Lessons from St. John’s Military School Alumnus Dale Browning

Headmaster D. Dale Browning

Dale Browning, headmaster at St. John’s Military School in Salina, Kansas, knows what it means to be a leader. He also knows what it means to be an innovator, an entrepreneur, a coach, and a member of a brotherhood that transcends singularity and champions the greater good.

When asked what qualities define leadership, Browning, who graduated from the all-boys
boarding school in 1955, considers the question pensively, before responding.

“To be a good leader, you have to care about the welfare of others. If you don’t, all of the choices that you make will only be self-motivated, and you’ll never achieve the greatest possible level of success.”

Such wisdom is earned through experience. Throughout his career, Browning has helped to lead
some of the nation’s most innovative finance and technology companies. He is one of several
bankers who were the principal founders of VISA USA Inc., has provided consulting services to IBM, has served as the president and CEO of Colorado National Bank, and has founded two revolutionary technology companies: one formerly the largest credit card processor in the western United States, and the second, the first and largest ATM sharing program initially in the United States, and now in the world. Browning points to his early education at St. John’s Military School as giving him the skills necessary to lead vast enterprises and results-driven teams. This is the same institution he leads today, helping to inspire the nation’s next generation of leaders.

The Road to St. John’s

Browning credits his older sister for the decision that led him to St. John’s Military School.

After losing his mother at a young age, Browning’s older sister became his primary caregiver and mentor.

“My sister was the single source of strength and personal support in my life,” remembers Browning.

When Browning’s sister became engaged to be married, she was committed to helping her brother obtain the best possible education once she was living out of the family home, and became less available to continue the very active role she was playing in his upbringing. Her fiancé had grown up in Salina, Kansas, and knew that St. John’s Military School had a strong reputation for being a well-respected Episcopalian faith-based military boarding school.

Knowing the Episcopalian ideals of the school would align with Browning’s own faith, and that the school would provide the type of supportive environment that he needed in his formative years, as well as a high-quality education, the family made the difficult decision to send the 15-year old 500 miles away to live at St. John’s Military School.

Life at the School

Cadet Browning (far left) was a member of the National Honors Society.

Cadet Browning (far left) was a member of the National Honors Society.

Remembering his first day at on campus, Browning laughs heartily, “I ran away! I was extremely apprehensive and sad when I arrived. I knew that my lifestyle was going to change. I was separated from my family. I was with a group of young men I didn’t yet know. So, I ran away within the first 24 hours.”

“Once I returned, I concluded that it was essential that I put my total energies into being successful in that first semester. I believed that if I was successful, that it would make my family proud.” There’s a smile in Browning’s voice when he adds, “Everything changed for me during that first semester.”

Browning experienced what so many initially apprehensive “New Boys,” experience at St. John’s an overwhelming sense of opportunity and support that dissipated his initial feelings of separation and replaced them with a fervor for experiencing everything the school had to offer.

“I joined the football team, and the basketball team,” said Browning. “My grades improved. I was on the Honor Roll and elected to the National Honor’s Society, and eventually became president. I quickly developed relationships with other cadets which would in future months develop into a brotherhood. After that first semester, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to excel.”

Browning’s experiences playing athletics at St. John’s taught him important lessons about
perseverance.

“As a boarding school my teammates came from all over the country and we didn’t have the
opportunity to play together over a period of years,” Browning reflected. “It was the first time I learned that when you start from a place of weakness, you need to learn to make it a strength.”

Cadet Browning (#46) was a member of the St. John’s Military School football team.

Cadet Browning (#46) was a member of the St. John’s Military School football team.

Browning would go on to graduate from St. John’s, but the institution and its people would never be far from his thoughts or his committed efforts. Upon graduation, Browning earned an
undergraduate degree from Kansas Wesleyan University, a local Kansas school that gave
Browning both an academic and athletic scholarship.

“After I finished my undergraduate degree, it was necessary to earn money to help me pay for graduate school,” said Browning. “St. John’s gave me an opportunity to coach basketball. I also took over teaching Col. Clem’s social studies classes. He had been such an influential figure in my life. It really meant a lot to me to have the opportunity to serve as his replacement.”

From 1959 to 1964, Browning served as the school’s assistant commandant. His experiences
serving as a mentor for the school’s cadets, and the lessons he learned as a cadet himself, inspired Browning to lead people, systems, and innovations in the next phases of his career.

Set for Success

After his four years of teaching at St. John’s, he was accepted to a management training program at one of the largest banks in Chicago and enrolled in the graduate program at the University of Chicago. In 1966, Browning returned to his home in Colorado and joined The Colorado National Bank- the second largest and oldest bank in the state.

In 1968, Browning became the founder, president, and chief executive officer of Rocky Mountain Bankcard System (RMCS) where he would hold office until 1992. His company became the largest credit card processor in the western United States, serving over 600 banks.
Simultaneously in 1968, Browning and other bankers created and developed what is known today
as VISA USA, Inc. He would go on to serve as executive advisor to the Board of Directors for the company from 1968 to 1976.

Having earned a reputation as an innovator and leader in technology, from 1972 to 1973 Browning served as a consultant to International Business Machines (IBM). His focus was on designing the functionality, configuration, and operation of the first ATM’s available in the marketplace, in addition to designing and standardizing the magnetic strip.

In 1974 Browning began to serve on the executive board of the retail banking division of the
American Bankers Association, where he would serve as the chairman of the board from 1976 to
1977. With a constant focus on innovation and in designing systems and solutions that would move technology forward, in 1976 Browning became a founder, president, and chief executive officer of Plus System, Inc. It was the first and largest ATM sharing program in the United States, and is now the largest such program in the world. He served the company until 1993, shortly after the company was sold to Visa International Inc., today a publicly traded company, and one for which Browning has served as a member of the Board of Trustees since 1976.

In 1985, he became president and chief executive officer of The Colorado National Bank and vice chairman and chief operating officer of the holding company.

From 1993 to 1996, Browning served as senior consultant to VISA International for the expansion of debit cards in Asia and Europe.

At the end of his career at RMBCS, Colorado National Bank, and Plus Systems Inc., from 1996 to 2001 Browning served as the president and chief executive officer at Procard, Inc., the only company in the United States that processed, managed and settled debit card transactions in the United States for cards issued by corporations, state, and federal government agencies.

In 2000, Browning joined the board of directors for Frontier Airlines. As has happened previously in his career, Browning was tapped to lead the board, and served as its director and chairman from 2005 to 2008.

Browning has also continued to give back to his St. John’s family, serving as a member of the Board of Trustees since 1976 until present time.

Leading the school today

Today, Browning is serving his second stint as the interim president at his Alma Mater. In an age when leadership changes are the hallmark of businesses of all sizes and industries across the nation, it’s no surprise that St. John’s would look to Browning, and his decades of experience serving in committed long-term leadership positions, to assist the school in developing strategies to ensure its future.

For nearly six decades, despite the pressures and time commitments of building and leading
several national and international organizations, Browning has remained allegiant to St. John’s.

“It’s because of the people,” he explained. “What makes St. John’s Military School a special place is its people. That was true in the 1950s and it’s true today. God has blessed the school with wonderful people who share a passionate commitment to the development of young men, and often make personal sacrifices to do so. The people at St. John’s are committed to supporting, educating, and providing a structured and safe environment for its young men. The people are what sets St. John’s apart. The St. John’s cadets and staff are a family. They are the reason why I’ve always wanted to say involved.”

Browning quickly credits the lessons he learned as a young cadet at St. John’s Military School as among those that helped him refine the personal style of leadership that would serve as a foundation for his successful career.

Said Browning, “I learned how to hold others accountable. St. John’s held me accountable for the first time in my life. They held me accountable to perform academically, to be in good physical shape, and they held me accountable in the leadership opportunities that I was given. I learned that to be a leader, that meant not only being accountable for myself, but for my fellow cadets. I learned that while as young men we strive to be strong and confident, we must be compassionate.”

Browning credits these early lessons in accountability and compassion as his inspiration for
developing leaders at the companies he managed throughout his career.

Reflecting back on his career, and the role that St. John’s Military School continues to play in his life, Browning has a single piece of advice he would give to a parent considering enrolling a son in the school.

“I know that sometimes parents feel a sense of guilt when they send their son to a school like St. John’s. They worry that maybe they aren’t doing everything they can to help their son succeed at home, or that their son isn’t responding to their guidance, or that they need a structured environment to compensate for a home life that has been disrupted. Parents should not feel guilty for sending their son to St. John’s. They should feel a sense of pride, because out of their love they have made this choice for their son, who is the most important asset in their life.”