The community bank in St. Cloud, Minn., has cultivated a culture that combines creativity and hard work. The result is an award-winning workplace that fosters growth for both employees and the bank.
By Eric Best
Name: Stearns Bank
Assets: $2.2 billion
Location: St. Cloud, Minn.
In a corporate world of ladders, Stearns Bank stands out with its lattice structure. Rather than one route to the top, employees at the $2.2 billion-asset community bank in St. Cloud, Minn., say they’ve forged their own paths based on their unique combinations of skills and experiences. Some of those in its C-suite, for example, have bespoke titles or responsibilities that optimize their talents and provide organic opportunities for growth.
“It’s part of our culture that there’s something new every day. It’s a matter of what hat are you going to wear today to help us achieve our goals and help our customers achieve their goals?”
—Ann Erickson, Stearns Bank
“At Stearns, everybody has a strong drive and passion. Everybody’s sort of got dual roles, whatever role you’re in,” says Ann Erickson, chief compliance and audit officer. “It’s part of our culture that there’s something new every day. It’s a matter of what hat are you going to wear today to help us achieve our goals and help our customers achieve their goals?”
This culture of fostering growth drives the community bank on numerous fronts, from its structure and talent recruitment strategy to how it generates new business. Its efforts have not gone unnoticed. Stearns Bank has been frequently recognized as both a top-performing community bank by Independent Banker and as an award-winning workplace in state and industry publications. Ask an employee and they’ll tell you that the bank’s secret to success is tenacity.
That tenacity—born of its hardworking, Midwestern roots, employees say—stems from Norm Skalicky, chairman of Stearns Financial Services, Inc., who acquired the bank in 1964. His daughter, Kelly Skalicky, leads the community bank today as president and CEO.
“The pace that Stearns sets, ultimately, is from the Skalickys,” says Heather Plumski, chief financial and strategy officer. “They set a tone throughout the institution.”
A hardworking family
While Stearns Bank has the close-knit environment you’d expect from a family-run institution, Plumski says not to mistake that for avoiding hard work. “Family means you are in it to get the job done, whether you’re in the heat of harvest when you’re putting up hay or rock picking in the spring,” she says. “You’re doing tasks together that need to be done. A family works through that together and enjoys the benefits together.”
One way that tenacity plays out day to day is Stearns Bank’s proactive strategy. That approach means the community bank is constantly assessing new opportunities. For example, the bank has expanded into new markets in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Florida’s Gulf Coast and is continually pursuing fintech partnerships and other expansion opportunities across the country.
“One of the key objectives of our strategic plan is risk management at the forefront,” Erickson says. “It’s risk management built in, helping people all be educated and understand where our risks are at.”
That also carries over to the cybersecurity side, where the community bank uses a cybersecurity risk assessment tool to actively identify issues and get ahead of them. Across the institution, the bank eschews cookie-cutter programs, instead implementing tailored approaches to new products or services or to reaching new customers.
“Whether it’s a niche market or offering a new online product, we’re ready to be able to turn quickly,” says Josh Hofer, chief risk and information security officer. “I think we have that culture across the organization to proactively help the bank make decisions, so the risk side doesn’t have to catch up.”
The strength to be creative
The approach has led Stearns Bank to become skilled in many sectors, including resource-intensive specialty markets, from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rural development and Small Business Administration (SBA) loan programs to construction loans and equipment financing.
“Tenacity, in my mind, is holding on when you otherwise would’ve liked to just let go. You just have to have the strength to continue looking into something until you either find an option that will work or all roads lead to nothing you can do.”
—Heather Plumski, Stearns Bank
The community bank’s ability to find creative solutions is both an asset to employees, many of whom value a dynamic work environment, and to the community bank’s bottom line.
“Tenacity, in my mind, is holding on when you otherwise would’ve liked to just let go,” Plumski says. “You just have to have the strength to continue looking into something until you either find an option that will work or all roads lead to nothing you can do. Typically, we’ll find a creative solution.”
Women in leadership
Stearns Bank in St. Cloud, Minn., has been able to cultivate talented women across the institution. Women not only make up 71% of the community bank’s overall staff, but 70% of managers and senior leadership, too. The board of directors includes several women.
“People are not afraid to step up to the challenge. Kelly [Skalicky, Stearns Bank president and CEO] is great at challenging us to step up to growth opportunities,” says Ann Erickson, chief compliance and audit officer. “We just have a lot of really great women. We’re really fortunate.”
Stearns Bank strives for the best talent regardless of gender. Employees describe a workplace that’s collaborative and challenging. Once they’re attracted by that engaging culture, employees want to stay, in part, because of the community bank’s benefits package.
For example, a family care reimbursement credit of up to $5,000 covers camps, youth sports and online tutoring for families, something that’s been particularly useful during the pandemic. One popular benefit, the bank’s employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), gives employees across the community bank a stake in its success and incentivizes them to stay longer.
“It’s not a benefit you’re going to monetize tomorrow,” says Heather Plumski, chief financial and strategy officer. “If you have to be instantly gratified, it’s not that.” She says the bank has added short-term benefits such as a $500 self-improvement allowance to explore hobbies and activities outside of the bank. “We have a very well-rounded package,” she adds.
The community bank has also embraced flexible schedules where possible to recognize employees’ responsibilities outside of work. It’s a tone set at the top.
“[Kelly Skalicky] is the first one to say, ‘Get out of here. Go spend time with your kids or go coach that event,’” says Josh Hofer, chief risk and information security officer. “So, the flexibility is there to do that.”
Eric Best is deputy editor of Independent Banker.