When Jim Espeland, president, CEO and chair of First National Bank of Henning, walks into a legislator’s office, whether that office is in Washington, D.C., St. Paul, or accessed via his computer, he’s prepared to speak for his bank, his industry, and his community. “Once we have access to the chambers, we’re not just talking about banking issues,” Espeland said. “There’s an array of issues, agricultural, licensing, child care … it’s part of our responsibility as a managing officer of a bank to understand the issues that are important to our communities … because [average citizens] don’t have the access we have.”
Espeland has long been active in government relations for the Independent Community Bankers of Minnesota — and with the ICBA. He’s also served on boards at the Fed and for United Bankers’ Bank. Espeland said that not only don’t residents, farmers or the small business owners who support his growing community in Otter Tail County not have easy access to legislators, they don’t have the time to educate their representatives on the issues that impact their livelihoods. That’s why Espeland embraces the idea of being “the eyes and ears” — and the mouthpiece — for “the communities we live in.”
Espeland has been at the $270 million First National Bank of Henning since 1984. The bank was chartered in 1903 and has historically had a strong ag portfolio (cash crops and beef); lately the portfolio mix has changed as people have been drawn to the recreational offerings in Otter Tail County, which has more lakes than any other U.S. county.
In 2020, as remote work has allowed seasonal residents to spend more time in the area, mortgage lending has boomed at the bank. Some people have made their lake homes their full-time residences, even enrolling their children in local schools. The transformation of the region has meant the three-location bank has increased its focus on consumers and the small businesses that support them.
That support requires employee training and development, and an increased focus on IT and security. Bank employees avail themselves of training, webinars and the Networks offered through ICBM “almost every day,” Espeland said. The value ICBM brings to the relationship is the work it does vetting third-party vendors, he added. “They do the filtering.”
Espeland encourages others at his bank — and throughout the state — to be more active in ICBM as it educates policy-makers on the issues that impact local communities and the value independent banks play as economic engines.
Protecting the integrity of the payments system is where the rubber hits the road for consumers, Espeland said. “Consumers trust when they make a purchase that it’s going to go through safely,” he said. Threats to the system, from malware or ransomware and other intrusions, are an increasing danger faced by independent banks.
And the burgeoning national debt is a threat to prosperity, Espeland said. “What happens when the debt exceeds the velocity of money?” he asked. “We need to be proactive with these elected officials, who are wonderful people. But it’s nearly impossible for them to understand every facet of every business or issue when they get elected. When they invite you in and they sit down, they are interested in what we have to say.”
Espeland was part of a group of community bankers who were guests of President Trump in the White House Rose Garden a few years ago. The experience was impactful, he said. “We gave our pitch to the President and we were listened to.”
Leading a bank that serves a growing and evolving population inspires Espeland to remain engaged in promoting the value of independent community banking. He’s been conversing with lawmakers since 1985, and has found the messaging from ICBM and ICBA the most consistent throughout the years. It’s a message he lives daily: “The thing about community banking is that it can truly be rudder in the community. [Community banks] can help steer the boat out of the bay and into the big water,” he said.
“The bank needs the customer more than the customer needs the bank,” Espelend added. “I can’t think of anything more gratifying than seeing people become successful, and success can be measured in one word: Happiness.”