Trailblazer: LaVonne Nicolai

LaVonne Nicolai and her husband, Dan, started Dakota City, a historical village modeled after the first town in Farmington, Minn. It features 22 buildings, including this general store. Photo by Steve Woit

She’s been breaking glass ceilings for decades, but LaVonne Nicolai, vice president of Minnesota’s century-old Castle Rock Bank, would be the last person to mention it.

By Roshan McArthur

Name: Castle Rock Bank
Assets: $201 million
Locations: Castle Rock and Farmington, Minn.

LaVonne Nicolai got her start in banking when she returned from her honeymoon. Her new husband, Dan Nicolai, was already a major stockholder in First State Bank of Castle Rock in Minnesota. On the newlyweds’ return, Dan’s partner decided he wanted out of the banking business. “We had two options,” LaVonne Nicolai recalls. “We could either buy him out, or he could sell his shares to someone else. So we chose to take out a loan and purchase his stock. That’s how I got in the banking business.”

That was in 1962. Nicolai started helping out at the bank (now known as Castle Rock Bank), and by 1971 she had become its vice president. At the time, there were very few women in her position. When asked if she faced any challenges, Nicolai responds that if there was a challenge, it was “self-inflicted.”

“And [it was] that I tried to do all things for all people,” she laughs. “It was a busy time. I was working, I was homemaking, I was co-parenting our two sons, I was volunteering in the community and I became the president of the [Farmington Area Chamber of Commerce].”

Quick stat


Federal and state laws LaVonne Nicolai has helped change to give farmers better access to loans

However, she says came across very little gender bias. “I have to say that I never in those days felt that I was discriminated against because I was a woman,” she says. “And the reason is that we were in a farming community, where the husbands and wives form partnerships. In order to be in agriculture back then, the women were equal partners.”

Nicolai went on to become the first woman on the Agriculture Committee for Independent Bankers (at the state and national level) and the first woman director of the Rural Finance Authority for the state of Minnesota. She has served on the Inver Hills Community College Advisory Committee and is on the University of Minnesota Rosemont Research Board.

Having grown up on a farm in nearby Denmark Township, Nicolai is passionate about the role American farmers play in feeding humanity. Through the Rural Finance Authority, she was able to change legislation (23 state and three federal laws, to be precise) to make it easier for farmers to get loans.

“Things went well from the very beginning for me,” she recalls of a career that has spanned 56 years so far. “All those people were very respectful of my ideas, and I did not experience problems that women have in other workplaces. In life, we all have challenges, so we just have to take it one step at a time.”

LaVonne Nicolai and her husband, Dan Nicolai

For the benefit of all

The Nicolai family has a simple North Star: The bank operates for the benefit of the community. As a result, they can be found serving hot dogs to children from the local charter school at the May Day parade in Castle Rock and dishing up ice cream at Dakota City, the local heritage village they helped build.

“I was given the opportunity to be a leader, and I was successful at it. But the reason I was successful was because, in all humility, I tried to do the best I could for the people in my community.”
—LaVonne Nicolai, Castle Rock Bank

Every Christmas, $201 million-asset Castle Rock Bank donates teddy bears (dressed up by the customers) to children in need. In 2014, the bank helped a local Cambodian Buddhist society bring a 4.5-ton jade Buddha to its temple. And the Nicolai family has supported numerous local businesses through character loans and schoolchildren through scholarships. But perhaps closest to the family’s heart is 360 Communities, a local group that helps survivors of domestic violence. Dan helped set up a battered women’s shelter, and served on its board for several years. Nicolai says the highlight of her career was the 2016 Community Caring Award she and Dan received in recognition of their work to end domestic and sexual violence. “Our customers and our staff are our friends, and we do all we can in our power to accommodate them,” she explains. “I was given the opportunity to be a leader, and I was successful at it. But the reason I was successful was because, in all humility, I tried to do the best I could for the people in my community.”

Good advice

Asked what her advice would be to other women in (or seeking) leaderships roles, Nicolai considers her response carefully. “Number one,” she says, “be respectful of your mind, body and soul. You have to take care of yourself first before you can take care of others. And then, be trustworthy, patient, compassionate and caring toward your fellow man. Lastly, embrace change, and give it all your best shot, with a peaceful heart.”

In business, Nicolai advocates finding common ground where possible, building goodwill and eliciting compromise to arrive at equitable solutions. “For myself,” she adds, “I try to be peace-filled, patient, kind, loving, grateful, authentic, altruistic, trustworthy and in spirit. And I have those in my billfold!”

The Dakota City heritage village

The Nicolais donated funds to decorate Dakota City’s bandstand.

Just after they were married, Dan and LaVonne Nicolai started moving a 19th-century church across town to the Dakota County Fairgrounds. Historical buildings in the county were threatened with demolition, and the couple felt it was crucial to preserve them for future generations.

Today, there are 22 buildings on the site, which is now called Dakota City (after the first town in Farmington), including a school, grocery store, post office, millinery shop and two houses, with artifacts from the same period. There’s even an old brick bank, which Minnesota-based Vermillion Bank donated and brought in (brick by brick) when it was building new premises.

Dakota City is open to the public and hosts events that teach visitors about what rural life in Minnesota was like more than a century ago. “The first two weekends of December, we have an old-fashioned Christmas,” says LaVonne Nicolai. “Castle Rock Bank decorates the bandstand, and other people decorate the rest of the buildings. It’s a wonderful festival for children to see how we bring the past present for future generations.”

Roshan McArthur is a writer in California.