“I’m very passionate about what I do, and I’m not going to not do it,” said Nicole Evenson to her future husband in 2016, once she’d decided to move to Garrison, N.D., to become an ag lender. Though the two had dated for just 10 days, she felt the need to be direct.
Evenson relocated to the 1,500-person town a few months later in a move that would catalyze her career. For her leadership and advocacy at TruCommunity Bank, Evenson is being recognized by BankBeat as a 2022 “Rising Star in Banking.”
In 2018, with Evenson already elevated to vice president, the holding company for what was then Garrison State Bank and its two sister institutions consolidated the banks’ charters into one. Evenson was swept into the type of challenge that creates opportunity. Leaders were finding their way, asking: “What do you do? What do we do? What’s the best way to do it? Let’s create a new way.”
In addition to establishing new policies, there was the delicate task of merging cultures. A combined culture not only needed to be defined, but “cultivated and grown,” she said.
“The accountability piece is huge,” Evenson said. “It’s very important that you set what your vision is, and keep referring back to it so no one is ever in question about the institution’s end goal.”
The combined bank is now called TruCommunity Bank, and Evenson became its president in January of this year.
“In her six years at the bank, [Evenson] has proven to be a successful lender and now a fearless leader,” said Jamie Nelson, who became CEO of the $323 million bank during the merger. “She doesn’t do anything without giving it 110 percent.”
The vision for TruCommunity Bank is for its clients to be the faces and pillars of the community, “flourishing to their highest potential,” Evenson explained.
Internally, leadership envisioned a “work hard, play hard” environment. “It’s not necessarily a work-life balance. I don’t think you’re ever going to find that perfect balance,” Evenson said. “It’s more of a harmony.
“When it’s time to work, everybody straps on their boots and gets down to it,” Evenson explained. And when it’s time to engage in life outside the office, employees get to “pick up and do that without feeling guilt or hassle.”
Compared to the banks’ previous cultures, “what we’re striving toward is a little more aggressive,” Evenson said. “I want the culture to be at the forefront, and my work to be a product of how great the culture is.”
When people are recognized for their strengths, Evenson said, they stay motivated and perform. Positive feedback and verbal recognition continually drives the bank’s culture-first vision.
“Everyone has the ability to work really hard,” Evenson said. “When you find the component of what keeps a person striving for more — that’s key,” Evenson said. “And it’s not the same for every person.”
While these ideas come naturally to Evenson, she’s often employing EQ leadership skills as she’s learning them as a second year student at the Graduate School of Banking at Colorado’s Executive Development Institute for Community Bankers.
“You can Google how to run a bank from a ‘strictly numbers’ side of things,” Evenson said, “But the people aspect — it takes a lot of training.”
She uses these skills daily, learning to be curious about how she might plan to “change, nurture or fix,” a situation — whether by encouragement or reprimand. She discusses tough decisions with mentors and peers to ensure her perspective considers multiple viewpoints. “No one can fire on all cylinders 24/7,” Evenson said. “You have to go back to that harmony.”
When engaging this degree of consideration and communication, “you really start to develop a different level of respect with people, and it goes both ways,” Evenson said. “It’s really exciting to have a team like that.”
Her skills helped on Capitol Hill — much to Evenson’s surprise. Despite previously gravitating away from politics, Evenson is North Dakota’s representative on the ABA’s Emerging Leaders Council. In 2018, she landed in Washington, D.C., to lobby alongside other bankers.
Her work with the council coincided with introduction in 2019 of H.R. 1872, the Enhancing Credit Opportunities in Rural America Act. “After that trip, it really opened my eyes. You don’t have to tackle the whole beast at one time.”
Voicing support for ECORA was easy for her. “No matter where I end up in the banking system,” Evenson said, “I will forever be an ag lender at heart.”
Evenson grew up on a farm, and as the big sister, she joked about how she was her father’s oldest boy. “He didn’t differentiate between the boys and girls,” Evenson said. “We were all his farm hands.”
Evenson connects with ag clients in the quiet integrity of understanding life on the farm — bringing an ability to “talk the talk and walk the walk,” she said. “The walk is important when you’re on the financial side for these people.”
As farming continues to evolve, “Farmers don’t get to be farmers anymore,” Evenson said. “They have to be agronomists. They have to be bankers and lawyers and electricians and IT specialists. When I can join arms with these individuals and help be a part of that team, it’s so rewarding.”
Of raising her own children, a daughter and a son, ages four and two respectively, on a farm, Evenson said there’s nothing better. Even at a young age, she said she sees their attraction to farm equipment and “the dirt where they play.” Evenson said she glimpses her younger self in her daughter. “When it’s time for planting season, she’ll mow over anybody in her way to get to that tractor.”