Experienced banker’s steady hand offers guidance

Tom Palmer

Editor’s note: Tom Palmer is being honored as a 2020 Amazing Outside Director. The program is sponsored by Eide Bailly, and a full list of previous honorees can be found here.


The meeting room at Park State Bank is still a little groggy at 7 a.m. Chatter is limited and coffee is essential. Yet Tom Palmer will already be well into his day as he walks in, having been rowing on the river since 4:30 a.m. Palmer sits down with the meeting material — notes and comments thoroughly prepped. 

“Tom is very detail oriented, relies on his long history in the banking space, and holds people accountable,” said David Saber, president of the Duluth, Minn.-based bank.

Palmer is set apart in the room by his vast banking experience. He started his banking career at Norwest Bank in 1974, where he worked for a decade. He then spent 15 years as president of Franklin Bancorp, Inc., Minneapolis, (now operating as Sunrise Banks), and 10 years at First National Bank of River Falls, Wis. He “retired” in 2008.

Palmer went on, however, to steer his boat into rough seas, as acting senior officer at six banks that were taking on water.

“The thing about managing banks in troubled times is you’re trying to keep the bank afloat long enough for it to be purchased,” Palmer said. “It was challenging work. It was hard to see all these banks having so much trouble.”

In 2009, Palmer was president of Horizon Bank in Pine City, Minn., until it became part of Stearns Bank, N.A., St. Cloud, Minn. Four months later, he was president of Riverview Community Bank, Otsego, Minn., when it was acquired. In January 2010, Palmer was president of St. Stephen State Bank when regulators sold the bank to First State Bank of St. Joseph, Minn. The following month, he joined Pinehurst Bank, St. Paul, before it became part of Coulee Bank, La Crosse, Wis., in May 2010. In April 2011, Palmer was acting CEO of Rosemount Bank, Rosemount, Minn., when the bank was sold by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Not long after, Palmer joined American Bank of St. Paul, when it needed a CEO.

A lot of value was preserved at these banks thanks to Palmer’s steady hand. Joining banks in the throes of crisis, Palmer had to balance the interests of shareholders, customers, employees and regulators. The primary struggle, Palmer said, was that the banks were failing because of bad loans, not bad people. 

“It brought a lot of anxieties to the employees,” he said. “I tried to let people know what I thought was happening, but I wasn’t always in control of that because the regulators had the final word on when a bank is closed and sold and merged.”

He viewed regulators as partners at that time, establishing a strong rapport with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Reserve and others. He was able to call several if he needed advice, knowing they had likely dealt with a similar situation. “I tried to listen to them, take the advice,” he said. “I felt that they were important to the success of the bank, because they know how banks that are successful run.”

A lot of bank directors haven’t worked in highly-regulated industries before, Saber said, they’re lawyers or businesspeople or have various other professions. “I think [Palmer’s] knowledge of the space, and his knowledge of the inner workings of a bank, down to the last details, you know, add a lot of value.”

Palmer joined Park State Bank as its president while its application was under regulatory review in 2015. The goodwill Palmer accrued with regulators, the credibility and the trust, was of great benefit to Saber and Park’s majority stockholder and former hedge-fund manager, Andy Redleaf. Palmer has since transitioned to its board — inching his way back toward retirement — but still enthusiastic about his morning rowing routine.