Longtime Minnesota banking leader puts company first

Barb Smith

Barb Smith has always been driven to make a difference for her employer. Earlier in her career, Smith had been a senior lender at a Bemidji, Minn., community bank when it was acquired by Norwest Bank (now Wells Fargo). When Norwest began to implement its staffing model, a new retail sales role caught Smith’s eye. A colleague wondered why, as a lender, Smith wanted to also learn retail sales and service and deposit functions. She told him it was an opportunity to learn and “a way to make a difference.” 

Smith, regional president of RiverWood Bank, Baxter, Minn., is one of several bankers being recognized by BankBeat magazine as 2020 “Outstanding Women in Banking.”

During her 36-year banking career, the last 15 spent at RiverWood, Smith has worked as a commercial lender, financial advisor, credit analyst, retail manager and branch manager; she now oversees six banking offices in five central and northern Minnesota communities as the $490 million bank’s regional president. About a year ago, Smith picked up another plate of responsibilities when she chose to also become the bank’s head of human resources. 

The HR job had opened in 2019, but when the bank couldn’t find anyone with the right background to fill it, Smith stepped up. Though having Smith take on HR wasn’t in the original plan, it was totally in character for her, said Paul Means, chair and CEO. “It starts with her personal commitment to the company,” he said. “She’s a doer, not a talker.”

“I was already quite involved with performance management and personnel, managing people,” Smith said. “I felt like it was something I could do for the company.” The bank hired a support person to ensure her success.

Smith and Means had no way to know that in 2020, every HR leader in banking would face unprecedented challenges. Hindsight only reinforced the decision for Means. “She has the strongest work ethic of any employee I have ever worked with in my 40-plus year banking career,” he said.

When Smith learned that Minnesota schools would be closing in mid-March, she set to work figuring out which employees would be impacted, and then put forth a plan on how to help them adapt. She dove into CDC and Minnesota Department of Health guidance, along with the Governor’s emergency orders, as banks across the state began to close their lobbies.

Everything happened fast, she recalled. She had to manage the expectations and the fears of the bank’s 100 employees — and balance it against the desire to serve customers while also ensuring their safety. Smith trained and equipped a remote workforce and built team rotations to cover essential functions so the commercial lending team could focus its attention on funding PPP loans. Under Smith’s leadership, the bank was able to reopen nine of its 10 banking offices in the first week of May. She has since documented all of these processes, building a preparedness plan that can be deployed for any type of future disaster.

“We were one of the first banks in the state to reopen our lobbies,” Means said. “She guided that process, making management and the board comfortable with the decision to reopen.” 

Smith grew up in International Falls, Minn., often called the “icebox of the nation.” She studied economics at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and landed her first banking job at First Bank in the Twin Cities. But Smith returned to the north country in 1988, because her forester husband “needed more trees.” Bemidji has been home ever since, and Smith has invested herself in its success, serving on the Bemidji Alliance, a leadership counsel that supports the Bemidji Downtown Alliance, Greater Bemidji Economic Development, Visit Bemidji and the Bemidji Chamber of Commerce. 

In addition to her expansive management responsibilities at the bank, Smith serves as management liaison for the bank’s ESOP committee, and has taken the lead on a culture initiative to get employees thinking like owners (the way she does) and feeling like their actions make a difference (the way she does). 

In 2020, Smith’s efforts did make a difference. “It’s not just me,” she defers. “I couldn’t do this without an amazing team, our banking family.” 

A core tenet at RiverWood Bank is “Work hard with perseverance.” Smith exemplifies this belief, said Means. “She leads by example. She’s humble. She’s special. She dedicates her life to the success of our company.”

In the year of the pandemic, Smith has put in a ton of hours to keep business humming at RiverWood. And business is good, which means there isn’t much down time, not even a few days to escape to the Smith family cabin on Rainy Lake, which straddles the U.S.-Canadian border. In the year of the pandemic, that cabin is situated on the “wrong” side of that border. Even this, Smith takes in stride. “I don’t mind working long hours,” she said. “But I don’t want to have to do this again.”