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American Bank Center Senior Vice President Don Maus discusses the bank's growth Jan. 13 at the bank's downtown Dickinson office.

‘Cautiously optimistic’: American Bank Center, with last boom in mind, is growing

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American Bank Center executives want you to know it was doing just fine even before the oil boom.

The bank has been dealing with more dollars and more commercial activity attributable to the boom, but also is picking up smaller banks in the meantime, as those struggle to keep up with growing federal regulation on their own.

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“People like to say, ‘Wow, you guys are so lucky to have that oil boom out there,’” Dickinson-based Regional President Bruce Dolezal said. “We were growing on a regular basis and doing very well even before that came in because we’re very diversified.

“We were doing just fine even before the boom came in.”

The bank has grown to 19 locations in 14 cities after a series of acquisitions of smaller independent institutions.

Smaller banks say they were struggling until they went under American’s umbrella and benefited from its expertise and manpower.

Since 2005, American has acquired Scandia American Bank in Stanley; Country Bank USA in Cando and Devils Lake and, most recently, Community First Bank in Glendive, Mont. It also scooped up North Country Bank in five locations — that acquisition happened in late 2012 and the banks won’t be merged into the American system until 2015. It also has locations in Killdeer, New England, Bismarck and Minot.

The small banks don’t have enough people or resources to keep up with compliance laws from legislation like the Dodd-Frank Act.

Representatives of the bank in Glendive said they felt a weight was lifted off them with the acquisition, Dolezal said.

“They don’t have to worry about keeping up with all the compliance changes,” he said.

The ‘right fit’ 

The employee-owned bank emphasizes family values and local ties in employees.

When searching for what he calls the “right fit” in an employee, Dolezal said local ties matter.

And employees say in evaluations that the company’s family values focus sticks out — if an employee’s son has a football game one afternoon, they are expected to get their work in order and make the game, Dolezal said.

“We try to create the environment so that this is the kind of place that you want to work for,” said Don Maus, a senior vice president at the bank. “We promote family values. We promote hard work but we also want to offer you fair compensation and we want to acknowledge the importance of certain family events, health issues, that sort of thing.”

Growing, small bank by small bank

At a small bank, workers wear many hats. With new regulations, the compliance hat became too much to handle for some.

American, on the other hand, has its own compliance department.

“We decided to merge … because of all of the policies, regulations that were changing and you pretty much have to be an expert in your bank secrecy, your compliance and all that,” said Bonnie Nichols at American’s Stanley location.

Being a part of the American Bank Center network helped in other ways, too. As Stanley became overwhelmed with activity, and couldn’t retain employees, the bank’s Minot location lent some manpower.

But the main benefit is being able to call American experts, Nichols said.

“If we have a question in one area, we know who the go-to person is, whereas when we were an institution that was not a part of a bigger operation, you had to know everything,” she said.

Terry Lobdell, market president at the Glendive branch, said the bank fit well into the ABC system because of its agricultural focus but that it, too, needed the help of a larger base.

“It becomes very cost-prohibitive to deal with the vast amounts of government compliance and regulation,” Lobdell said.

“They have the expertise, the knowledge to handle it on a more economical scale. I just have to say at the really small independent banks, compliance is definitely an issue.”

‘As seamless as possible’

After enough mergers, American has learned its lessons.

“We’ve found out that it needs to be as seamless as possible going in,” Dolezal said. “We get them on board, they understand who we are and what we do, and we try to make it as seamless and transparent as possible.”

American has made assumptions going into a merger and been wrong, he said. He wouldn’t elaborate, except to say they learned from it.

“We’ve made some mistakes and we’re getting better probably at what we’re doing,” Maus said.

The bank tries to orientate employees in their own banks, and emphasizes that the branch has the same employees and management, just a new sign.

“You hope for a buy-in,” Dolezal said. “Every place we’ve got it’s different. You hope that they understand where you’re coming from.”

While the bank doesn’t attribute its growth to the boom, that has certainly been a part of the action.

American has been a part of several developments in Dickinson, especially affordable housing.

In has donated hundreds of thousands to the Housing Incentive Fund, and is now involved in the Patterson Heights and Heritage Hills projects.

“When you look west of Dickinson, we’ve been involved in a number of those developments out in that area,” Dolezal said, “of the new subdivisions, the companies that we work with on the commercial basis and new startup companies.”

‘Like a light switch’

Dolezal and Maus have been around for two booms and the last one’s bust, in the 1980s, will be forever burned into their memories.

“It went off like a light switch,” Dolezal said of when oil prices dropped and oil companies fled town.

He and Maus describe instances of companies putting keys to a half-finished development down on a banker’s desk and leaving, and a company leaving with its 400 employees – and then another company left, and another.

As more housing opened up, values dropped.

Maus remembers commercial properties worth $300,000 selling for half that, and loans exceeding the value of a complex after its value dropped.

Dolezal was banking at First National Bank in Belfield at the time.

“As fast as the boom seemed to start when the oil came on, it shut down three times faster,” he said.

The memories of that boom and bust affect American’s banking activity today.

For example, the bank will more strictly vet an out-of-state investor’s project and apply more down payments with shorter payoff terms to loans given to energy companies pulling in money so fast.

The borrower often wants to do that anyway, Dolezal said, so the loan is manageable “if something happens.”

“The concept is still the same, as far as banking goes,” he said. “We’re just working with a much larger volume of dollars than we did 20 or 30 years ago.”

But now American feels “safe” with how it monitors its local concentrations in commercial real estate, agriculture, consumer, etc.

“We can recall some of the pitfalls as if it were yesterday,” Maus said, “and many of our people today weren’t around during that era and so we don’t want to forget the lessons that we learned.”

“That’s why we’re cautiously optimistic,” Dolezal interjected.

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