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UNITED STATES SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION
Washington, D.C. 20549
 FORM 10-K 
ANNUAL REPORT PURSUANT TO SECTION 13 OR 15(d) OF THE SECURITIES EXCHANGE ACT OF 1934
 For the fiscal year ended December 31, 2020
TRANSITION REPORT PURSUANT TO SECTION 13 OR 15(d) OF THE SECURITIES EXCHANGE ACT OF 1934
For the transition period from…………to………….
 Commission file number 001-37700
 NICOLET BANKSHARES, INC.
(Exact name of registrant as specified in its charter)
Wisconsin47-0871001
(State or other jurisdiction of incorporation or organization)(I.R.S. Employer Identification No.)
111 North Washington Street
Green Bay, Wisconsin 54301
(920) 430-1400
(Address, including zip code, and telephone number, including area code, of Registrant’s principal executive offices) 

SECURITIES REGISTERED PURSUANT TO SECTION 12(b) OF THE ACT:
Title of each classTrading SymbolName of each exchange on which registered
Common Stock, par value $0.01 per shareNCBSThe NASDAQ Stock Market LLC
SECURITIES REGISTERED PURSUANT TO SECTION 12(g) OF THE ACT: None
Indicate by check mark if the registrant is a well-known seasoned issuer, as defined in Rule 405 of the Securities Act. Yes ☐ No
Indicate by check mark if the registrant is not required to file reports pursuant to Section 13 or Section 15(d) of the Act. Yes ☐ No
Indicate by check mark whether the registrant (1) has filed all reports required to be filed by Section 13 or 15 (d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 during the preceding 12 months (or for such shorter period that the registrant was required to file such reports), and (2) has been subject to such filing requirements for the past 90 days. Yes No ☐
Indicate by check mark whether the registrant has submitted electronically every Interactive Data File required to be submitted pursuant to Rule 405 of Regulation S-T (§232.405 of this chapter) during the preceding12 months (or for such shorter period that the registrant was required to submit such files). Yes No ☐
Indicate by check mark whether the registrant is a large accelerated filer, an accelerated filer, a non-accelerated filer, a smaller reporting company, or an emerging growth company. See the definitions of “large accelerated filer,” “accelerated filer,” “smaller reporting company,” and “emerging growth company” in Rule 12b-2 of the Exchange Act.
Large accelerated filer ☐         Accelerated filer
Non-accelerated filer ☐         Smaller reporting company         Emerging growth company
If an emerging growth company, indicate by check mark if the registrant has elected not to use the extended transition period for complying with any new or revised financial accounting standards provided pursuant to Section 13(a) of the Exchange Act. ¨
Indicate by check mark whether the registrant has filed a report on and attestation to its management’s assessment of the effectiveness of its internal control over financial reporting under Section 404(b) of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (15 U.S.C. 7262(b)) by the registered public accounting firm that prepared or issued its audit report.
Indicate by check mark whether the registrant is a shell company (as defined in Rule 12b-2 of the Exchange Act). Yes No
As of June 30, 2020, (the last business day of the registrant’s most recently completed second fiscal quarter) the aggregate market value of the common stock held by nonaffiliates of the registrant was approximately $509 million based on the closing sale price of $54.80 per share as reported on Nasdaq on June 30, 2020.
As of February 24, 2021 9,979,672 shares of common stock were outstanding.
DOCUMENTS INCORPORATED BY REFERENCE
Part III of Form 10-K – Portions of the Proxy Statement for the 2021 Annual Meeting of Shareholders. 



Nicolet Bankshares, Inc. 
TABLE OF CONTENTS
PAGE
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Forward-Looking Statements
Statements made in this Annual Report on Form 10-K and in any documents that are incorporated by reference which are not purely historical are forward-looking statements, as defined in the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995, including any statements regarding descriptions of management's plans, objectives, or goals for future operations, products or services, and forecasts of its revenues, earnings, or other measures of performance. Forward-looking statements are based on current management expectations and, by their nature, are subject to risks and uncertainties. These statements generally may be identified by the use of words such as “believe,” “expect,” “anticipate,” “plan,” “estimate,” “should,” “will,” “intend,” or similar expressions. Shareholders should note that many factors, some of which are discussed elsewhere in this document, could affect the future financial results of Nicolet and could cause those results to differ materially from those expressed in forward-looking statements contained in this document. These factors, many of which are beyond Nicolet’s control, include but are not necessarily limited to the following:
the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the business, customers, employees and third-party service providers of Nicolet or any of its acquisition targets;
operating, legal and regulatory risks, including the effects of legislative or regulatory developments affecting the financial industry generally or Nicolet specifically;
economic, market, political and competitive forces affecting Nicolet’s banking and wealth management businesses;
changes in interest rates, monetary policy and general economic conditions, which may impact Nicolet’s net interest income;
diversion of management time on pandemic-related issues;
potential difficulties in integrating the operations of Nicolet with future acquisition targets following any merger;
adoption of new accounting standards, including the effects from the adoption of the current expected credit losses (“CECL”) model on January 1, 2020, or changes in existing standards;
changes to statutes, regulations or regulatory policies or practices resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic;
compliance or operational risks related to new products, services, ventures, or lines of business, if any, that Nicolet may pursue or implement; and
the risk that Nicolet’s analysis of these risks and forces could be incorrect and/or that the strategies developed to address them could be unsuccessful.
These factors should be considered in evaluating the forward-looking statements, and you should not place undue reliance on such statements. Nicolet specifically disclaims any obligation to update factors or to publicly announce the results of revisions to any of the forward-looking statements or comments included herein to reflect future events or developments.
PART I
ITEM 1. BUSINESS
General
Nicolet Bankshares, Inc. (individually referred to herein as the “Parent Company” and together with all its subsidiaries collectively referred to herein as “Nicolet,” the “Company,” “we,” “us” or “our”) is a registered bank holding company under the Bank Holding Company Act of 1956, as amended, and under the bank holding company laws of the State of Wisconsin. At December 31, 2020, Nicolet had total assets of $4.6 billion, loans of $2.8 billion, deposits of $3.9 billion and total stockholders’ equity of $539 million. For the year ended December 31, 2020, Nicolet earned net income of $60.1 million, or $5.70 per diluted common share. For 2020, Nicolet’s return on average assets was 1.41%.
Nicolet was founded upon five core values (Be Real, Be Responsive, Be Personal, Be Memorable, and Be Entrepreneurial) which are embodied within each of our employees and create a distinct competitive positioning in the markets within which we operate. Our mission is to be the leading community bank within the communities we serve, while our vision is to optimize the long-term return to our customers and communities, employees and shareholders (the “3 Circles”).
The Parent Company is a Wisconsin corporation, originally incorporated on April 5, 2000 as Green Bay Financial Corporation, a Wisconsin corporation, to serve as the holding company for and the sole shareholder of Nicolet National Bank. The Parent Company amended and restated its articles of incorporation and changed its name to Nicolet Bankshares, Inc. on March 14, 2002. It subsequently became the holding company for Nicolet National Bank upon the completion of the bank’s reorganization into a holding company structure on June 6, 2002. Nicolet elected to become a financial holding company in 2008.
Nicolet conducts its primary operations through its wholly owned subsidiary, Nicolet National Bank, a commercial bank which was organized in 2000 as a national bank under the laws of the United States and opened for business, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on
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November 1, 2000 (referred to herein as the “Bank”). At December 31, 2020, the Parent Company also wholly owns a registered investment advisory firm, Nicolet Advisory Services, LLC (“Nicolet Advisory”), that conducts brokerage and financial advisory services primarily to individual consumers and retirement plan services to business customers. At December 31, 2020, the Bank wholly owns an investment subsidiary based in Nevada, an entity that owns the building in which Nicolet is headquartered, and a subsidiary in Green Bay that provides a web-based investment management platform for financial advisor trades and related activity. Other than the Bank, these subsidiaries are closely related to or incidental to the business of banking and none are individually or collectively significant to Nicolet’s financial position or results as of December 31, 2020.
Nicolet’s profitability is significantly dependent upon net interest income (interest income earned on loans and other interest-earning assets such as investments, net of interest expense on deposits and other borrowed funds), and noninterest income sources (including but not limited to service charges on deposits, trust and brokerage fees, and mortgage income from sales of residential mortgages into the secondary market), offset by the level of the provision for credit losses, noninterest expense (largely employee compensation and overhead expenses tied to processing and operating the Bank’s business), and income taxes.
Since its opening in late 2000, though more prominently since 2013, Nicolet has supplemented its organic growth with branch purchase and acquisition transactions. Merger and acquisition (“M&A”) activity has continued to be a source of strong growth for Nicolet. Since 2012 through year end 2020, Nicolet has successfully completed seven acquisitions. For information on recent transactions, see Note 2, “Acquisitions,” of the Notes to Consolidated Financial Statements under Part II, Item 8. In third quarter 2020, Nicolet completed the all-cash acquisition of Advantage Community Bancshares, Inc. (“Advantage”) and its wholly-owned bank subsidiary, Advantage Community Bank, which added total assets of $172 million at consummation (representing 4% of then pre-merger assets).
Products and Services Overview
Nicolet’s principal business is banking, consisting of lending and deposit gathering, as well as ancillary banking-related products and services, to businesses and individuals of the communities it serves, and the operational support to deliver, fund and manage such banking products and services. Additionally, trust, brokerage and other investment management services predominantly for individuals and retirement plan services for business customers are offered. Nicolet delivers its products and services principally through 36 bank branch locations, on-line banking, mobile banking and an interactive website. Nicolet’s call center also services customers.
Nicolet offers a variety of loans, deposits and related services to business customers (especially small and medium-sized businesses and professional concerns), including but not limited to: business checking and other business deposit products and cash management services, international banking services, business loans, lines of credit, commercial real estate financing, construction loans, agricultural real estate or production loans, and letters of credit, as well as retirement plan services. Similarly, Nicolet offers a variety of banking products and services to consumers, including but not limited to: residential mortgage loans and mortgage refinancing, home equity loans and lines of credit, residential construction loans, personal loans, checking, savings and money market accounts, various certificates of deposit and individual retirement accounts, safe deposit boxes, and personal brokerage, trust and fiduciary services. Nicolet also provides on-line services including commercial, retail and trust on-line banking, automated bill payment, mobile banking deposits and account access, remote deposit capture, and other services such as wire transfers, debit cards, credit cards, pre-paid gift cards, direct deposit, and official bank checks.
Lending is critical to Nicolet’s balance sheet and earnings potential. Nicolet seeks creditworthy borrowers principally within the geographic area of its branch locations. As a community bank with experienced commercial lenders and residential mortgage lenders, the primary lending function is to make loans in the following categories:
commercial-related loans, consisting of:
commercial, industrial, and business loans and lines, including Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”) loans;
owner-occupied commercial real estate (“owner-occupied CRE”);
agricultural (“AG”) production and AG real estate;
commercial real estate investment loans (“CRE investment”);
construction and land development loans;
residential real estate loans, consisting of:
residential first lien mortgages;
residential junior lien mortgages;
home equity loans and lines of credit;
residential construction loans; and
other loans (mainly consumer in nature).
Lending involves credit risk. Nicolet has and follows extensive loan policies and procedures to standardize processes, meet compliance requirements and prudently manage underwriting, credit and other risks. Credit risk is further controlled and monitored
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through active asset quality management including the use of lending standards, thorough review of current and potential borrowers through Nicolet’s underwriting process, close relationships with and regular check-ins with borrowers, and active asset quality administration. For further discussion of the loan portfolio composition and credit risk management, see “Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operation,” under Part II, Item 7.
Human Capital Resources
At December 31, 2020, Nicolet had 556 full-time equivalent employees and 573 headcount employees. None of our employees are represented by unions.
Nicolet believes that diversity is directly linked to organizational performance and is committed to diversity and inclusion, including women, minorities, age, individuals with disabilities, culture, and life experiences, among others. In support of this, all employees complete annual diversity training, managers complete additional diversity training in management foundation training, and we expect our employees to be active in promoting diversity within the Company and communities we serve. Nicolet also analyzes pay practices to ensure it is fair and equitable among our diverse employee population. Our workforce at year end 2020 was 70% women, 30% men, and 42% of all officer titles were women.
As noted under "General", our mission is to be the leading community bank within the communities we serve, while our vision is to optimize the long-term return to our customers and communities, employees and shareholders (the “3 Circles”), guided by our five core value. Meaningful execution on the mission and vision comes from all employees embodying the core values and the 3 Circles in their decision-making and daily actions for their customers and communities.
We support the communities we serve through our employees’ dedication to giving back and their ties to the local communities.
In order to develop a workforce that aligns with our corporate values, we regularly sponsor local community events so that our employees can better integrate themselves in our communities. We believe that our employees’ well-being and personal and professional development is fostered by our outreach to the communities we serve. Our employees’ desire for active community involvement is supported and encouraged – such as, promoting causes of interest to employees, flexible schedules to support volunteerism, and giving of money to charities, community events or community organizations also served by employee volunteers. This includes Nicolet National Foundation, Inc., a public charity formed near our opening as a way for employees to give back, with 100% of the monies given by employees going directly back into our communities based on recommendations from our employees, and a 100% match of employee giving by the Bank to further support our community giving over time.
The health and well-being of our employees is of utmost importance to us. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have taken significant steps to protect and promote the health and well-being of our employees and customers, including implementation of various management actions for safety, remote work, temporary branch changes, and on-site bonus pay.
Market Area and Competition
The Bank is a full-service community bank, providing a full range of traditional commercial, wealth (directly and through Nicolet Advisory) and retail banking products and services throughout northeastern and central Wisconsin and in Menominee, Michigan. Nicolet markets its services to owner-managed companies, the individual owners of these businesses, and other residents of its market area, which at December 31, 2020 is through 36 branches located principally in its trade area of northeastern and central Wisconsin, and in Menominee, Michigan. Based on deposit market share data published by S&P Global Market Intelligence as of June 30, 2020 for the 13 counties served by Nicolet, the Bank ranks in the top three of market share for 8 counties (Brown, Calumet, Clark, Door, Kewaunee, Menominee, Taylor, and Winnebago) and in the top five for 2 other counties (Marinette and Oneida).
The financial services industry is highly competitive. Nicolet competes for loans, deposits and wealth management or financial services in all its principal markets. Nicolet competes directly with other bank and nonbank institutions located within our markets (some that may have an established customer base or name recognition), internet-based banks, out-of-market banks that advertise or otherwise serve its markets, money market and other mutual funds, brokerage houses, mortgage companies, insurance companies or other commercial entities that offer financial services products. Competition involves efforts to retain current or procure new customers, obtain new loans and deposits, increase the scope and type of products or services offered, and offer competitive interest rates paid on deposits or earned on loans, as well as to deliver other aspects of banking competitively. Many of Nicolet’s competitors may enjoy competitive advantages, including greater financial resources, fewer regulatory requirements, broader geographic presence, more accessible branches or more advanced technologic delivery of products or services, more favorable pricing alternatives and lower origination or operating costs.
We believe our competitive pricing, personalized service and community engagement enable us to effectively compete in our markets. Nicolet employs seasoned banking and wealth management professionals with experience in its market areas and who are active in their communities. Nicolet’s emphasis on meeting customer needs in a relationship-focused manner, combined with local decision making on extensions of credit, distinguishes Nicolet from its competitors, particularly in the case of large financial institutions. Nicolet believes it further distinguishes itself by providing a range of products and services characteristic of a large
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financial institution while providing the personalized service, real conversation, and convenience characteristic of a local, community bank.
Supervision and Regulation
Set forth below is an explanation of the major pieces of legislation and regulation affecting the banking industry and how that legislation and regulation affects Nicolet’s business. The following summary is qualified by reference to the statutory and regulatory provisions discussed. Changes in applicable laws or regulations may have a material effect on the business and prospects of Nicolet or the Bank, and legislative changes and the policies of various regulatory authorities may significantly affect their operations. We cannot predict the effect that fiscal or monetary policies, or new federal or state legislation or regulation may have on the future business and earnings of Nicolet or the Bank.
Regulation of Nicolet
Because Nicolet owns all of the capital stock of the Bank, it is a bank holding company under the federal Bank Holding Company Act of 1956, as amended (the “Bank Holding Company Act”). As a result, Nicolet is primarily subject to the supervision, examination, and reporting requirements of the Bank Holding Company Act and the regulations of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (the “Federal Reserve”). As a bank holding company located in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions (the “WDFI”) also regulates and monitors all significant aspects of its operations.
Acquisitions of Banks. The Bank Holding Company Act requires every bank holding company to obtain the prior approval of the Federal Reserve before:
acquiring direct or indirect ownership or control of any voting shares of any bank if, after the acquisition, the bank holding company will directly or indirectly own or control more than 5% of the bank’s voting shares;
acquiring all or substantially all of the assets of any bank; or
merging or consolidating with any other bank holding company.
Additionally, the Bank Holding Company Act provides that the Federal Reserve may not approve any of these transactions if it would result in or tend to create a monopoly, substantially lessen competition, or otherwise function as a restraint of trade, unless the anti-competitive effects of the proposed transaction are clearly outweighed by the public interest in meeting the convenience and needs of the community to be served. The Federal Reserve is also required to consider the financial and managerial resources and future prospects of the bank holding companies and banks involved in the transaction and the convenience and needs of the community to be served. The Federal Reserve’s consideration of financial resources generally focuses on capital adequacy, which is discussed below.
Change in Bank Control. Subject to various exceptions, the Bank Holding Company Act and the Change in Bank Control Act, together with related regulations, require Federal Reserve approval prior to any person or company acquiring “control” of a bank holding company. Control is conclusively presumed to exist if an individual or company acquires 25% or more of any class of voting securities of the bank holding company. Control is rebuttably presumed to exist if a person or company acquires 10% or more, but less than 25%, of any class of voting securities of the bank holding company. The regulations provide a procedure for challenging rebuttable presumptions of control.
Permitted Activities. The Bank Holding Company Act has generally prohibited a bank holding company from engaging in activities other than banking or managing or controlling banks or other permissible subsidiaries and from acquiring or retaining direct or indirect control of any company engaged in any activities other than those determined by the Federal Reserve to be closely related to banking or managing or controlling banks as to be a proper incident thereto. Provisions of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act have expanded the permissible activities of a bank holding company that qualifies as a financial holding company to engage in activities that are financial in nature or incidental or complementary to financial activities. Those activities include, among other activities, certain insurance, advisory and security activities.
Nicolet meets the qualification standards applicable to financial holding companies, and elected to become a financial holding company in 2008. In order to remain a financial holding company, Nicolet must continue to be considered well managed and well capitalized by the Federal Reserve, and the Bank must continue to be considered well managed and well capitalized by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (the “OCC”) and have at least a “satisfactory” rating under the Community Reinvestment Act.
Support of Subsidiary Institutions. Under Federal Reserve policy and the Dodd-Frank Act, Nicolet is expected to act as a source of financial strength for the Bank and to commit resources to support the Bank. This support may be required at times when, without this Federal Reserve policy or the related rules, Nicolet might not be inclined to provide it.
In addition, any capital loans made by Nicolet to the Bank will be repaid only after the Bank’s deposits and various other obligations are repaid in full.
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Capital Adequacy. Nicolet is subject to capital requirements applied on a consolidated basis, which are substantially similar to those required of the Bank, which are summarized under “Regulation of the Bank” below.
Dividend Restrictions. Under Federal Reserve policies, bank holding companies may pay cash dividends on common stock only out of income available over the past year if prospective earnings retention is consistent with the organization's expected future needs and financial condition and if the organization is not in danger of not meeting its minimum regulatory capital requirements. Federal Reserve policy also provides that bank holding companies should not maintain a level of cash dividends that undermines the bank holding company's ability to serve as a source of strength to its banking subsidiaries. Under Federal Reserve policy, bank holding companies are expected to inform the Federal Reserve reasonably in advance of declaring or paying a dividend that exceeds earnings for the period (e.g., quarter) for which the dividend is being paid or that could result in a material adverse change to the organization's capital structure.
Stock Buybacks and Other Capital Redemptions. Under Federal Reserve policies and regulations, bank holding companies must seek regulatory approval prior to any redemption that would reduce the bank holding company's consolidated net worth by 10% or more, prior to the redemption of most instruments included in Tier 1 or Tier 2 capital with features permitting redemption at the option of the issuing bank holding company, or prior to the redemption of equity or other capital instruments included in Tier 1 or Tier 2 capital prior to stated maturity, if such redemption could have a material effect on the level or composition of the organization's capital base. Bank holding companies are also expected to inform the Federal Reserve reasonably in advance of a redemption or repurchase of common stock if such buyback results in a net reduction of the company's outstanding amount of common stock below the amount outstanding at the beginning of the fiscal quarter.
Regulation of the Bank
Because the Bank is chartered as a national bank, it is primarily subject to the supervision, examination, and reporting requirements of the National Bank Act and the regulations of the OCC. The OCC regularly examines the Bank’s operations and has the authority to approve or disapprove mergers, the establishment of branches and similar corporate actions. The OCC also has the power to prevent the continuance or development of unsafe or unsound banking practices or other violations of law. Because the Bank’s deposits are insured by the FDIC to the maximum extent provided by law, it is also subject to certain FDIC regulations and the FDIC also has examination authority and back-up enforcement power over the Bank. The Bank is also subject to numerous state and federal statutes and regulations that affect Nicolet, its business, activities, and operations.
Branching. National banks are required by the National Bank Act to adhere to branching laws applicable to state banks in the states in which they are located. Under Wisconsin law and the Dodd-Frank Act, and with the prior approval of the OCC, the Bank may open branch offices within or outside of Wisconsin, provided that a state bank chartered by the state in which the branch is to be located would also be permitted to establish a branch. In addition, with prior regulatory approval, the Bank may acquire branches of existing banks located in Wisconsin or other states.
Capital Adequacy. Banks and bank holding companies, as regulated institutions, are required to maintain minimum levels of capital. The Federal Reserve and the OCC have adopted minimum risk-based capital requirements (Tier 1 capital, common equity Tier 1 capital (“CET1”) and total capital) and leverage capital requirements, as well as guidelines that define components of the calculation of capital and the level of risk associated with various types of assets. Financial institutions are expected to maintain a level of capital commensurate with the risk profile assigned to their assets in accordance with the guidelines.
In addition to the minimum risk-based capital and leverage ratios, effective January 1, 2019 banking organizations must maintain a “capital conservation buffer” consisting of CET1 in an amount equal to 2.5% of risk-weighted assets in order to avoid restrictions on their ability to make capital distributions and to pay certain discretionary bonus payments to executive officers. In order to avoid those restrictions, the capital conservation buffer effectively increases the minimum well-capitalized CET1 capital, Tier 1 capital, and total capital ratios for U.S. banking organizations to 7.0%, 8.5%, and 10.5%, respectively. Banking organizations with capital levels that fall within the buffer will be required to limit dividends, share repurchases or redemptions (unless replaced within the same calendar quarter by capital instruments of equal or higher quality), and discretionary bonus payments. The following table presents the risk-based and leverage capital requirements applicable to the Bank:
 Adequately Capitalized
Requirement
Well-Capitalized
Requirement
Well-Capitalized
with Buffer
Leverage4.0 %5.0 %5.0 %
CET14.5 %6.5 %7.0 %
Tier 16.0 %8.0 %8.5 %
Total Capital8.0 %10.0 %10.5 %
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Although capital instruments such as trust preferred securities and cumulative preferred shares are excluded from Tier 1 capital for certain larger banking organizations, Nicolet’s trust preferred securities are grandfathered as Tier 1 capital (provided they do not exceed 25% of Tier 1 capital) so long as Nicolet has less than $15 billion in total assets.
The capital rules require that goodwill and other intangible assets (other than mortgage servicing assets), net of associated deferred tax liabilities (“DTLs”), be deducted from CET1 capital. Additionally, deferred tax assets (“DTAs”) that arise from net operating loss and tax credit carryforwards, net of associated DTLs and valuation allowances, are fully deducted from CET1 capital. However, DTAs arising from temporary differences that could not be realized through net operating loss carrybacks, along with mortgage servicing assets and “significant” (defined as greater than 10% of the issued and outstanding common stock of the unconsolidated financial institution) investments in the common stock of unconsolidated “financial institutions” are partially includible in CET1 capital, subject to deductions defined in the rules.
The OCC also considers interest rate risk (arising when the interest rate sensitivity of the Bank’s assets does not match the sensitivity of its liabilities or its off-balance sheet position) in the evaluation of the bank’s capital adequacy. Banks with excessive interest rate risk exposure are required to hold additional amounts of capital against their exposure to losses resulting from that risk. Through the risk-weighting of assets, the regulators also require banks to incorporate market risk components into their risk-based capital. Under these market risk requirements, capital is allocated to support the amount of market risk related to a bank’s lending and trading activities.
The Bank’s capital categories are determined solely for the purpose of applying the “prompt corrective action” rules described below and they are not necessarily an accurate representation of its overall financial condition or prospects for other purposes. Failure to meet capital guidelines could subject a bank or bank holding company to a variety of enforcement remedies, including issuance of a capital directive, the termination of deposit insurance by the FDIC, a prohibition on accepting brokered deposits, and certain other restrictions on its business. See “Prompt Corrective Action” below.
Prompt Corrective Action. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Improvement Act of 1991 (“FDICIA”) establishes a system of prompt corrective action to resolve the problems of undercapitalized financial institutions. Under this system, the federal banking regulators have established five capital categories: well-capitalized, adequately capitalized, undercapitalized, significantly undercapitalized, and critically undercapitalized, in which all institutions are placed. The federal banking agencies have also specified by regulation the relevant capital levels for each category.
A “well-capitalized” bank is one that is not required to meet and maintain a specific capital level for any capital measure pursuant to any written agreement, order, capital directive, or prompt corrective action directive, and has a total risk-based capital ratio of at least 10%, a Tier 1 risk-based capital ratio of at least 8%, a CET1 capital ratio of at least 6.5%, and a Tier 1 leverage ratio of at least 5%. Generally, a classification as well-capitalized will place a bank outside of the regulatory zone for purposes of prompt corrective action. However, a well-capitalized bank may be reclassified as “adequately capitalized” based on criteria other than capital, if the federal regulator determines that a bank is in an unsafe or unsound condition, or is engaged in unsafe or unsound practices, which requires certain remedial action.
As of December 31, 2020, the Bank satisfied the requirements of “well-capitalized” under the regulatory framework for prompt corrective action. See Note 16, “Regulatory Capital Requirements,” in the Notes to Consolidated Financial Statements, under Part II, Item 8, for Nicolet and the Bank regulatory capital ratios.
As a bank’s capital position deteriorates, federal banking regulators are required to take various mandatory supervisory actions and are authorized to take other discretionary actions with respect to institutions in the three undercapitalized categories: undercapitalized, significantly undercapitalized, and critically undercapitalized. The severity of the action depends upon the capital category in which the institution is placed. Generally, subject to a narrow exception, the banking regulator must appoint a receiver or conservator for an institution that is critically undercapitalized.
CECL. The Financial Accounting Standards Board (“FASB”) adopted a new credit loss accounting standard applicable to all banks, savings associations, credit unions, and financial holding companies, regardless of size. This standard became effective for the Bank for our fiscal year beginning on January 1, 2020. The final rule allows for an optional three-year phase in of the day-one adverse effects on a bank’s regulatory capital. This Current Expected Credit Losses (“CECL”) standard requires financial institutions to determine periodic estimates of lifetime expected credit losses on loans, and recognize the expected credit losses as an allowance for credit losses.
The CECL rules changed the prior “incurred losses” method of providing Allowances for Credit Losses (“ACL”), which has required us to increase our allowance, and to greatly increase the data we need to collect and review to determine the appropriate level of the ACL. Under CECL, the allowance for credit losses is an estimate of the expected credit losses on financial assets measured at amortized cost, which is measured using relevant information about past events, including historical credit loss experience on financial assets with similar risk characteristics, current conditions, and reasonable and supportable forecasts that
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affect the collectability of the remaining cash flows over the contractual term of the financial assets. CECL requires an allowance to be created upon the origination or acquisition of a financial asset measured at amortized cost, which may significantly impact the cost of M&A activity in the future. Any increase in our ACL, or expenses incurred to determine the appropriate level of the ACL, may have a material adverse effect on our financial condition and results of operations. For additional discussion of CECL, see section “New Accounting Pronouncements Adopted” within Note 1 “Nature of Business and Significant Accounting Policies,” of the Notes to Consolidated Financial Statements under Part II, Item 8.
FDIC Insurance Assessments. The Bank’s deposits are insured by the Deposit Insurance Fund of the FDIC up to $250,000, the maximum amount permitted by law. The FDIC uses the Deposit Insurance Fund to protect against the loss of insured deposits if an FDIC-insured bank or savings association fails. The Bank is thus subject to FDIC deposit premium assessments. The cost of premium assessments are impacted by, among other things, a bank’s capital category under the prompt corrective action system.
Commercial Real Estate Lending. The federal banking regulators have issued the following guidance to help identify institutions that are potentially exposed to significant commercial real estate lending risk and may warrant greater supervisory scrutiny:
total reported loans for construction, land development and other land represent 100% or more of the institution’s total capital, or
total commercial real estate loans represent 300% or more of the institution’s total capital, and the outstanding balance of the institution’s commercial real estate loan portfolio has increased by 50% or more.
At December 31, 2020 the Bank’s commercial real estate lending levels are below the guidance levels noted above.
Enforcement Powers. The Financial Institution Reform Recovery and Enforcement Act (“FIRREA”) expanded and increased civil and criminal penalties available for use by the federal regulatory agencies against depository institutions and certain “institution-affiliated parties.” Institution-affiliated parties primarily include management, employees, and agents of a financial institution, as well as independent contractors and consultants such as attorneys and accountants and others who participate in the conduct of the financial institution’s affairs. These practices can include the failure of an institution to timely file required reports or the filing of false or misleading information or the submission of inaccurate reports. Civil penalties may be over $1.9 million per day for such violations. Criminal penalties for some financial institution crimes have been increased to 20 years.
Community Reinvestment Act. The Community Reinvestment Act (“CRA”) requires that, in connection with examinations of financial institutions within their respective jurisdictions, the federal banking agencies evaluate the record of each financial institution in meeting the credit needs of its local community, including low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. These facts are also considered in evaluating mergers, acquisitions, and applications to open a branch or facility. Failure to adequately meet these criteria could impose additional requirements and limitations on the Bank. Additionally, the Bank must publicly disclose the terms of various Community Reinvestment Act-related agreements. The Bank received an “outstanding” CRA rating in its most recent evaluation.
Payment of Dividends. Statutory and regulatory limitations apply to the Bank’s payment of dividends to the Parent Company. If, in the opinion of the OCC, the Bank were engaged in or about to engage in an unsafe or unsound practice, the OCC could require that the Bank stop or refrain from engaging in the practice. The federal banking agencies have indicated that paying dividends that deplete a depository institution’s capital base to an inadequate level would be an unsafe and unsound banking practice.
The Bank is required by federal law to obtain prior approval of the OCC for payments of dividends if the total of all dividends declared by the Bank in any year will exceed (1) the total of the Bank’s net profits for that year, plus (2) the Bank’s retained net profits of the preceding two years. The payment of dividends may also be affected by other factors, such as the requirement to maintain adequate capital above regulatory guidelines or any conditions or restrictions that may be imposed by regulatory authorities.
Transactions with Affiliates and Insiders. The Bank is subject to the provisions of Regulation W promulgated by the Federal Reserve, which implements Sections 23A and 23B of the Federal Reserve Act. Regulation W places limits and conditions on the amount of loans or extensions of credit to, investments in, or certain other transactions with, affiliates and on the amount of advances to third parties collateralized by the securities or obligations of affiliates. Regulation W also prohibits, among other things, an institution from engaging in certain transactions with certain affiliates unless the transactions are on terms substantially the same, or at least as favorable to such institution or its subsidiaries, as those prevailing at the time for comparable transactions with nonaffiliated companies. Federal law also places restrictions on the Bank’s ability to extend credit to its executive officers, directors, principal shareholders and their related interests. These extensions of credit must be made on substantially the same terms, including interest rates and collateral, as those prevailing at the time for comparable transactions with unrelated third parties; and must not involve more than the normal risk of repayment or present other unfavorable features.
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USA PATRIOT Act. The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (the “USA PATRIOT Act") requires each financial institution to: (i) establish an anti-money laundering program; and (ii) establish due diligence policies, procedures and controls with respect to its private and correspondent banking accounts involving foreign individuals and certain foreign banks. In addition, the USA PATRIOT Act encourages cooperation among financial institutions, regulatory authorities and law enforcement authorities with respect to individuals, entities and organizations engaged in, or reasonably suspected of engaging in, terrorist acts or money laundering activities.
Customer Protection. The Bank is also subject to consumer laws and regulations intended to protect consumers in transactions with depository institutions, as well as other laws or regulations affecting customers of financial institutions generally. While the list set forth herein is not exhaustive, these laws and regulations include the Truth in Lending Act, the Truth in Savings Act, the Electronic Funds Transfer Act, the Expedited Funds Availability Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, the Fair Housing Act, the Real Estate Settlement and Procedures Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act, among others. These laws and regulations mandate certain disclosure requirements and regulate the manner in which financial institutions must deal with customers when taking deposits or making loans to such customers.
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The Dodd-Frank Act centralized responsibility for consumer financial protection including implementing, examining and enforcing compliance with federal consumer financial laws with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (the “CFPB”). Depository institutions with less than $10 billion in assets, such as the Bank, are subject to rules promulgated by the CFPB but will continue to be examined and supervised by federal banking regulators for consumer compliance purposes.
UDAP and UDAAP. Bank regulatory agencies have increasingly used a general consumer protection statute to address “unethical” or otherwise “bad” business practices that may not necessarily fall directly under the purview of a specific banking or consumer finance law. The law of choice for enforcement against such business practices has been Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act—the primary federal law that prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” and unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce (“UDAP” or “FTC Act”). “Unjustified consumer injury” is the principal focus of the FTC Act. Prior to the Dodd-Frank Act, there was little formal guidance to provide insight to the parameters for compliance with the UDAP law. However, the UDAP provisions have been expanded under the Dodd-Frank Act to apply to “unfair, deceptive or abusive acts or practices” (“UDAAP”). The CFPB has brought a variety of enforcement actions for violations of UDAAP provisions and CFPB guidance continues to evolve.
Available Information
Nicolet became a public reporting company under Section 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended (the “Exchange Act”) on March 26, 2013, when Nicolet’s registration statement related to its acquisition of Mid-Wisconsin Financial Services, Inc. (Registration Statement on Form S-4, Regis. No. 333-186401) became effective. Nicolet registered its common stock under Section 12(b) of the Exchange Act on February 24, 2016 in connection with listing on the Nasdaq Capital Market. Nicolet files annual, quarterly, and current reports, and other information with the SEC. These filings are available to the public on the Internet at the SEC’s website at www.sec.gov.
Nicolet’s internet address is www.nicoletbank.com. We make available free of charge on or through our website our annual report on Form 10-K, quarterly reports on Form 10-Q, current reports on Form 8-K, and amendments to those reports filed or furnished pursuant to Section 13(a) or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 as soon as reasonably practicable after we electronically file such material with, or furnish it to, the SEC.

ITEM 1A. RISK FACTORS
An investment in our common stock involves risks. If any of the following risks, or other risks which have not been identified or which we may believe are immaterial or unlikely, actually occurs, our business, financial condition and results of operations could be harmed. In such a case, the trading price of our common stock could decline, and you could lose all or part of your investment. The risks discussed below also include forward-looking statements, and our actual results may differ substantially from those discussed in these forward-looking statements.
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Risks Relating to Nicolet’s Business
Nicolet may not be able to sustain its historical rate of growth, or may encounter issues associated with its growth, either of which could adversely affect our financial condition, results of operations, and share price.
We have grown over the past several years and intend to continue to pursue a significant growth strategy for our business. Our prospects must be considered in light of the risks, expenses and difficulties frequently encountered by companies in significant growth stages of development. We may not be able to further expand our market presence in existing markets or to enter new markets successfully, nor can we guarantee that any such expansion would not adversely affect our results of operations. Failure to manage growth effectively could have a material adverse effect on the business, future prospects, financial condition or results of our operations, and could adversely affect our ability to successfully implement business strategies. Also, if such growth occurs more slowly than anticipated or declines, our operating results could be materially adversely affected.
Our ability to grow successfully will depend on a variety of factors including the continued availability of desirable business opportunities, the competitive responses from other financial institutions in our market areas and the ability to manage our growth. While we believe we have the management resources and internal systems in place to manage future growth successfully, there can be no assurance that growth opportunities will be available or that any growth will be managed successfully. In addition, our recent growth may distort some of our historical financial ratios and statistics.
As part of our growth strategy, we regularly evaluate merger and acquisition opportunities and conduct due diligence activities related to possible transactions with other financial institutions and financial services companies. As a result, negotiations may take place and future mergers or acquisitions involving cash, debt, or equity securities may occur at any time. We seek merger or acquisition partners that are culturally similar, have experienced management, and possess either significant market presence or have potential for improved profitability through financial management, economies of scale, or expanded services. However, it is possible that some acquisitions might not close as a result of failure to meet closing conditions or the market could negatively affect the banking environment so much that an acquisition that may have, at one time, been beneficial to both institutions is now no longer prudent. The costs and effects of a such not completed acquisitions could negatively affect Nicolet.

Acquiring other banks, businesses, or branches involves potential adverse impact to our financial results and various other risks commonly associated with acquisitions, including, among other things, difficulty in estimating the value of the target company, payment of a premium over book and market values that may dilute our tangible book value and earnings per share in the short and long term, potential exposure to unknown or contingent liabilities of the target company, exposure to potential asset quality issues of the target company, potential volatility in reported income as goodwill impairment losses could occur irregularly and in varying amounts, difficulty and expense of integrating the operations and personnel of the target company, inability to realize the expected revenue increases, cost savings, increases in geographic or product presence, and / or other projected benefits, potential disruption to our business, potential diversion of our management’s time and attention, and the possible loss of key employees and customers of the target company.
The global coronavirus outbreak could harm business and results of operations for Nicolet.
In March 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus to be a pandemic. Given the ongoing and dynamic nature of the circumstances, it is difficult to predict the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the businesses of Nicolet and on its customers, and there is no guarantee that efforts by Nicolet to address the adverse impacts of the coronavirus will be effective. The impact to date has included periods of significant volatility in financial, commodities and other markets. This volatility, if it continues, could have an adverse impact on Nicolet’s customers and on Nicolet’s business, financial condition and results of operations. Nicolet may also incur additional costs to remedy damages caused by business disruptions.
In addition, actions by U.S. federal, state and foreign governments to address the pandemic, including travel bans and school, business and entertainment venue closures, may also have a significant adverse effect on the markets in which Nicolet conducts its businesses. The extent of impacts resulting from the coronavirus pandemic and other events beyond the control of Nicolet will depend on future developments, which are highly uncertain and cannot be predicted, including new information which may emerge concerning the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and actions taken to contain the coronavirus or its impact, among others.
As a community bank, Nicolet’s success depends upon local and regional economic conditions and has different lending risks than larger banks.
We provide services to our local communities. Our ability to diversify economic risks is limited by our own local markets and economies. We lend primarily to individuals and small- to medium-sized businesses, which may expose us to greater lending risks than those of banks lending to larger, better-capitalized businesses with longer operating histories.
We manage our credit exposure through careful monitoring of loan applicants and loan concentrations in particular industries, and through loan approval and review procedures. We have established an evaluation process designed to determine the appropriateness of our allowance for credit losses. While this evaluation process uses historical and other objective information, the classification of
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loans and the establishment of credit losses is an estimate based on experience, judgment and expectations regarding borrowers and economic conditions, as well as regulator judgments. We can make no assurance that our credit loss reserves will be sufficient to absorb future credit losses or prevent a material adverse effect on our business, profitability or financial condition.
The core industries in our market area are manufacturing, wholesaling, paper, packaging, food production and processing, agriculture, forest products, retail, service, and businesses supporting the general building industry. The area has a broad range of diversified equipment manufacturing services related to these core industries and others. The residential and commercial real estate markets throughout these areas depend primarily on the strength of these core industries. A material decline in any of these sectors will affect the communities we serve and could negatively impact our financial results and have a negative impact on profitability.
If the communities in which we operate do not grow or if the prevailing economic conditions locally or nationally are less favorable than we have assumed, our ability to maintain our low volume of nonperforming loans and other real estate owned and implement our business strategies may be adversely affected and our actual financial performance may be materially different from our projections.
Nicolet may experience increased delinquencies and credit losses, which could have a material adverse effect on our capital, financial condition, results of operations, and share price.
Our success depends to a significant extent upon the quality of our assets, particularly loans. In originating loans, there is a substantial likelihood that we will experience credit losses. The risk of loss will vary with, among other things, general economic conditions, the type of loan, the creditworthiness of the borrower over the term of the loan, and, in the case of a collateralized loan, the quality of the collateral for the loan.
Our loan customers may not repay their loans according to the terms of these loans, and the collateral securing the payment of these loans may be insufficient to assure repayment. As a result, we may experience significant credit losses, which could have a material adverse effect on our operating results. Management makes various assumptions and judgments about the collectability of our loan portfolio, including the creditworthiness of our borrowers and the value of the real estate and other assets serving as collateral for the repayment of many of our loans. We maintain an allowance for credit losses in an attempt to cover any loan losses that may occur. In determining the size of the allowance, we rely on an analysis of our loan portfolio based on historical loss experience, volume and types of loans, trends in classification, volume and trends in delinquencies and nonaccruals, national and local economic conditions, reasonable and supportable forecasts, and other pertinent information.
If management’s assumptions are wrong, our current allowance may not be sufficient to cover future loan losses, and we may need to make adjustments to allow for different economic conditions or adverse developments in our loan portfolio. Material additions to our allowance would materially decrease net income. We expect our allowance to continue to fluctuate; however, given current and future market conditions, we can make no assurance that our allowance will be appropriate to cover future credit losses.
In addition, the market value of the real estate securing our loans as collateral could be adversely affected by the economy and unfavorable changes in economic conditions in our market areas. As of December 31, 2020, approximately 40% of our loans were secured by commercial-based real estate, 3% of loans were secured by agriculture-based real estate, and 21% of our loans were secured by residential real estate. Any sustained period of increased payment delinquencies, foreclosures, or losses caused by adverse market and economic conditions, including another downturn in the real estate market, in our markets could adversely affect the value of our assets, results of operations, and financial condition.
Nicolet is subject to extensive regulation that could limit or restrict our activities, which could have a material adverse effect on our results of operations or share price.
We operate in a highly regulated industry and are subject to examination, supervision, and comprehensive regulation by various regulatory agencies. Our compliance with these regulations, including compliance with regulatory commitments, is costly and restricts certain of our activities, including the declaration and payment of cash dividends to stockholders, mergers and acquisitions, investments, loans and interest rates charged, interest rates paid on deposits, and locations of offices. We are also subject to capitalization guidelines established by our regulators, which require us to maintain adequate capital to support our growth and operations.
The laws and regulations applicable to the banking industry have changed and are likely to continue to change, and we cannot predict the effects of these changes on our business and profitability. Some or all of the changes, including the rule-making authority granted to the CFPB, may result in greater reporting requirements, assessment fees, operational restrictions, capital requirements, and other regulatory burdens for us, and many of our competitors that are not banks or bank holding companies may remain free from such limitations. This could affect our ability to attract and retain depositors, to offer competitive products and services, and to expand our business. Because government regulation greatly affects the business and financial results of all commercial banks and bank holding companies, the cost of compliance could adversely affect our ability to operate profitably.
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Congress may consider additional proposals to substantially change the financial institution regulatory system and to expand or contract the powers of banking institutions, bank holding companies and financial holding companies. Such legislation may change existing banking statutes and regulations, as well as the current operating environment significantly. If enacted, such legislation could increase or decrease the cost of doing business, limit or expand permissible activities, or affect the competitive balance among banks, savings associations, credit unions, and other financial institutions. We cannot predict whether new legislation will be enacted and, if enacted, the effect that it, or any regulations, would have on our business, financial condition, or results of operations.
Nicolet’s profitability is sensitive to changes in the interest rate environment.
As a financial institution, our earnings significantly depend on net interest income, which is the difference between the interest income that we earn on interest-earning assets, such as investment securities and loans, and the interest expense that we pay on interest-bearing liabilities, such as deposits and borrowings. Therefore, any change in general market interest rates, including changes in federal fiscal and monetary policies, affects us more than non-financial institutions and can have a significant effect on our net interest income and total income. Our assets and liabilities may react differently to changes in overall market rates or conditions because there may be mismatches between the repricing or maturity characteristics of the assets and liabilities. As a result, an increase or decrease in market interest rates could have material adverse effects on our net interest margin and results of operations.
In addition, we cannot predict whether interest rates will continue to remain at present levels, or the timing of any anticipated changes. Changes in interest rates may cause significant changes, up or down, in our net interest income. If the interest rates paid on deposits and borrowings increase at a faster rate than the interest rates received on loans and investment securities, our net interest income, and therefore earnings, could be adversely affected. Earnings also could be adversely affected if the interest rates received on loans and investment securities fall more quickly than the interest rates paid on deposits and borrowings. In addition, if there is a substantial increase in interest rates, our investment portfolio is at risk of experiencing price declines that may negatively impact our total capital position through changes in other comprehensive income. Any significant increase in prevailing interest rates could also adversely affect our mortgage banking business because higher interest rates could cause customers to request fewer refinancing and purchase money mortgage originations.
Nicolet may be required to transition from the use of LIBOR interest rate index in the future.
Certain of our trust preferred securities, loans, investment securities, and junior subordinated debentures are currently indexed to LIBOR to calculate the interest rate. The continued availability of the LIBOR index is not guaranteed after 2021. We cannot predict whether and to what extent banks will continue to provide LIBOR submissions to the administrator of LIBOR or whether any additional reforms to LIBOR may be enacted. At this time, no consensus exists as to what rate or rates may become acceptable alternatives to LIBOR (with the exception of overnight repurchase agreements, which are expected to be based on the Secured Overnight Financing Rate, or SOFR). The language in our LIBOR-based contracts and financial instruments has developed over time and may have various events that trigger when a successor rate to the designated rate would be selected. If a trigger is satisfied, contracts and financial instruments may give the calculation agent discretion over the substitute index or indices for the calculation of interest rates to be selected.
Nicolet faces significant operational risk, including risk of loss related to cybersecurity breaches, due to the financial services industry’s increased reliance on technology.
We rely heavily on communications and information systems to conduct our business, and we rely on third party vendors to provide key components of these systems, including our core application processing. Any failure, interruption or breach in security of these systems could result in failures or disruptions in customer relationship management, general ledger, deposit, loan functionality and the effective operation of other systems. We rely on third parties to compile, process or store computer systems, company data and infrastructure, and such information may be vulnerable to attack by hackers or unauthorized access. While we have policies and procedures designed to prevent or limit the effect of a failure, interruption or security breach of our information systems, there can be no assurance that any such failures, interruptions or security breaches will not occur or, if they do occur, that they will be adequately addressed. The occurrence of any failures, interruptions or security breaches of our information systems could damage our reputation, result in a loss of customer business, damage vendor relationships, subject us to additional regulatory scrutiny, or expose us to civil litigation and possible financial liability, any of which could have a material adverse effect on our financial condition and results of operations.
We do not control the actions of the third party vendors we have selected to provide key components of our business infrastructure. Any problems caused by these third parties, including as a result of their not providing us their services for any reason or their performing their services poorly, or any failure, interruption or breach in security of the services they provide, could adversely affect our ability to deliver products and services to our customers and otherwise to conduct our business. Replacing these third party vendors could also entail significant delay and expense.
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Our business may be adversely affected by an increasing prevalence of fraud and other financial crimes.
As a financial institution, we are also susceptible to fraudulent activity that may be committed against us, our third party vendors, or our clients, which may result in financial losses or increased costs to us or our clients, disclosure or misuse of our information or our clients' information, misappropriation of assets, privacy breaches against our clients, litigation, or damage to our reputation. These risks may increase in the future as we continue to increase our mobile-payment and other internet-based product offerings and expand our internal usage of web-based products and applications.
Negative publicity could damage our reputation.
Reputation risk, or the risk to our earnings and capital from negative public opinion, is inherent in our business. Negative public opinion could adversely affect our ability to keep and attract customers and expose us to adverse legal and regulatory consequences. Negative public opinion could result from our actual or alleged conduct in any number of activities, including lending or foreclosure practices, corporate governance, regulatory compliance, mergers and acquisitions, and disclosure, sharing or inadequate protection of customer information, and from actions taken by government regulators and community organizations in response to that conduct.
Competition in the banking industry is intense and Nicolet faces strong competition from larger, more established competitors.
The banking business is highly competitive, and we experience strong competition from many other financial institutions, as well as financial technology companies (“fintechs”). We compete with commercial banks, credit unions, savings and loan associations, mortgage banking firms, consumer finance companies, securities brokerage firms, insurance companies, money market funds, and other financial institutions that operate in our primary market areas and elsewhere. Because technology and other changes have lowered barriers to entry and made it possible for non-banks to offer products and services traditionally provided by banks, we also compete with fintechs seeking to disrupt conventional banking markets. In particular, the activity of fintechs has grown significantly over recent years and is expected to continue to grow. Fintechs have and may continue to offer bank or bank-like products and a number of fintechs have applied for bank or industrial loan charters. In addition, other fintechs have partnered with existing banks to allow them to offer deposit products to their customers.
We compete with these institutions both in attracting deposits and in making loans. In addition, we have to attract our customer base from other existing financial institutions and from new residents. Many of our competitors are well-established, much larger financial institutions. While we believe we can and do successfully compete with these other financial institutions, we may face a competitive disadvantage as compared to large national or regional banks as a result of our smaller size and relative lack of geographic diversification.
Although we compete by concentrating our marketing efforts in our primary market area with local advertisements, personal contacts, and greater flexibility in working with local customers, we can give no assurance that this strategy will be successful.
Nicolet continually encounters technological change, we may have fewer resources than our competition to continue to invest in technological improvements.
The banking and financial services industry is undergoing rapid technological changes, with frequent introductions of new technology-driven products and services. In addition to better serving customers, the effective use of technology increases efficiency and enables financial institutions to reduce costs. Our future success will depend, in part, upon our ability to address the needs of our customers by using technology to provide products and services that enhance customer convenience, as well as create additional efficiencies in operations. Many of our competitors have greater resources to invest in technological improvements, and we may not be able to effectively implement new technology-driven products and services, which could reduce our ability to effectively compete.
Risks Related to Ownership of Nicolet’s Common Stock
Our stock price can be volatile.
Stock price volatility may make it more difficult for you to sell your common stock when you want and at prices you find attractive. Our stock price can fluctuate widely in response to a variety of factors including, among other things:
 
actual or anticipated variations in quarterly results of operations or financial condition;
operating results and stock price performance of other companies that investors deem comparable to us;
news reports relating to trends, concerns, and other issues in the financial services industry;
perceptions in the marketplace regarding us and / or our competitors;
new technology used or services offered by competitors;
significant acquisitions or business combinations, strategic partnerships, joint ventures, or capital commitments by or involving us or our competitors;
failure to integrate acquisitions or realize anticipated benefits from acquisitions;
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changes in government regulations;
geopolitical conditions such as acts or threats of terrorism or military conflicts;
available supply and demand of investors interested in trading our common stock;
our own participation in the market through our buyback program; and
recommendations by securities analysts.
General market fluctuations, industry factors, and general economic and political conditions and events, such as economic slowdowns or recessions, interest rate changes, or credit loss trends, could also cause our stock price to decrease regardless of our operating results.
Nicolet has not historically paid dividends to our common shareholders, and we cannot guarantee that it will pay dividends to such shareholders in the future.
The holders of our common stock receive dividends if and when declared by the Nicolet board of directors out of legally available funds. Nicolet’s board of directors has not declared a dividend on the common stock since our inception in 2000. Any future determination relating to dividend policy will be made at the discretion of Nicolet’s board of directors and will depend on a number of factors, including the company’s future earnings, capital requirements, financial condition, future prospects, regulatory restrictions and other factors that the board of directors may deem relevant.
Our principal business operations are conducted through the Bank. Cash available to pay dividends to our shareholders is derived primarily, if not entirely, from dividends paid by the Bank. The ability of the Bank to pay dividends to us, as well as our ability to pay dividends to our shareholders, is subject to and limited by certain legal and regulatory restrictions, as well as contractual restrictions related to our junior subordinated debentures. Further, any lenders making loans to us may impose financial covenants that may be more restrictive than regulatory requirements with respect to the payment of dividends by us. There can be no assurance of whether or when we may pay dividends in the future.
Nicolet may need to raise additional capital in the future but that capital may not be available when it is needed or may be dilutive to our shareholders.
We are required by federal and state regulatory authorities to maintain adequate capital levels to support our operations. In order to support our growth and operations and to comply with regulatory standards, we may need to raise capital in the future. Our ability to raise additional capital will depend on conditions in the capital markets at that time, which are outside our control, and on our financial performance. Accordingly, we cannot assure you of our ability to raise additional capital, if needed, on favorable terms. The capital and credit markets have experienced significant volatility in recent years. In some cases, the markets have produced downward pressure on stock prices and credit availability for certain issuers without regard to those issuers’ underlying financial strength. If current levels of volatility worsen, our ability to raise additional capital may be disrupted. If we cannot raise additional capital when needed, our results of operations and financial condition may be adversely affected, and our banking regulators may subject us to regulatory enforcement action, including receivership. In addition, the issuance of additional shares of our equity securities will dilute the economic ownership interest of our common shareholders.
Nicolet’s directors and executive officers own a significant portion of our common stock and can influence shareholder decisions.
Our directors and executive officers, as a group, beneficially owned approximately 16% of our fully diluted issued and outstanding common stock as of December 31, 2020. As a result of their ownership, our directors and executive officers have the ability, if they voted their shares in concert, to influence the outcome of matters submitted to our shareholders for approval, including the election of directors.
Holders of Nicolet’s subordinated debentures have rights that are senior to those of its common shareholders.
We have supported our continued growth by issuing trust preferred securities and accompanying junior subordinated debentures and by assuming the trust preferred securities and accompanying junior subordinated debentures issued by companies we have acquired. As of December 31, 2020, we had outstanding trust preferred securities and associated junior subordinated debentures with an aggregate par principal amount of approximately $33.0 million and $32.1 million, respectively.
We have unconditionally guaranteed the payment of principal and interest on our trust preferred securities. Also, the junior subordinated debentures issued to the special purpose trusts that relate to those trust preferred securities are senior to our common stock. As a result, we must make payments on the junior subordinated debentures before we can pay any dividends on our common stock, and in the event of our bankruptcy, dissolution or liquidation, holders of our junior subordinated debentures must be satisfied before any distributions can be made on our common stock. We do have the right to defer distributions on our junior subordinated debentures (and related trust preferred securities) for up to five years, but during that time would not be able to pay dividends on our common stock.
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Because Nicolet is a regulated bank holding company, your ability to obtain “control” or to act in concert with others to obtain control over Nicolet without the prior consent of the Federal Reserve or other applicable bank regulatory authorities is limited and may subject you to regulatory oversight.
Nicolet is a bank holding company and, as such, is subject to significant regulation of its business and operations. In addition, under the provisions of the Bank Holding Company Act and the Change in Bank Control Act, certain regulatory provisions may become applicable to individuals or groups who are deemed by the regulatory authorities to “control” Nicolet or our subsidiary bank. The Federal Reserve and other bank regulatory authorities have very broad interpretive discretion in this regard and it is possible that the Federal Reserve or some other bank regulatory authority may, whether through a merger or through subsequent acquisition of Nicolet’s shares, deem one or more of Nicolet’s shareholders to control or to be acting in concert for purposes of gaining or exerting control over Nicolet. Such a determination may require a shareholder or group of shareholders, among other things, to make voluminous regulatory filings under the Change in Bank Control Act, including disclosure to the regulatory authorities of significant amounts of confidential personal or corporate financial information. In addition, certain groups or entities may also be required to either register as a bank holding company under the Bank Holding Company Act, becoming themselves subject to regulation by the Federal Reserve under that Act and the rules and regulations promulgated thereunder, which may include requirements to materially limit other operations or divest other business concerns, or to divest immediately their investments in Nicolet.
In addition, these limitations on the acquisition of our stock may generally serve to reduce the potential acquirers of our stock or to reduce the volume of our stock that any potential acquirer may be able to acquire. These restrictions may serve to generally limit the liquidity of our stock and, consequently, may adversely affect its value.
Nicolet’s securities are not FDIC insured.
Our securities are not savings or deposit accounts or other obligations of the Bank, and are not insured by the Deposit Insurance Fund, or any other agency or private entity and are subject to investment risk, including the possible loss of some or all of the value of your investment.
ITEM 1B. UNRESOLVED STAFF COMMENTS
None.
ITEM 2. PROPERTIES
The corporate headquarters of both the Parent Company and the Bank are located at 111 North Washington Street, Green Bay, Wisconsin. At year-end 2020, including the main office, the Bank operated 36 bank branch locations, 28 of which are owned and eight that are leased. In addition, Nicolet owns or leases other real property that, when considered in aggregate, is not significant to its financial position. Most of the offices are free-standing, newer buildings that provide adequate access, customer parking, and drive-through and/or ATM services. The properties are in good condition and considered adequate for present and near term requirements. None of the owned properties are subject to a mortgage or similar encumbrance.
One leased location involves a director, with lease terms that management considers arms-length. For additional disclosure, see Note 14, “Related Party Transactions,” of the Notes to Consolidated Financial Statements under Part II, Item 8.
ITEM 3. LEGAL PROCEEDINGS
We and our subsidiaries may be involved from time to time in various routine legal proceedings incidental to our respective businesses. Neither we nor any of our subsidiaries are currently engaged in any legal proceedings that are expected to have a material adverse effect on our results of operations or financial position.
ITEM 4. MINE SAFETY DISCLOSURES
Not applicable.
PART II
ITEM 5. MARKET FOR REGISTRANT’S COMMON EQUITY, RELATED STOCKHOLDER MATTERS AND ISSUER PURCHASES OF EQUITY SECURITIES
Nicolet registered its common stock under Section 12(b) of the Exchange Act on February 24, 2016, in connection with listing on the Nasdaq Capital Market, and trades under the symbol “NCBS”. As of February 22, 2021, Nicolet had approximately 2,200 shareholders of record.
Nicolet has not paid dividends on its common stock since its inception in 2000. Any cash dividends paid by Nicolet on its common stock must comply with applicable Federal Reserve policies described further in “Business—Regulation of Nicolet—Dividend Restrictions.” The Bank is also subject to regulatory restrictions on the amount of dividends it is permitted to pay to Nicolet as
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further described in “Business—Regulation of the Bank—Payment of Dividends” and in Note 16, “Regulatory Capital Requirements,” in the Notes to Consolidated Financial Statements under Part II, Item 8.
Following are Nicolet’s monthly common stock purchases during the fourth quarter of 2020.
Period:
Total Number 
of Shares 
Purchased (#) (a) (b)
Average Price
Paid per Share ($)
Total Number of
Shares Purchased  as
Part of Publicly
Announced Plans
or Programs (#) (b)
Maximum Number of
Shares that May  Yet
Be Purchased  Under
the Plans
or Programs (#) (a) (b)
October 1 – October 31, 2020123,759 $60.61 123,759 308,400 
November 1– November 30, 202048,608 $65.27 46,043 587,400 
December 1 – December 31, 202037,138 $68.50 35,199 552,200 
Total209,505 $63.09 205,001 552,200 
(a) During fourth quarter 2020, the Company repurchased 3,251 shares for minimum tax withholding settlements on restricted stock and repurchased 1,253 shares to satisfy the exercise price and/or tax withholding requirements of stock options, respectively. These purchases do not count against the maximum number of shares that may yet be purchased under the board of directors’ authorization.
(b) During 2014 the board of directors approved a common stock repurchase program which authorized, with subsequent modifications, the use of up to $126 million to repurchase up to 2,625,000 shares of outstanding common stock. The common stock repurchase program has no expiration date. During fourth quarter 2020, Nicolet spent $12.9 million to repurchase and cancel 205,001 shares at a weighted average price of $62.97 per share, bringing the life-to-date cumulative totals to $105.6 million to repurchase and cancel 2.1 million shares at a weighted average price of $50.92 per share. At December 31, 2020, approximately $20.4 million remained available to repurchase common shares.
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Performance Graph
The following graph shows the cumulative stockholder return on our common stock compared with the KBW NASDAQ Bank Index and the S&P 500 Index for the period of December 31, 2015 to December 31, 2020. The graph assumes the value of the investment in the Company’s common stock and in each index was $100 on December 31, 2015. Historical stock price performance shown on the graph is not necessarily indicative of the future price performance.
ncbs-20201231_g1.jpg
Period Ending
Index201520162017201820192020
Nicolet Bankshares, Inc.$100.00 $150.02 $172.19 $153.51 $232.31 $208.71 
S&P 500 Index100.00 111.96 136.40 130.42 171.49 203.04 
KBW Nasdaq Bank Index100.00 128.51 152.40 125.41 170.71 153.11 
Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence
ITEM 6. SELECTED FINANCIAL DATA
The selected consolidated financial data presented as of December 31, 2020 and 2019 and for each of the years in the three-year period ended December 31, 2020 is derived from the audited consolidated financial statements and related notes included in this report and should be read in conjunction with “Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations.” The selected consolidated financial data for all other periods shown is derived from audited consolidated financial statements that are not required to be included in this report.
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EARNINGS SUMMARY AND SELECTED FINANCIAL DATA
 At and for the years ended December 31,
(in thousands, except per share data)20202019201820172016
Results of operations:     
Interest income$149,202 $138,588 $125,537 $109,253 $75,467 
Interest expense19,864 22,510 18,889 10,511 7,334 
Net interest income129,338 116,078 106,648 98,742 68,133 
Provision for credit losses10,300 1,200 1,600 2,325 1,800 
Noninterest income62,626 53,367 39,509 34,639 26,674 
Noninterest expense100,719 96,799 89,758 81,356 64,942 
Income before income tax expense80,945 71,446 54,799 49,700 28,065 
Income tax expense20,476 16,458 13,446 16,267 9,371 
Net income60,469 54,988 41,353 33,433 18,694 
Net income attributable to noncontrolling interest347 347 317 283 232 
Net income attributable to Nicolet Bankshares, Inc.60,122 54,641 41,036 33,150 18,462 
Preferred stock dividends— — — — 633 
Net income available to common shareholders$60,122 $54,641 $41,036 $33,150 $17,829 
Earnings per common share:     
Basic$5.82 $5.71 $4.26 $3.51 $2.49 
Diluted$5.70 $5.52 $4.12 $3.33 $2.37 
Common shares:     
Basic weighted average10,337 9,562 9,640 9,440 7,158 
Diluted weighted average10,541 9,900 9,956 9,958 7,514 
Outstanding10,011 10,588 9,495 9,818 8,553 
Year-End Balances:     
Loans$2,789,101 $2,573,751 $2,166,181 $2,087,925 $1,568,907 
Allowance for credit losses - loans (“ACL-Loans”)
32,173 13,972 13,153 12,653 11,820 
Securities available for sale, at fair value539,337 449,302 400,144 405,153 365,287 
Goodwill and other intangibles, net175,353 165,967 124,307 128,406 87,938 
Total assets4,551,789 3,577,260 3,096,535 2,932,433 2,300,879 
Deposits3,910,399 2,954,453 2,614,138 2,471,064 1,969,986 
Short-term and long-term borrowings53,869 67,629 77,305 78,046 37,617 
Stockholders’ equity539,189 516,262 386,609 364,178 275,947 
Book value per common share$53.86 $48.76 $40.72 $37.09 $32.26 
Tangible book value per common share *$36.34 $33.08 $27.62 $24.01 $21.98 
Average Balances:     
Loans$2,787,587 $2,257,033 $2,127,470 $1,899,225 $1,346,304 
Interest-earning assets3,849,812 2,794,641 2,671,560 2,351,451 1,723,600 
Goodwill and other intangibles, net168,802 129,112 126,284 115,447 61,588 
Total assets4,255,207 3,126,535 2,977,457 2,648,754 1,934,770 
Deposits3,439,748 2,598,271 2,508,952 2,228,408 1,641,894 
Interest-bearing liabilities2,660,508 1,939,639 1,951,846 1,750,099 1,307,471 
Common equity527,428 423,952 371,635 332,897 217,432 
Stockholders’ equity527,428 423,952 371,635 332,897 226,265 
Financial Ratios:     
Return on average assets1.41 %1.75 %1.38 %1.25 %0.95 %
Return on average equity11.40 12.89 11.04 9.96 8.16 
Return on average common equity11.40 12.89 11.04 9.96 8.20 
Return on average tangible common equity *16.76 18.53 16.73 15.24 11.44 
Average equity to average assets12.39 13.56 12.48 12.57 11.69 
Net interest margin3.38 4.19 4.04 4.30 4.01 
Stockholders’ equity to assets11.85 14.43 12.49 12.42 11.99 
Tangible common equity to tangible assets *8.31 10.27 8.83 8.41 8.50 
Net charge-offs to average loans0.05 0.02 0.05 0.08 0.02 
Nonperforming loans to total loans0.34 0.55 0.25 0.63 1.29 
Nonperforming assets to total assets0.29 0.42 0.19 0.49 0.97 
Allowance for credit losses-loans to loans1.15 0.54 0.61 0.61 0.75 
* The ratios of tangible book value per common share, return on average tangible common equity, and tangible common equity to tangible assets exclude goodwill and other intangibles, net. These financial ratios have been included as they are considered to be critical metrics with which to analyze and evaluate financial condition and capital strength.
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ITEM 7. MANAGEMENT’S DISCUSSION AND ANALYSIS OF FINANCIAL CONDITION AND RESULTS OF OPERATIONS
The following discussion is management’s analysis to assist in the understanding and evaluation of the consolidated financial condition and results of operations of Nicolet. It should be read in conjunction with the consolidated financial statements and footnotes and the selected financial data presented elsewhere in this report.
Evaluation of financial performance and certain balance sheet line items was impacted by the timing and size of Nicolet's acquisitions, Choice Bancorp, Inc. (“Choice”) on November 8, 2019, at 12% of Nicolet’s then pre-merger asset size, and Advantage Community Bancshares, Inc. (“Advantage”) on August 21, 2020, at 4% of Nicolet’s then pre-merger asset size. Certain income statement results, average balances and related ratios for 2020 include full contribution from Choice and a partial contribution from Advantage, while 2019 includes partial contribution from Choice and no contribution from Advantage. At consummation, Choice added $457 million in assets, loans of $348 million, deposits of $289 million, core deposit intangible of $1.7 million, goodwill of $45 million, and one net new branch. At consummation, Advantage added $172 million in assets, loans of $88 million, deposits of $141 million, core deposit intangible of $1 million, goodwill of $12 million, and four branches.
The detailed financial discussion that follows focuses on 2020 results compared to 2019. See “2019 Compared to 2018” for the summary comparing 2019 and 2018 results. Some tabular information is shown for trends of three years or for five years as required under SEC regulations.
Overview
Nicolet provides a diversified range of traditional commercial and retail banking services, as well as wealth management services, to individuals, business owners, and businesses in its market area primarily through, as of year-end 2020, the 36 bank branch offices of its banking subsidiary, located in northeast and central Wisconsin and Menominee, Michigan.
The 2020 year was marked by significant events (health pandemic, large sudden rate drop by the Federal Reserve, unprecedented government stimulus, political changes and social issues, and other market and economic disruptions), volatility, and uncertainty, that turned 2020 into a very tactical year for Nicolet management. Management took several actions to respond: added $0.2 billion of liquidity (which later proved to not be necessary, leading to a reduction in non-deposit leverage in the second half of the year), temporarily (and later permanently) closed 8 branches, provided temporary relief to customers through loan payment modifications on nearly 1,000 loans (with only a fraction remaining on modified terms at year end), dramatically elevated the credit loss provision given pervading uncertainty (though slowed the provision in fourth quarter as potential deterioration of loan quality metrics initially anticipated had not materialized), channeled significant resources to originate PPP loans (peaking at 2,725 loans totaling $351 million during 2020) and residential mortgages (over $1 billion originated to consumers under atypical conditions), granted $1.25 million of aid to expedite funds to smaller businesses who would have otherwise waited for small PPP loans, kept people safe (with $0.6 million of expense in second quarter for onsite-bonuses, testing and protective supplies), and prioritized full return to on-site work by June to allow us to move forward on goals and improvements (with offsite workforce peaking at 52%, comprised of 34% remote and 18% paid to stay home and not work due to risk concerns or location closure). During 2020, we still executed on our acquisition strategy, completing the all-cash acquisition of Advantage. While we announced a merger agreement with a $0.7 billion bank in February 2020, we exercised discipline, mutually terminating that deal in May 2020, (given the level of uncertainty and pricing in the significantly depressed market that made the transaction unlikely to close) and incurred a $0.5 million charge. Nicolet has used acquisitions as part of its growth strategy over the past few years and has successfully integrated and realized cost efficiencies related to scale quickly after each acquisition.
In 2020, despite the turbulent year and through the many actions noted above, Nicolet delivered on growth, profitability, capital positioning, and sound asset quality management.  At December 31, 2020, Nicolet had total assets of $4.6 billion, loans of $2.8 billion, deposits of $3.9 billion and stockholders’ equity of $539 million, representing increases over December 31, 2019 of 27%, 8%, 32% and 4%, in assets, loans, deposits and total equity, respectively, largely due to the significant increase in liquidity, and only partly due to the Advantage acquisition. At December 31, 2020, cash and cash equivalents grew significantly, up $0.6 billion to $0.8 billion or 18% of assets (compared to $0.2 billion or 5% of assets at year end 2019), while loans increased $0.2 billion and investments grew $0.1 billion, funded by the surge in deposits (up $956 million) over year end 2019. Asset quality remained sound, with nonperforming assets to assets of 0.29% at December 31, 2020 (down from 0.42% at year-end 2019), as the borrowing base has largely remained resilient, profitable and liquid in the uncertain times. The allowance for credit losses-loans grew to $32.2 million (1.15% of loans, or 1.24% of loans excluding PPP loans) compared to $14.0 million or 0.54% of loans at December 31, 2019. The large increase in the allowance resulted from the $10.3 million provision exceeding $1.4 million of net charge-offs (or 0.05% of average loans), and a $9.3 million addition upon adoption of the current expected credit losses (“CECL”) model. Nicolet repurchased approximately 646,700 shares of common stock for $40.5 million in 2020 under its common stock repurchase program, given the opportunity of a depressed market.  At December 31, 2020 there remained $20.4 million authorized under the repurchase program, as modified. With total stockholders’ equity to assets of 11.85% at year-end 2020, Nicolet has capacity to act on targets of interest in relevant or growth markets that provide a path to or support our position as the lead-local community bank.
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For 2020, net income was record-breaking at $60.1 million (10% higher than $54.6 million for 2019), and return on average assets was 1.41% (compared to 1.75% for 2019), with 2020 impacted by the sizable increase in average assets (mainly cash). Diluted earnings per common share for 2020 was $5.70 (3% higher than 2019), benefiting from the stronger net income, while covering a 6% increase in average diluted shares, mostly due to the timing of the 1.2 million shares issued in the Choice acquisition net of strong repurchase activity throughout 2020 (totaling 0.6 million shares). Notably, second quarter 2020 net income unfavorably included $4 million of isolated expenses ($3 million after tax) related to the onset of the pandemic, a terminated acquisition and branch closure decisions. During second quarter 2019, net income favorably included $5.4 million (or $0.55 of diluted earnings per share) related to two one-time actions combined, the sale of 80% of Nicolet's equity investment in a data processing entity ($7.4 million after-tax gain) and $2.75 million retirement-related compensation declared to benefit all employees after that sale ($2.0 million after-tax cost).
Net income before taxes for 2020 was $80.9 million ($9.5 million or 13% higher than 2019), predominantly due to increased net interest income (up $13 million or 11% aided mainly on higher volumes, despite an 81bps decline in net interest margin between the years, dominated by the very high proportion of low-earning cash in total interest-earning assets), record net mortgage income (at $30 million versus $12 million in 2019) and strong wealth revenues (up $2 million or 13%), which more than covered a $10 million negative swing in net asset gains or losses (at $2 million net loss for 2020 versus $8 million net gain for 2019), higher credit loss provision (up $9 million) and a $4 million or 4% increase in overall expenses, evidencing diligent expense management and improved efficiencies in a difficult year.
For 2021, Nicolet’s focus will return to its long-term strategies, especially M&A, as we believe such opportunities have grown in light of industry stress, and we have remained well-positioned to capitalize on it through a solid core franchise, strong asset quality, and an experienced team. That said, when evaluating transactions, quantitative and qualitative factors need to make sense in combination with each other, including but not limited to the economics of the transaction, cultural and strategic fit, geographic and business line relevance, and current or potential talent. We will remain committed on driving growth in core earnings through our expanded customer base. Our objective is to achieve solid organic growth in loans, core deposits, wealth management services and other revenue lines within all our markets, in a cost-effective, profitable manner to sustain a healthy return on average assets. We plan to remain active on-site as a differentiator to many of our competitors, remain adaptable for our customers in the continuing uncertainty, and deliver on our long-term leadership succession plans. Additional resources are planned in 2021 for furthering automation and data analysis (to enhance customer experiences and company efficiencies and decision-making), for personnel expenses (in support of deepening talent and leadership in light of growth and succession needs), and for capital management (to balance safety and opportunity for the long-term). While Nicolet believes delivering strong earnings, return on assets, and disciplined capital management aligned with growth will provide upward pressure on our common stock performance throughout the year, ongoing uncertainties remain for 2021 across many environments (health, social, political and economic), which will likely heighten potential challenges for the year.
INCOME STATEMENT ANALYSIS
Net Interest Income
Net interest income is the primary source of Nicolet’s revenue, and is the difference between interest income on earning assets, such as loans and investment securities, and interest expense on interest-bearing liabilities, such as deposits and other borrowings. Net interest income is directly impacted by the sensitivity of the balance sheet to changes in interest rates and by the amount, mix and composition of interest-earning assets and interest-bearing liabilities, including characteristics such as the fixed or variable nature of the financial instruments, contractual maturities, and repricing frequencies. Tax-equivalent net interest income is a non-GAAP measure, but is a preferred industry measurement of net interest income (and is used in calculating a net interest margin) as it enhances the comparability of net interest income arising from taxable and tax-exempt sources. Tables 1, 2, and 3 present information to facilitate the review and discussion of selected average balance sheet items, tax-equivalent net interest income, interest rate spread, and net interest margin.
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Table 1: Average Balance Sheet and Net Interest Income Analysis - Tax-Equivalent Basis
 Years Ended December 31,
(in thousands)202020192018
 Average
Balance
InterestAverage
Yield/Rate
Average
Balance
InterestAverage
Yield/Rate
Average
Balance
InterestAverage
Yield/Rate
ASSETS         
Interest-earning assets         
PPP Loans$220,544 $8,062 3.66 %$— $— — %$— $— — %
Commercial-based loans ex PPP2,088,149 105,643 5.06 %1,802,747 101,509 5.63 %1,657,207 91,349 5.51 %
Retail-based loans478,894 22,776 4.76 %454,286 24,206 5.33 %470,263 22,791 4.85 %
   Total loans, including loan fees (1)(2)
2,787,587 136,481 4.90 %2,257,033 125,715 5.57 %2,127,470 114,140 5.37 %
Investment securities:
   Taxable354,430 8,118 2.29 %276,742 7,584 2.74 %261,107 6,068 2.32 %
   Tax-exempt (2)
135,779 2,961 2.18 %132,419 2,927 2.21 %149,900 3,259 2.17 %
      Total investment securities490,209 11,079 2.26 %409,161 10,511 2.57 %411,007 9,327 2.27 %
Other interest-earning assets572,016 2,611 0.46 %128,447 3,405 2.65 %133,083 3,220 2.42 %
   Total non-loan earning assets1,062,225 13,690 1.29 %537,608 13,916 2.59 %544,090 12,547 2.31 %
   Total interest-earning assets3,849,812 $150,171 3.90 %2,794,641 $139,631 5.00 %2,671,560 $126,687 4.74 %
Other assets, net405,395 331,894 305,897 
Total assets$4,255,207 $3,126,535 $2,977,457 
LIABILITIES AND STOCKHOLDERS’ EQUITY    
Interest-bearing liabilities      
Savings$422,171 $700 0.17 %$318,525 $1,528 0.48 %$285,777 $1,181 0.41 %
Interest-bearing demand562,370 3,938 0.70 %486,139 4,852 1.00 %524,924 4,530 0.86 %
Money market accounts (“MMA”)749,877 1,502 0.20 %582,646 3,676 0.63 %634,947 3,926 0.62 %
Core time deposits390,216 6,023 1.54 %402,141 8,136 2.02 %337,100 5,266 1.56 %
   Total interest-bearing core deposits2,124,634 12,163 0.57 %1,789,451 18,192 1.02 %1,782,748 14,903 0.84 %
Brokered deposits289,489 4,478 1.55 %75,159 773 1.03 %91,379 517 0.57 %
   Total interest-bearing deposits2,414,123 16,641 0.69 %1,864,610 18,965 1.02 %1,874,127 15,420 0.82 %
PPPLF161,634 571 0.35 %— — — %— — — %
Other interest-bearing liabilities84,751 2,652 3.13 %75,029 3,545 4.72 %77,719 3,469 4.46 %
   Total wholesale funding246,385 3,223 1.31 %75,029 3,545 4.72 %77,719 3,469 4.46 %
   Total interest-bearing liabilities2,660,508 19,864 0.75 %1,939,639 22,510 1.16 %1,951,846 18,889 0.97 %
Noninterest-bearing demand deposits1,025,625  733,661  634,825  
Other liabilities41,646  29,283  19,151  
Stockholders’ equity527,428  423,952  371,635  
Total liabilities and stockholders’ equity$4,255,207  $3,126,535  $2,977,457  
Tax-equivalent net interest income and rate spread $130,307 3.15 % $117,121 3.84 % $107,798 3.77 %
Tax-equivalent adjustment and net free funds969 0.23 %1,043 0.35 %1,150 0.27 %
Net interest income and net interest margin $129,338 3.38 % $116,078 4.19 % $106,648 4.04 %
Selected Additional Information:
Total loans ex PPP$2,567,043 $128,419 5.00 %$2,257,033 $125,715 5.57 %$2,127,470 $114,140 5.37 %
Total interest-earning assets ex PPP3,629,268 142,109 3.92 %2,794,641 139,631 5.00 %2,671,560 126,687 4.74 %
Total interest-bearing liabilities ex PPPLF2,498,874 19,293 0.77 %1,939,639 22,510 1.16 %1,951,846 18,889 0.97 %
Net interest rate spread ex PPP & PPPLF3.15 %3.84 %3.77 %
(1)Nonaccrual loans and loans held for sale are included in the daily average loan balances outstanding.
(2)The yield on tax-exempt loans and tax-exempt investment securities is computed on a tax-equivalent basis using a federal tax rate of 21% and adjusted for the disallowance of interest expense.
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Table 2: Volume/Rate Variance - Tax-Equivalent Basis
(in thousands)
2020 Compared to 2019
Increase (Decrease) Due to Changes in
2019 Compared to 2018
Increase (Decrease) Due to Changes in
 VolumeRate
Net (1)
VolumeRate
Net (1)
Interest-earning assets      
PPP Loans$8,062 $— $8,062 $— $— $— 
Commercial-based loans ex PPP18,251 (14,117)4,134 7,114 3,046 10,160 
Retail-based loans1,300 (2,730)(1,430)233 1,182 1,415 
   Total loans, including loan fees (2) (3)
27,613 (16,847)10,766 7,347 4,228 11,575 
Investment securities:
   Taxable1,175 (641)534 638 878 1,516 
   Tax-exempt (3)
74 (40)34 (385)53 (332)
      Total investment securities1,249 (681)568 253 931 1,184 
Other interest-earning assets2,894 (3,688)(794)(33)218 185 
  Total non-loan earning assets4,143 (4,369)(226)220 1,149 1,369 
Total interest-earning assets$31,756 $(21,216)$10,540 $7,567 $5,377 $12,944 
Interest-bearing liabilities      
Savings$389 $(1,217)$(828)$145 $202 $347 
Interest-bearing demand683 (1,597)(914)(352)674 322 
MMA842 (3,016)(2,174)(329)79 (250)
Core time deposits(235)(1,878)(2,113)1,134 1,736 2,870 
   Total interest-bearing core deposits1,679 (7,708)(6,029)598 2,691 3,289 
Brokered deposits3,148 557 3,705 (105)361 256 
   Total interest-bearing deposits4,827 (7,151)(2,324)493 3,052 3,545 
PPPLF571 — 571 — — — 
Other interest-bearing liabilities37 (930)(893)(32)108 76 
   Total wholesale funding608 (930)(322)(32)108 76 
Total interest-bearing liabilities5,435 (8,081)(2,646)461 3,160 3,621 
Net interest income$26,321 $(13,135)$13,186 $7,106 $2,217 $9,323 
(1)The change in interest due to both rate and volume has been allocated in proportion to the relationship of dollar amounts of change in each.
(2)Nonaccrual loans and loans held for sale are included in the daily average loan balances outstanding.
(3)The yield on tax-exempt loans and tax-exempt investment securities is computed on a tax-equivalent basis using a federal tax rate of 21% and adjusted for the disallowance of interest expense.
Table 3: Interest Rate Spread, Margin and Average Balance Mix - Tax-Equivalent Basis
 Years Ended December 31,
(in thousands)
2020 Average
2019 Average
2018 Average
 Balance% of
Earning
Assets
Yield/RateBalance% of
Earning
Assets
Yield/RateBalance% of
Earning
Assets
Yield/Rate
Loans$2,787,587 72 %4.90 %$2,257,033 81 %5.57 %$2,127,470 80 %5.37 %
Non-loan earning assets1,062,225 28 %1.29 %537,608 19 %2.59 %544,090 20 %2.31 %
Total interest-earning assets$3,849,812 100 %3.90 %$2,794,641 100 %5.00 %$2,671,560 100 %4.74 %
Interest-bearing liabilities$2,660,508 69 %0.75 %$1,939,639 69 %1.16 %$1,951,846 73 %0.97 %
Noninterest-bearing funds, net1,189,304 31 %855,002 31 %719,714 27 %
Total funds sources$3,849,812 100 %0.54 %$2,794,641 100 %0.84 %$2,671,560 100 %0.73 %
Interest rate spread3.15 %3.84 %3.77 %
Contribution from net free funds0.23 %0.35 %0.27 %
Net interest margin3.38 %4.19 %4.04 %
Comparison of 2020 versus 2019
Net interest income was up 11% over 2019, despite an 81 bps decline in net interest margin. Overall asset volumes increased net interest income while the mix of interest-earning assets (particularly the very high cash levels) squeezed the related net interest margin. In general, the lower interest rate environment pressured both net interest income and net interest margin.
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The interest rate environment experienced dramatic change in 2020. Prior to the pandemic, the Federal Reserve steadily raised short-term interest rates during 2017 and 2018 in support of a growing economy (up 175 bps total to 2.50% at December 31, 2018), and then reduced rates by 75 bps in three moves during the second half of 2019 (to 1.75% at December 31, 2019) largely responding to global issues and slowing growth, which contributed to a flattened yield curve with periods of inversion. In response to the pandemic in March 2020, the Federal Reserve dropped short-term rates by 150 bps (to 25 bps at March 31, 2020) in two emergency moves, which brought slope back into the yield curve, though still fairly flat. Comparatively, short-term rates were 150 bps lower at December 31, 2020 than at December 31, 2019. While the following paragraphs will discuss the comparison of 2020 and 2019, we expect that the pandemic impacts will continue to evolve and pressure future quarters even further, including continued margin pressure in the low rate environment and potential unusual loan or deposit volume or pricing impacts.
At the onset of the pandemic, but prior to the announcement of government stimulus, we added liquidity to ensure we could meet customer needs. The action demonstrated our capacity to support our communities, but proved later to not be necessary, leading us to reduce non-deposit leverage in the second half of 2020. Efforts to minimize pressure on net interest income during the changes throughout 2020 included prudent pricing actions on deposits and loans, allowing brokered deposits to mature without renewal, prepayment of selected FHLB advances, and full payback of the PPPLF funding (approximately $335 million used for 5 months at a cost of 35 bps). In addition, we fully redeemed our subordinated notes ($12 million at 5% fixed) in November 2020 and one of our junior subordinated debenture issuances ($6 million at 8% fixed) in December 2020, which combined will reduce annual interest expense by approximately $1.1 million going forward.
Tax-equivalent net interest income was $130.3 million for 2020, up $13.2 million (11%), compared to 2019, comprised of net interest income of $129.3 million ($13.3 million or 11% higher than 2019) and a $1.0 million tax-equivalent adjustment (down nearly $0.1 million between the years). The $13.2 million increase in tax-equivalent net interest income was comprised of $10.6 million higher interest income and $2.6 million lower interest expense. Higher volumes added $26.3 million to net interest income, including a $31.8 million increase to interest income on higher interest-earning assets (mostly from higher loan volumes, due to the inclusion of loans acquired with Choice and Advantage, as well as PPP loans), offset partly by a $5.4 million increase to interest expense on higher interest-bearing liabilities (mostly from higher deposit volumes also related to the inclusion of Choice and Advantage, as well as overall deposit growth from increased liquidity of consumers and businesses). Rate changes reduced net interest income $13.1 million, comprised of $21.2 million lower interest income (with $16.8 million was from lower rates on loans and $3.7 million from the dramatically reduced cash rate earned), but also lower interest expense on funding of $8.1 million (including $7.7 million savings from non-brokered interest-bearing core deposits and $0.9 million savings from wholesale funding, partly offset by $0.6 million more interest expense from term brokered deposits).
The interest rate spread decreased 69 bps between the periods, as the interest-earning asset yield decreased 110 bps to 3.90% and the cost of funds declined favorably 41 bps to 0.75%. The significantly higher mix of cash assets (to 15% of interest-earning assets versus 4% in 2019) combined with their dramatic decline in yield (to 0.46% versus 2.65% in 2019), has pressured the net interest margin most. Loans yielded 4.90% for 2020, down 67 bps from 2019, in part from the inclusion of lower-earning PPP loans (yielding 3.66%) in 2020, while all other loans earned 5.00%, down 57 bps from 2019. Investments yielded 2.26%, 31 bps lower than 2019. The 41 bps favorable decline in the 2020 cost of funds was primarily attributable to prudent pricing actions on core interest-bearing deposits (down 45 bps to 0.57%) and lower wholesale funding rates (down 159 bps to 3.13% for funding costs excluding PPPLF), offset partly by higher-costing brokered deposits (acquired with the Choice acquisition and procured with the March-April 2020 liquidity actions under competitive conditions). The contribution from net free funds decreased 12 bps, due mostly to the reduced value in the lower interest rate environment, though offset partly by the increase in average net free funds (largely from average noninterest-bearing demand deposits and stockholders' equity) between the years. As a result, the net interest margin was 3.38% for 2020, down 81 bps compared to 4.19% for 2019.
Average interest-earning assets were $3.8 billion for 2020, $1.1 billion (38%) higher than 2019, primarily due to the timing of the acquisitions (Choice in November 2019 and Advantage in August 2020), addition of PPP loans (beginning in second quarter 2020), and significantly higher cash starting in second quarter 2020. Average loans increased $531 million (24%) to $2.8 billion (which includes $348 million of Choice loans at acquisition, $88 million of Advantage loans at acquisition, and $186 million of net PPP loans at December 31, 2020), investments increased $81 million, and other interest-earning assets (which are predominantly cash) increased $444 million. The mix of average interest-earning assets shifted to lower-yielding assets, at 72% loans (comprised of 6% PPP loans and 66% all other loans), 13% investments, and 15% other interest-earning assets (mostly cash) for 2020, compared to 81%, 15%, and 4%, respectively, for 2019.
Tax-equivalent interest income was $150.2 million, up $10.5 million (8%) over 2019, while the related interest-earning asset yield decreased 110 bps to 3.90%. Interest income on loans increased $10.8 million (9%) over 2019, aided by strong volumes, including the Choice and Advantage acquisitions, as well as PPP loans. The 2020 loan yield was 4.90%, down 67 bps from 2019, largely from the significantly lower interest rate environment impacting yields on new, renewed, and variable rate loans, as well as from inclusion of PPP loans at a 3.66% yield. Between the years, interest income on non-loan earning assets combined decreased $0.2
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million to $13.7 million, impacted by a 130 bps decline in the yield (to 1.29%) in the lower rate environment, partially offset by higher average volumes (up 98%) from the significantly higher cash.
Average interest-bearing liabilities were $2.7 billion for 2020, an increase of $721 million (37%) from 2019, primarily due to the timing of the acquisitions (Choice in November 2019 and Advantage in August 2020), as well as the significant increase in deposits from government stimulus activities and deposited PPP loan proceeds. Average core interest-bearing deposits increased $335 million, brokered deposits grew $214 million, and funding increased $171 million (mostly PPPLF funding). The mix of average interest-bearing liabilities was 80% core deposits, 11% brokered deposits, and 9% other funding for 2020, compared to 92% core deposits, 4% brokered deposits, and 4% other funding in 2019, with the mix changes (especially increased money markets and brokered deposits) influenced by the composition of the $289 million of Choice deposits acquired, and the procurement of brokered deposits in March-April 2020 as part of previously discussed liquidity actions.
Interest expense was $20 million for 2020, down $3 million (12%) from 2019, on larger average interest-bearing liabilities volumes (up 37% to $2.7 billion) but at a lower overall cost (down 41 bps to 0.75%). Interest expense on deposits decreased $2.3 million from 2019 given 29% higher average interest-bearing deposit balances, but at a lower cost (down 33 bps to 0.69%). The 2020 cost of savings, interest-bearing demand, money market accounts, and core time deposits decreased from 2019 by 31 bps, 30 bps, 43 bps, and 48 bps, respectively, as product rate changes were made in the lower interest rate environment, and brokered deposits cost 52 bps more than 2019 largely from higher-costing term brokered funds acquired with the Choice acquisition in November 2019 and procured during March-April 2020 under competitive conditions as part of previously discussed liquidity actions. Interest expense on other interest-bearing liabilities decreased $0.3 million (9%), as additional interest expense on higher average balances (up $171 million) was substantially offset by lower rates (down 341 bps to 1.31%), mostly impacted by the inclusion of the low-costing PPPLF (average balance of $162 million for 2020 at a 0.35% rate), and variable rate debt repricing and maturing advances replaced in the lower rate environment.
Provision for Credit Losses
The provision for credit losses in 2020 was $10.3 million, exceeding $1.4 million of net charge-offs. Comparatively, 2019 provision for credit losses and net charge-offs were $1.2 million and $0.4 million, respectively. The increase in the provision for credit losses between the years was largely due to the unprecedented economic disruptions and uncertainty surrounding the COVID pandemic, and to a lesser extent, to the acquisition of Advantage.
The provision for credit losses is predominantly a function of Nicolet’s methodology and judgment as to qualitative and quantitative factors used to determine the appropriateness of the ACL-Loans. The appropriateness of the ACL-Loans is affected by changes in the size and character of the loan portfolio, changes in levels of collateral-dependent and other nonperforming loans, historical losses and delinquencies in each portfolio segment, the risk inherent in specific loans, concentrations of loans to specific borrowers or industries, existing and future economic conditions, the fair value of underlying collateral, and other factors which could affect potential credit losses. For additional information regarding asset quality and the ACL-Loans, see “BALANCE SHEET ANALYSIS — Loans,” and “— Allowance for Credit Losses - Loans” and “—Nonperforming Assets.”

Noninterest Income
Table 4: Noninterest Income
(in thousands)Years Ended December 31,Change From Prior Year
 202020192018
$ Change
2020
% Change
2020
$ Change
2019
% Change
2019
Trust services fee income$6,463 $6,227 $6,498 $236 %$(271)(4)%
Brokerage fee income9,753 8,115 7,042 1,638 20 %1,073 15 %
Mortgage income, net29,807