Trailblazer gives edge to Minnesota community bank

Audrey Johnson

Editor’s Note: Amazing Outside Directors are people who invest in the success of their local community banks by contributing skills, insights and analysis to bank governance, all while helping their institutions develop new relationships. BankBeat thanks program sponsor Eide Bailly for helping us tell the stories of these amazing individuals.


Audrey Johnson, longtime outside director at New Market Bank in Elko New Market, Minn., knows a thing or two about banking, and it’s knowledge borne of her time sitting across the desk from her banker.

Though she didn’t have an official title at the real estate management company headed by her husband, Johnson was always actively involved in the finances of the family business. But while sitting with lenders in the late 1960s and early 1970s, bankers always assumed her husband knew everything about the business, Johnson recounted. Not so. “I tended to know more about the numbers than Brad ever did,” she said. “Brad would rather skillfully bring me in if they wanted to talk numbers.”

It was an experience that left Johnson, who is being recognized by BankBeat as a 2019 Amazing Outside Director, feeling more like a potted plant “given how little they expected me to contribute.”

But once bankers got to know Johnson’s capabilities, it made a difference. When Brad Johnson suffered a traumatic brain injury, Audrey Johnson became CEO of Johnson Companies. Because of her involvement with the company and the relationship she’d forged with bankers, that transition went smoothly.

When Johnson was asked to join the board of New Market Bank, she applied her business acumen along with her personal experiences. “I [made] sure that all the bankers knew how unpleasant it was to be a woman who was a no-count in a meeting,” she said. Not unexpectedly, Johnson’s early banking interactions weren’t the only time Johnson felt undervalued.

Johnson grew up in Lakeville, Minn., in the 1940s and ’50s, helping her dad at his farm implement dealership. The experience whetted her appetite for business. After graduating as valedictorian from Lakeville High School, Johnson attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. At that time, the only career options available to her were nurse, secretary or teacher. Johnson had no interest in any of them and lamented as much to a favorite professor who recommended she apply for the Harvard Radcliffe Program in Business Administration, which was essentially the first half of a Harvard MBA, designed for women. Although it seemed like a long shot, Johnson was “praying and holding my breath one day when I got a letter that said ‘you’ve been accepted.’ ” She was — the first woman from Minnesota and one of only two women from the Midwest.

Johnson felt called to human resources. She said she has “a social worker mentality,” which she applied to business. Human resources, she said, with employee relations, problem solving and training, “was a good fit for me.”

Johnson then pursued a master’s degree in industrial relations at the University of Minnesota, something she called a “pioneering woman experience.” All the while, Brad Johnson built up the family’s business.

Johnson was recruited by a mentor to create an HR department at Gillette Companies. As the first female executive at the company, her hiring was met with resistance. She recalled the indignity of attending company meetings at the Minneapolis Club, where women had to enter the building using a door at the side of the building.

Yet Johnson blazed her own trail, so much so that in the late 1980s, when the $112-million New Market Bank was looking for someone to establish HR processes in the bank, Johnson’s name was passed along to then-president Bob Vogel, by not one but two men.

Johnson joined the bank’s board in 1990. “I think [joining the board] was fairly pioneering,” Johnson said, given the lack of gender diversity in the industry at that time. The addition of Johnson to the board gave New Market Bank, which was just entering the Lakeville market at that time, “near-instant credibility,” said Anita Drentlaw, president and CEO.

“Back in the early days especially, I knew a lot of people in the area and could refer people to the bank — one of my goals,” Johnson said.

Her expertise in property management and human resources “were invaluable as we expanded physically and grew from a small, centralized employee base to our now 30-plus employees in three locations,” Drentlaw said.  

During the Great Recession, Drentlaw credited Johnson with keeping stress levels manageable: “Her composure under pressure surpasses nearly anyone I have ever met.

“As the first non-family woman on our board, Audrey has been a personal role model and mentor to me,” Drentlaw said. “She successfully transcended many barriers for women in business, juggling a full-time HR position, a property management business and motherhood. I am deeply indebted to her for sharing her experience with me and encouraging me in my leadership.”

Throughout her 28 years of board service, Johnson acted as confidante to Vogel and Drentlaw. Johnson remains active on the board’s governance committee, which she helped create, but recently retired from the board at age 81.