Amazing Outside Directors 2024: Melanie VanRoekel

For Melanie VanRoekel, being an effective board chair requires open communication while recruiting directors with expertise outside of the banking world.

That approach has played out to perfection during VanRoekel’s four years leading the board at Mankato, Minn.-based Farmers State Corporation Holding Co., and its subsidiary United Prairie Bank, leading to her being recognized as a 2024 “Amazing Outside Director” by BankBeat magazine.

Melanie VanRoekel photo
Melanie VanRoekel

The most recent example of VanRoekel’s effectiveness came as Farmers State Holding Co. was selling its insurance agency to Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based First MainStreet Insurance. VanRoekel was aware that the agency already had an unsolicited offer from a consolidator and knew that the second generation of insurance agency owners were considering retirement. 

“We knew that somebody else could take that to another level, and at the same time it would allow us to focus 100 percent of our efforts on the bank assets,” she added. 

Knowing that she needed to bring on attorneys who could understand the potential pitfalls of the deal, VanRoekel worked with Winthrop & Weinstine attorneys Tony Moch and Amber Kraemer throughout the process. The deal closed in October.  

Moch said VanRoekel proved to be a “really smart but practical” chair throughout the sale. He credited her for finding the proper group to oversee the financial aspect of the sale while securing the right buyer. “I was really impressed,” he noted.     

Former Farmers State Board Chair Stuart Sneer praised VanRoekel for staying focused on the holding company’s broader goals throughout the process, moving forward when necessary while not being afraid to pause the process to work out kinks. 

Sneer stepped down as chair in February 2020. Three weeks later, VanRoekel ran her first board meeting from her home as the pandemic started. “I told them from the beginning I want to create a ‘world-class’ board, and I meant it,” VanRoekel said. “I wanted to create a board that was super-qualified to protect the assets of the bank. I wanted to have diversity of thought; I wanted to take the approach of flipping the traditional bank board model on its side.

“I was honestly being a little flamboyant using those words, and I got some pushback from different people,” she added. “It was just my way of setting the tone that I was not going to accept anything but the best.”

VanRoekel initially joined the board in 2018 after being approached by former director Louise Dickmeyer. A prominent southern Minnesota businesswoman, VanRoekel had already served as corporate controller at Mankato-based Taylor Companies from 2006-13 and CFO at Davisco Foods International. A CPA, VanRoekel had recently served as vice president of finance and administration at Montreal, Quebec-based Agropur.

“I had no interest, I thought, and then I met with the owner and I realized that banking is just another business model that I was totally capable of understanding and contributing some value to,” VanRoekel said. 

After that first meeting as chair, VanRoekel soon led the board through assessments and established a matrix to identify employee skills and proficiency levels. Cybersecurity/IT expertise was soon identified as the first skills gap. 

A seasoned networker, VanRoekel reached out to contacts far beyond the board’s traditional footprint, including in Florida, Arizona, Michigan and Illinois. One of these contacts was Christina Schull, chief information officer at Kentucky-based biotechnology research company Alltech. A graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato, Schull brings cybersecurity/IT experience to the board. Another VanRoekel recruit, former Wipfli partner Sara Mikuta, led the firm’s risk advisory services team for its financial institutions practice.

“It gave us this roadmap of what we need to do next, who’s the next person we need,” added VanRoekel, who works with a group of independent contractors as an executive coach at CO2 Partners, LLC. “I know exactly who I am recruiting for all of the time. I am networking and trying to create those relationships, so that when I have that spot available I know exactly who I can go to fill it.”

Sneer said it was immediately apparent that VanRoekel was sharp and professional, an open-minded director who was still unafraid to share her point of view to ensure that projects were done properly on a timely basis. Sneer was aware that many bank boards were considered more of a friendship circle than a business group, and believed that United Prairie Bank needed to do business differently if it was going to grow. To him, VanRoekel has successfully modernized the board. “We have a very good, first-class board,” Sneer added. 

A member of the bank’s family ownership group, Sneer sees VanRoekel as striking an effective balance between communicating with the holding company and bank. The pair meet on an every-other-week basis to discuss business, and VanRoekel knows how to communicate with him in great detail without providing unnecessary information. 

VanRoekel is also passionate about advocating for people with disabilities and volunteering in the community. She served as a United Way campaign chair in 2022. “My passion is in Mankato and making sure it’s an inclusive community, so I get a lot of support to be out talking about the bank and how we care about the community,” she added.

VanRoekel’s 14-year-old son, Caden, is an eighth grader with Autism Spectrum Disorder. She has attended the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities and works to raise awareness for those with disabilities — everything from reaching out to lawmakers to promote inclusion to doing improvisational comedy. 

 “Any time I get asked to do public speaking, I will say yes,” VanRoekel noted. “I will speak to any group that wants to hear about how to include individuals with disabilities, to hear about barriers that people with disabilities have, just to start to increase knowledge about what barriers exist and how you can help tear them down.”