The first time Kathy Torske applied for the president’s role at American Trust Center, Dickinson, N.D., she was 29 and had been with the company for only a few years.
Although the board was impressed with her resume and performance with the company, they decided she needed a few more years to ripen. Torske had no hard feelings. According to her own assessment, she’d gained an excellent command of the operations — from HR to audit — but lacked the necessary soft management and leadership experience.
“If I would’ve gotten the role at that time, I think I would’ve probably muddled around a little bit more,” said Torske, now president and CEO of American Trust Center and one of five 2019 Rising Stars in Banking being honored by BankBeat magazine.
Torske and the man who was hired as president developed an excellent working partnership, their strengths and skills complementing each other. Torske offered insight into the nitty-gritty of day-to-day operations while, “he was much more of a broad thinker, a visionary, and that’s what I was lacking at the time.”
Four years later, however, he was ready to move on. Before he did, he told the board exactly who should replace him. “When he left he pretty much said, ‘You know who this needs to go to,’” she said. “He kind of nudged the baton toward me a little bit and said, ‘If you guys are smart, you’re going to hand it off to her.’”
The board agreed, and in 2011 Torske became the first female executive American Trust Center or its parent company, American Bank Center.
“I really did feel at that point I’d grown. I’d tried to be a sponge, to look at the good and bad and how I would handle situations,” she said. “I was the first female leader within our family of companies. I was fairly young, but I thought, ‘well, if I don’t try now, I’ll never know’.”
Despite her confidence in her own skills and readiness, Torske knew the transition would be tough. She was the mother of two young children with a husband who also worked full-time as a nurse practitioner. “I was elbow deep in a diaper change when the board told me I’d gotten the role and kind of thought, ‘Oh man, what am I getting into?’”
Not one to shy away from a challenge, Torske waded into the responsibilities of the role and in 2015, she assumed the president’s role, eight years after she’d first applied for it.
Despite growing up “extremely shy,” Torske honed her relationship-building skills in her first post-college job in the audit department of the Bismarck office of accounting firm Eide Bailly. Since she spent only a short time with the businesses she was auditing, she worked to quickly build an intimacy with staff. “I tried to connect with them so they’d be comfortable answering my questions,” she said, “making those relationships with each person that I came into play with.”
Torske brings that sensibility to American Trust Center. She also knows the company is responsible for people’s livelihoods, and she’s built a team aware of the seriousness of that charge but also capable of gelling as colleagues who enjoy working together. “We’ve tried to create a good environment, where you can decompress a little bit and have fun with your coworkers because … if you don’t enjoy it here with your coworkers, you probably shouldn’t be here,” Torske said.
Former American Bank Center market president and COO Greg Vetter, who hired Torske and served as an early mentor, has nothing but admiration for her, “particularly taking over [as CEO] as a very young woman — it’s not easy,” he said. “She has a wonderful blend of talents and natural abilities, a rare combination. She earns respect, both from her employees and customers, and that’s apparent from American Trust Center’s growth.”
When Vetter hired her in 2005 Torske was the 10th employee of the company; now, there are close to 50 employees.
“I think I’m a good judge of character when it comes down to it. So I’ve added a lot of good people to our company, not just me, but in our management and our HR team and whatnot,” Torske said. “I’ve just found that good people attract good people.”