When schools needed a helping hand during the pandemic, Ultima Bank Minnesota came through for them while also following a path set by its tech-forward former owner.
By Tiffany Lukk
When schools moved to virtual or hybrid models during the pandemic, technology was critical for connecting students to their education. That’s why $209 million-asset Ultima Bank Minnesota headquartered in Fosston, Minn., donated $125,000 to local school districts that will invest in technology to benefit students for years to come.
“We promote technology and education here at the bank and throughout our communities. It just seemed like a natural fit.”
—Dawn Skeie Crane, Ultima Bank
Schools in Fosston, Grand Forks, Winger, Plummer and Bemidji, Minn., all locations of the bank’s five branches, each received $25,000 to spend on their science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) departments. Districts submitted proposals to the community bank on how they planned to spend the grant. Approved proposals included everything from laptops and iPads to drones and 3D printers.
“We promote technology and education here at the bank and throughout our communities,” says Dawn Skeie Crane, owner and CEO of Ultima Bank. “It just seemed like a natural fit.”
Making donations to STEM departments was an easy choice for Crane. The Skeie family has owned Ultima Bank since Crane’s father, Arnie Skeie, purchased it in 1976. As an employee of an international supercomputer firm, Skeie had a lifelong interest in technology. Crane and her sister, Lorri, took over as the bank’s full owners after Skeie passed away in 2017 and built on his goal of keeping technological acumen at the heart of the bank.
“We’ve been on the cutting edge of technology for decades now,” Crane says. “My father was an electrical engineer by education, and I kind of carried over into his philosophy of business. I really believe we wouldn’t be where we are today if he hadn’t had that vision over 40 years ago to start the push for technology.”
Giving to schools and students
East Grand Forks Senior High School used its grant to purchase a laser engraver. It has not only benefited the school’s STEM programs but is also being used to help students learn how to run the school store. They’ve used it to design, produce and sell products.
“I am just so thankful from the bottom of my heart for [Ultima Bank],” says Brian Loer, principal of East Grand Forks Senior High School. “I know our whole school, admin team, the staff, say thank you to [the bank, which was] so generous in giving us this tool for our kids to learn on.”
“[Technology investments] last, and they make a difference over time when you buy equipment that you wouldn’t otherwise have in your school budget,” says Mark Finstad, Ultima Bank’s chairman.
Ultima Bank’s dedication to STEM extends beyond this year’s grants. The staff participates in an annual award ceremony for high school seniors with an overall high GPA and excellent marks in math and science, some of whom have interned at the bank. Crane hopes the grants will provide better education for local students who one day may want to work at the bank.
“My attitude is, on some level, hopefully, we’re helping the next generation of bankers,” she says.
In addition to donating to schools, Ultima Bank donates directly to students through its annual scholarship program. This year, students were asked to include an essay in their scholarship application about how the pandemic affected them. Five high school seniors each received $2,000 to help pay for their postsecondary education.
Crane’s father started the scholarship program about 20 years ago. “When you read about the needs of the kids and what’s going on in their life, I guess that’s always meaningful to me,” Finstad says. “We’ve received thank you letters from students saying, ‘I didn’t have to take out as big of a student loan that I’ll have to pay back,’ or ‘I wouldn’t have gone to college without my scholarship support.’”
Crane adds, “If it weren’t for our patrons or residents, we wouldn’t be in business. So, we just believe in giving back to the communities that we serve.”
A culture of giving
Giving comes naturally to the staff of Ultima Bank. The community bank has also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to causes and organizations such as local libraries and hospitals.
Many of Ultima Bank’s donations come directly from the community bank, but employees also get involved. For example, the bank’s Casual Friday program, where staff get to dress casually for a $2 donation, raises money for a different cause each month.
Employees also recently started a weekly cook-off where two employees make similar dishes. Staff members pay for their food, and the money goes to a given charity every month.
But donations are just one way the Ultima Bank and its employees give back. “[We have a] giving culture not just in money, but in time,” Finstad says.
Crane adds, “Several of our staff are volunteer firefighters and first responders. So, it’s just kind of an overall mentality or culture at Ultima.”
Tiffany Lukk is associate editor of Independent Banker.