By Steve Jagler Special to Published Nov 17, 2010 at 4:32 PM

If a company's corporate culture could be expressed as an article of clothing, Marshall & Ilsley Corp. would be represented by a plain, clean, white shirt that is starched and pressed, with a buttoned-down, pinpoint collar and cuff links.

The notoriously conservative and risk-averse company has been led by and has served Milwaukee's bluebloods for generations.

That's what make's the current problems at Wisconsin's largest bank so ironic. And troublesome.

The latest bad news for the parent company of M&I Bank is that it lost $169.2 million in the third quarter. Through the first nine months of the year, the company incurred a net loss of $483.5 million, which was atop a net loss of $599.3 million in the first nine months of 2009.

That dour performance prompted the retirement of Dennis Kuester as chairman of the company's board of directors. Sources close to the company said Kuester was forced out the door.

M&I chief executive officer and president Mark Furlong now is the chairman, as well.

And the heat is on Furlong and the rest of the M&I officers, as well as the company's board, according to banking analysts.

It is difficult for individual investors to put pressure on corporate boards to make changes in the C suites, but institutional investors are growing increasingly weary of M&I's continued financial doldrums, sources said.

Ironically, it was M&I's conservative corporate culture that can be largely to blame for its problems today. For years, the company's older, more wealthy clients had been moving to Florida and Arizona. Some moved there permanently, while others became "snowbirds" who came back to Wisconsin over the summer. Those clients wanted to continue banking at their hometown bank.

In the early half of this decade, M&I finally made the decision to open branches where those lifelong customers now resided. The problem is, M&I was late to the game and bought high at the top of the real estate market. When the housing bubble burst and the Great Recession hit in 2007 and 2008, M&I was left holding the bag –- literally. The company suddenly found itself with $1.3 billion in provisions for loan and lease losses, mostly in Florida and Arizona -– the two most calamitous housing markets in the country.

That weak financial position prompted the company to accept $1.7 billion in Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) financing from the federal government.

In an interview with BizTimes earlier this year, Furlong said he expected M&I to return to profitability later this year or early next year, and he hoped to begin paying back the TARP funds by the end of 2011.

The clock is ticking. And it's ticking loudly. It remains to be seen how much more patience the company's board, its institutional investors and federal regulators will have.

"I've felt that for a long time with the management and board of directors -- when will they be held responsible?" said George Reis, president of GVR Investment Management Inc., a Two Rivers-based investment management firm that specializes in bank-related investments.

"If (M&I) were truly an independent, publicly traded company, I don't think this would be tolerated. In sports, when you keep losing, a head or heads have to roll."

Steve Jagler Special to

Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes in Milwaukee and is past president of the Milwaukee Press Club. BizTimes provides news and operational insight for the owners and managers of privately held companies throughout southeastern Wisconsin.

Steve has won several journalism awards as a reporter, a columnist and an editor. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

When he is not pursuing the news, Steve enjoys spending time with his wife, Kristi, and their two sons, Justin and James. Steve can be reached at