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Bremer CEO Jeanne Crain talks about small business clients, changing industry

December 8, 2018

Jeanne Crain, president and CEO at St. Paul-based Bremer Financial Corp., is finding that you dont have to be in a bank office to generate a loan. Crain, who joined Bremer in 2016 after working for BMO Harris, Marquette and other banks, opened a living room-style space in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis. Bremer bankers may be chatting over coffee with prospective clients. It also hosts neighbors and community workers. Crain, whose dad was a watchmaker and jeweler in Rugby, N.D., graduated from the University of North Dakota before launching her 34-year career in banking. Crain, also on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, recently chaired Gov. Mark Daytons task force on creating more affordable housing, as well as serving the United Way and the Twin Cities area YMCA.

Q: Tell me about how your small business strategy is evolving.

A: Bremer has always focused on building meaningful relationships with our customers, and we have evolved to augment those personal connections with new technology solutions to meet the changing needs and preferences of our small business and other customers.

We are introducing new solutions for customers by focusing on improving their online and digital experience and providing new tools to help them more efficiently run their business operations.

Q: How many Minnesota offices/branches do you operate? How many have you closed in recent years?

A: We operate 57 branches in Minnesota. Over the past five years we have opened one office and closed nine. Were responding to changing customer preferences as more customers today are using mobile and online banking to complete their transactional needs.

Q: How many cashless offices, such as the one in Linden Hills, have you opened? Whats the future?

A: In November of 2017, we rolled out Bremers first cashless branch in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis.

We transformed the traditional cash-based service model for an office that reflected the nature of the community, with the goal of making a strong connection with small businesses and their owners, along with residents in the Linden Hills neighborhood. Weve gone from one [to 13 small business clients] in Linden Hills.

The office is a community destination where business leaders can convene, collaborate and meet with a banker to get advice and learn about better solutions for operating their business. We expect to incorporate features of this office into future Bremer locations.

Q: Whats the secret sauce?

A: Meeting the needs of small businesses. We designed how we wanted it to work. And we give that space to the community. We dont have to worry about cash moving physically in every location. At least when you have a space like Linden Hills.

Q: Do you serve free coffee?

A: Yes, but were not baristas. We have a neighborhood coffee shop as a client. We know how to have a conversation with a small business owner, or an individual, or a community group. Were trying to deepen our relationships. We have the tool kit. This is a strategy for growth for us.

Q: Do you have more tech and fewer employees than five years ago?

A: We have more employees. In 2014, we had 1,730. Currently, we have 1,838 across our three states of North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Q: Will this be a year of record revenue and profit for Bremer?

A: Yes, we have reported strong revenue for the first three quarters of 2018 and anticipate record full-year earnings when we close out our fiscal year.

Q: Please refresh me on your somewhat-unique ownership structure.

A: Bremer Bank is privately owned by the Otto Bremer Trust and Bremer employees. We are a for-profit commercial bank and our success as a financial institution drives success for all our shareholders.

The [Bremer foundation] is our majority owner. And each year 92 percent of bank dividends go to the foundation.

Eight percent [are paid] to Bremer employees. Since 2010, Bremer has distributed $392 million in dividends to shareholders, including $360.8 million to the foundation.

Q: Anything else?

A: In an increasingly digital environment, Bremer is pursuing innovative opportunities and forging strategic alliances that deliver valuable solutions to help customers. We dont want tech to replace a relationship. We want to enhance the relationship.

Weve partnered with a Silicon Valley startup accelerator to explore innovations in financial technology that support our customers growth.

And weve invested in a new digital platform to streamline the lending process for small business customers.