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Family-owned banks place emphasis on customer service, community involvement

Laura Warne is president of Home State Bank, based in Willmar. B2B photo by Ron Adams

As a sixth grader, Cara Mulder started working at PrinsBank in Prinsburg, scanning microfilm and doing other menial tasks. Years later, Cara now serves as vice president of the same bank, under her father and bank president Mike Mulder.

Her brother, Kevin Mulder, also serves as vice president, and a third sibling, Lisa Mulder, does administrative work at the bank.

The Mulder family has been a part of PrinsBank since 1972, when Mike Mulder started there as a teller. In 1978, he purchased shares in the bank and became president at the age of 27.

“There were only two other employees in the bank at the time,” he said. “It was so much different back then. Then when the market expanded, it brought us more opportunities.”

One of those opportunities came nearly 10 years after Mulder became president. In 1987, PrinsBank began purchasing loans from other financial institutions. Today, it continues to be an active loan buyer while also providing loan servicing for other investment groups nationwide. In the last 27 years, PrinsBank has purchased thousands of these loans in every state in the country.

The main focus of PrinsBank, however, continues to be the traditional banking services it provides to customers at its Prinsburg and Champlin branches.

“The purpose of the bank is to serve the customers here in this area,” Cara Mulder said. “That’s our primary focus, to be a traditional bank for those two communities.”

These traditional, family-owned community banks have a strong presence in west central Minnesota, particularly in rural communities. In Atwater, Harvest Bank has been owned by the same family for more than 50 years. Today, Bob Meyerson serves as chairman of the second-generation bank, as well as chairman of Cattail Bancshares Inc.

Meyerson married into the business. His wife, Sue Meyerson, inherited the bank from her parents, Tom and Ruth Danielson, in 1984. Bob Meyerson later became president in 1998.

These days, the $130 million bank offers its customers nearly every standard bank service. Between the bank’s four communities of Atwater, Kandiyohi, St. Augusta and Kimball, the bank employs around 40 full- and part-time employees. Because each branch operates in a small community, it has a strong presence in those towns, Meyerson said.

“In each community, we’re very involved and active,” he said. “In smaller towns, the bank is usually one of the major businesses in town.”

But these family-owned community banks don’t only exist in small towns. In Willmar, several community banks are family-owned. Home State Bank, for example, has been owned by the same family since 1971. Now a second-generation bank, Laura Warne took over as president in 1998, following in the footsteps of her father, Ken Behm.

Warne’s husband, Dion Warne, and her brother, Matt Behm, both serve as senior vice presidents of the bank. Dion Warne manages commercial lending, while Behm oversees real estate lending.

Today, the $140 million bank has five branch locations in Willmar, Cosmos, Litchfield and two in Hutchinson. Home State Bank started expanding east in the early 2000s, when it became clear that those locations would reap more benefits in the long run.

“Both Litchfield and Hutchinson are county seats,” Warne said. “If you look at population trends, western Minnesota is not gaining population. It’s aging. From a demographic and economic standpoint, it made sense to gravitate toward the east.”

Even operating in the larger markets of Willmar and Hutchinson, Home State Bank makes it a priority to focus on growing relationships with its customers, Warne said.

“Our goal is that from the moment you walk in the door, somebody acknowledges you are here and takes an interest in why you’re here,” she said. “We try to create an environment where customers feel acknowledged and recognized.”

That relationship building also goes a long way at PrinsBank, not only in its Prinsburg location but also in its larger Champlin branch.

“There’s still a need for that relationship-type banking,” Mike Mulder said. “That’s what we’ve discovered. People still want to be treated well and know that we will take the time to get to know them. I think that’s universal, whether it’s in a small community or a large metropolitan area.”

Those personal relationships with customers go a long way in helping community banks stay competitive with larger corporate banks. However, with the rise of technology in recent years, all banks have seen their lobby traffic decline, particularly because of online and mobile banking. This has been especially detrimental to community banks.

“It’s a catch-22, because to remain competitive you have to offer those products and support them,” Warne said. “Yet you try to find ways to stay connected with those customers, whether it’s by redesigning your website or sending messages on mobile banking.”

Another way that community banks can compete is by having an active presence in their communities. As head of Harvest Bank, for example, Meyerson makes civic engagement and volunteerism in each of the bank’s communities a priority. He regularly gives blood in Atwater, serves in the Lions Club and takes part in various town festivals and celebrations, particularly on summer weekends.

One Saturday a month, Meyerson even works at the St. Augusta branch as a receptionist, allowing him to visit with employees and customers one-on-one.

“I enjoy doing that,” he said. “It gives me a chance to talk to customers and whoever’s working that day. It allows me to see what’s going on.”

Warne also makes having a strong presence in Home State Bank’s communities a priority, she said. She grew up in Willmar and has strong ties in this area, though she didn’t always know if she would return one day to run the bank. Her parents never pressured her into that role, she said.

“There was never any expectation that myself or my two siblings would come back to run the bank,” she said. “In 1993, a lender retired that created an opportunity for Dion and me to talk to my parents about moving back.”

Laura and Dion Warne now have four children of their own, and Behm also has an 11-year-old son. As these children grow up and choose their careers, Warne says that banking will always be an option for them, but never an expectation.

“I would never want to place that expectation on any of my children to come back here,” she said. “However, if their path involves banking and it’s a good business decision, the family would certainly love to support that.”

Cara and Kevin Mulder said their father had the same attitude when raising them: Working at PrinsBank, or even in the banking industry at all, was never forced on them. Still, when the opportunity presented itself, both siblings were excited to bring their skills to the bank and work together with their father.  

“I really enjoy working with my family,” Kevin Mulder said. “We have a good dynamic and it works really well for us.”

Ashley White

Ashley White is the community content coordinator for the West Central Tribune. Follow her on Twitter @Ashley_WCT.

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