Series of acquisitions pushes Crain toward career apex

Jeanne Crain, president and CEO, Bremer Financial Corp, St. Paul, Minn. Photo by Ellen D. Photography.

Editor’s Note: Throughout Jeanne Crain’s 37 years in banking, industry consolidation has been a constant. Until she reached Bremer Bank, every bank Crain ever worked for changed hands while she was employed there. Sometimes more than once. Crain recalls this journey in her own words, which have been edited for clarity. – JNH


When I moved to the Twin Cities in 1990, I worked for Marquette Banks, the Pohlad-owned company, and they were probably about $6 billion at the time. In 1992, Marquette Banks [Minneapolis] sold to what was First Bank System [later U.S. Bank].

Because Marquette wanted to de novo, we actually started another Marquette. The regulators would never allow this today. On Jan. 2, 1993, we set up the new Marquette with the same logo and everything on the first floor of the IDS Center and right above us, where U.S. Bank is now, was the Marquette Bank that was just sold. People would come in and say they banked with Marquette Bank, and we’d tell them, Marquette Bank is upstairs, but if you want to bank with me, I’m Marquette Bank too… it was ridiculous. I cannot believe we got away with that.

I chose to stay with Marquette at the time of that sale because of the idea of starting something new and being part of a de novo. I just loved the idea of working with a team to do something new and building something. I hadn’t had that opportunity in the industry.

We called the de novo Marquette Capital Bank and it was focused on business [lending] and private banking. I was there for 10 years and I ended up as president of that bank. In 2001, the Pohlad family sold all of their banks in the [Twin Cities] metro area to Wells Fargo.

I had great conversations with Wells; it was fascinating talking to a number of leaders there. The jobs were very deep. I had been president of Marquette Capital, which was about a $300 million bank, maybe $350 million toward the end, so not that deep. But, like a small business owner, you wear 20 hats and I loved that.

So I went over to Wells and interviewed with them and the job was very deep. You could be running an organization five times larger, a billion and a half, but the job was [narrow].

It was just simply a choice of how you like to work and what drives your passion. It’s where you start learning about yourself. I really like breadth and am not so concerned about depth.

I chose not to go to Wells but to the much, much smaller Excel Bank, which was family owned. Ray Bentdahl had successfully turned the bank over to Craig [Bentdahl] as the president and Ray was still involved as chairman. But a great family bank — $100 million smaller than the bank I had just been president of. But all they wanted to do was grow and they were focused on doing that as a commercial bank, and I’m like, “Now that sounds like fun.”

So I went over as a senior leader. Actually, seven of us from Marquette went over there. That bank was about $200 million at the time. The team grew that bank to about $600 million in five years. It was a really fun opportunity and again, a little bit back in the cowboy days. We used every penny of our lending limit. I’ll never forget there was one customer, we actually had to reduce their $5 million loan to $4,900,000 so we had room for an overdraft just in case. It was such a different time.

In 2007, the Bentdahls decided it was time to sell. That was their prerogative and I’m glad they did because they sold at the height of the market. As a family, they realized great benefit from that and, frankly, to weather the financial services storm was much easier to do in a larger bank than in a smaller one.

That’s how I landed at M&I. I really enjoyed M&I. It was a bank that was newer to the marketplace here; it was really trying to figure out how to grow and you had autonomy to figure out the right thing for your market yet you had the support of a very big organization.

Through the financial crisis, M&I wasn’t fortunate. They had just severe financial strain and in the end had to go find a partner —  that was BMO.

BMO was a great company. I was there for just shy of 11 months. I always thought of it as the job I never took at Wells.

Frankly, Bremer called me the first week the transaction closed. I [thought] ‘I can’t be the first person to jump off this ship.’ It just didn’t feel right. I could see people struggling. I’d been through five of these, and you make a choice as an individual to manage your career, but as regional president for M&I and then BMO, [leaving] felt like the worst thing I could have done for the team of people.

BMO was just a much larger institution. I respect all sizes of institutions. I respected BMO, but you’ve got to figure out what’s right for you as an individual. The longer I was there and the more I felt like the team was settled, I thought, “This opportunity at Bremer isn’t going to be there forever. What am I doing?”

This is exactly the kind of fit I had felt earlier in my career. I certainly had it at Marquette and even at Excel, the opportunity to grow and work with a team to drive it.

I was in the business 30 years before I came here; all 30 of those years led me to the opportunity where I’m sitting today.