Lending and planting both require faith

The aromatic eastern red cedar can often be found growing in country graveyards, which is probably why people sometimes call them “cemetery trees.” I’ve heard other explanations for this moniker, though, tied to the trees’ slow-growing nature: It is said a person who plants an eastern red cedar won’t live to see its grandeur. 

Four of these trees towered over my yard when I lived in southern Minnesota. Whoever planted them positioned their trunks like pegs marking corners of a square. On a hot summer’s day, the air was a full 10 degrees cooler beneath their sprawling, crooked canopy and whenever I sat beneath this natural shelter to escape the heat, I wondered about the person whose foresight provided me with this fragrant respite. 

There’s a proverb that goes: A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit. I connect this idea to community banking, where each day, bankers make investments in the form of loans, which is really about planting the seeds (and seedlings) for economic growth. 

I learned recently about a character loan made by a small-town banker some 30 years ago. The borrower wanted to buy and rehab an old building to house an arts center. There wasn’t any collateral to secure the loan nor was there cash flow to guarantee repayment. In other words, it was all risk — like sinking a tree in a place where nobody lives. Yet the banker made the loan and the arts center was formed and has thrived even through a series of leadership transitions. 

It’s the art center’s latest transition which is bearing the sweetest fruit. It’s new executive director is the daughter of that prescient banker, a woman who gave up a big-city corporate career to move back to her hometown to raise her own children. Sweeter still, the woman’s husband took a job at the family bank and now he factors significantly into the bank’s succession plan.

Leadership succession in banking, especially in rural communities, is not always an easy puzzle to solve, as you’ll read in our feature. In small towns especially, the prevailing narrative is that the future is bleak; opportunity exists only in places crowded with buses and malls and cineplexes. Not true.

That banker who funded an arts center probably never imagined it at maturity, standing like a beacon to draw family back to town and providing the bank with its next-gen leader. Yet he lent the money nonetheless, trusting that something would grow out of it. That’s the beautiful thing about sowing seeds.