financial / Banking & Finance

Will Miller's burden at Irwin Financial

September 16, 2009

This can’t be an easy time to be Will Miller, the chairman of Irwin Financial Corp. in Columbus.

Miller is a son of legendary Cummins chief J. Irwin Miller and the fifth generation to run Irwin Financial, also headquartered in Columbus.

But Irwin Financial is in bad shape, and he’s in danger of being the scion at the helm as the family business hits the wall.

Soured investments in housing have caught the attention of regulators for a year now, and the bank revealed this week the Securities and Exchange Commission wants Irwin Financial to boost its capital.

Irwin says it has “no realistic prospect” of meeting the heightened requirements, which raises the prospect of the bank’s becoming the first in the state to be seized since the financial sector went south last year.

No one wants to be at the controls when the ship goes down. But Miller, by all accounts a genuinely nice person, has to be feeling more pressure than peers who are merely hired guns at their institutions.

Irwin Financial traces its roots the Civil War era, and was the money behind the launch of Cummins and the auto parts company that became Arvin Industries. Arvin was acquired by a Michigan competitor in 2000, but not before growing to become a Columbus powerhouse in its own right.

There’s also the inevitable comparisons to his father, who died in 2004 after also making a name for himself as a philanthropist. J. Irwin led both the bank and Cummins for years—successfully.

Miller couldn’t be reached for comment. But Bud Stickle empathizes.

Stickle is the fourth generation to run Stickle Steam Specialties, an Indianapolis company that turned 100 years old two years ago, and he says the emotional stakes in keeping a family business running are high.

Stickle, 61, says he’s long felt an obligation to keep the company, which helps steam boilers operate more efficiently, thriving. But when the company turned 90, the last thing he wanted was to let it fall apart on his watch before hitting the century mark.

“I so wanted to get to that milestone,” he recalls. “That’s a huge milestone for a family business.”

The stakes are higher when the family name is on the door, Stickle says. Irwin Financial is named after Miller’s great, great grandfather, Joseph Ireland Irwin.

Stickle doesn’t know Miller, and he doesn’t know banking, but says it’s easy to get caught in a situation with no way out.

“I feel terrible for him. He’s probably in a position of something he can’t control.”

What do you think? Do family members bear a greater burden to succeed?

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