An officer and a gentleman

An officer and a gentleman

Olmsted, Monte

For a time, the defoliated jungles of Vietnam’s demilitarized zone were the working grounds for U.S. Marine Corps artillery officer Robert Barsness. As the leader of 160 men, the baby-faced college graduate oversaw a gritty group of Marines who fired 100-pound shells at the enemy from cannon-like howitzers.

That was more than 30 years ago. To day, Barsness is half-aworld away leading a community bank in Prior Lake, Minn., and about to take the helm of the Independent Bankers Association of America. His battles now are different than those he fought along the border of North and South Vietnam as Barsness leads another gritty group: community bankers.

The different worlds, though, share a common factor.

“Both require commitments,” Barsness said of his military and banking world experiences. “There’s the long-term commitments a bank makes to the lives of the community. In the military, during wartime, the commitments are shorter term and concentrated, but both are part of lifemaking commitments.”

The longtime Marine motto, Semper Fi or “always faithful” could just as well apply to community banking.

On March 17, Barsness, president and CEO of Prior Lake State Bank, will cap his three-year IBAA officer commitment, becoming the trade group’s president at its San Francisco convention. He will be the first Minnesotan in more than 30 years to lead the group, founded in 1930 in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Barsness’ leadership comes at a pivotal time for community bankers, and what better person to lead them than a persistent Marine used to tactical measures, said Larry Sorenson, executive vice president at Arlington State Bank in Arlington, Minn.

“Bob is not a ‘yes man’ by a long ways,” said Sorenson, former chairman of the Independent Community Bankers of Minnesota. “He’s going to have his own ideas and some of his own agenda. One of the best things about Bob is he’ll look you in the eye and tell you what he thinks, whether he agrees with you or not. He’ll defend his position, but is not going to bowl anybody over. He’s an officer and a gentleman, and will do us proud.”

Current IBAA leader, Bill McQuillan, president and CEO of City National Bank in Greeley, Neb., said the organization gets a good, capable leader in Barsness.

“He’s a strong supporter of community banking,” said McQuillan. “I’ve also seen his Marine mentality and sense of things shine through with commitment to our cause. He’s very determined to get the job done.”

As an ambassador for community banks, Barsness will travel the country promoting the agenda of IBAA and its 5,500 members. At the forefront in his 1999-2000 presidency are financial reform, the credit union battle, agriculture, the year 2000 computer glitch and the accessibility of the electronic payment system.

Financial modernization remains the top concern for Barsness and the IBAA. Consolidating the banking, financial and insurance industries will prove harmful for community banks and long-term public policy, Barsness insisted. The United States only has to look at Asia and that region’s calamitous results from blending banking and commerce, he added.

Besides, Barsness is no fan of mega-mergers.

“When mergers become so large, and [companies] become so big and powerful, they take over the market with sheer clout. Eventually, there’s no competition left. The risk created to the economy is astronomical,” Barsness said.

On the positive side, Barsness said merger-mania has led to the chartering of more community banks as 188 banks were created in 1998. Still, too much power given to too few companies cannot be good, opening the door for “predatory pricing,” he said.

Regarding credit unions, the battle has taken an unusual turn as smaller credit unions have allied with banks against an expanded membership rule. Both the American Bankers Association and IBAA filed a lawsuit against the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), challenging a rule that allows federally-chartered credit unions to include more than one occupational group in their memberships.

“This lends itself to letting large credit unions to get bigger, but doesn’t help the small credit unions,” Barsness said.

For banks and credit unions to coexist, Barsness said community banks should be afforded the same tax relief. Credit unions, after all, offer so many of the same services that banks provide, but with an advantage. “They’re community banks without taxation. We just want a level playing field. It seems logical to reduce taxation for community banks because there doesn’t seem to be much support for taxing credit unions,” Barsness said.

Both industries are watching Texas, where legislation has been introduced to give tax breaks to community banks with less than $500 million in assets. Under the proposed bill, for the first $1 million in income, taxes would be reduced. The initial $250,000 of income is tax exempt, while a 15 percent tax rate is applied to the remaining $750,000. Barsness noted that a community bank would save about $200,000 under such a plan.

The troubled agriculture economy also is getting the attention of the IBAA, which has 60 percent of its members in rural areas. Last year was not a good one for farmers and ranchers, who saw a major decline in prices, although production levels were relatively good.

Prices on corn and beans went into the tank, and hog prices proved disastrous as numerous farmers went out of business or saw cashflows dissipate. Barsness wants changes, including restructured qualifications for guaranteed loans and an improved crop insurance program.

“We need to do everything we can so we have a strong agriculture economy,” Barsness said.

The Y2K issue will come to a head during Barsness’ IBAA presidency. Will it be doomsday or just another day? Barsness predicts the latter and feels comfortable that no major problems will occur. He is so confident about his bank’s Y2K readiness that the bank will probably stay open on the New Year’s Day holiday of 2000, in a public relations move to allay any disaster fears.

Keeping the public informed on the Y2K issue will prevent a panic mode, Barsness said. “Let’s hope the government and regulators do a good job making sure the public is not swayed with all the hype out there,” he added.

Finally, Barsness said community banks cannot be left behind in the rapidly changing world of electronic payments. Access to electronic networks and systems is important for small banks.

Banking History and Career

The 54-year-old Barsness brings a strong work ethic and levelheadedness to the IBAA leadership. “He’s an intelligent young man who is quite determined,” said Pat DuBois, chairman of Minnesota’s First State Bank of Sauk Centre. DuBois’ father, Ben, helped found the IBAA in 1930.

A Minnesota native, Barsness has never lived outside the state except for his military stint. Born in Brainerd, the future IBAA president grew up in Richfield-a Minneapolis suburbthe son of a pharmacist turned banker. It was from his father that Barsness learned the importance of commitment and hard work.

His father, E. Norman Barsness, often worked 14-hour days, seven days a week at the drugstore. As a boy, Barsness didn’t see much of his father unless he worked at the store with him.

In the 1950s, the elder Barsness joined the board of directors at Richfield Bank & Trust Co. and later bought The First State Bank of Red Wing in Minnesota. His banking career grew deeper when in 1961, the elder Barsness became a chartering director of The Coulee State Bank of La Crosse, Wis. Among the other original directors was Lorin A. Gasterland, whose son Dirk now leads the bank.

Dirk L. Gasterland attended high school with Barsness. He said Barsness’ quiet, laid-back style from those days probably made him the least likely person to become a Marine officer. But it helped make him someone to admire.

“He’s so soft-spoken and so low key, but there’s so much there beneath the surface,” said Gasterland. “He was a leader in high school and always has been a leader. It’s been fun to watch Bob go through the IBAA ranks. His father would have been proud of him.”

While in high school, Barsness began his banking career at Richfield Bank & Trust in 1961. The next year, he graduated and left Richfield to study economics at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. While at school, Barsness learned of his father’s newest banking venture that would play a big part in his future. The elder Barsness bought Prior Lake State Bank in 1965.

The Barsness name has been attached to the bank ever since, and a large portrait of Barsness’ father hangs inside. Today, the $94 million bank has one branch and employs 45.

Out of college and a married man in 1966, Barsness resisted following his father’s footsteps in banking. Not wanting to be labeled as “junior taking over the bank,” he wished to make his own name and looked no further than the U.S. Marines Corps. He signed on for three years of active duty that included 13 months in Vietnam from 1967-68.

The Vietnam War, regarded by some as an embarrassing, shameful conflict, was considered part of Barsness’ patriotic duty. When talking about his war experiences, Barsness never tries to justify his actions as a young Marine nor does he debate the reasons for the war. “We did our jobs and don’t have to worry about what other people believe,” Barsness said firmly.

His time overseas made an indelible impression on Barsness. He’s a patriotic man who, because of his wartime experiences, better understands and appreciates the sacrifices made in building a democracy, he said.

Barsness literally wears his military pride on his sleeve. Wrapped around his right wrist are two metal bracelets-one honoring a fallen Marine comrade killed in 1968; the other acknowledging a college buddy missing in action since 1969.

“I’ve been wearing them so long. I don’t know what it would be like without them,” Barsness said of the bracelets.

For the last nine years, Barsness has participated in reunions with his U.S. Marine Corps unit. Spending those special times with his Vietnam War buddies has been a form of therapy, he said. “We all have the same common experience and empathy for each other,” Barsness said.

At the group’s reunion last year in Washington, D.C., more than 30 members of the unit and their families attended. A highlight included the planting of an ash tree overlooking the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The memorial has a close place in Barsness’ heart, and a print of it hangs prominently in his Prior Lake office. Whenever he makes trips to Washington, Barsness always visits the Vshaped monument where the names of 58,200 soldiers who lost their lives in Vietnam are etched in black granite. Barsness estimated that he knew as many as 50 of the people memorialized on “The Wall.”

The monument is the usual destination during Barsness’ running trips through the streets of Washington. An avid runner for 15 years, Barsness has completed 29 marathons even though he only recently gave up a nearly 40year-long smoking habit. His best marathon time was 3 hours and 30 minutes, and when training, Barsness runs up to 50 miles a week.

“It’s a form of relaxation,” Barsness said of running. “You can do it anywhere, don’t need anybody or any special equipment. When you’re traveling, it helps relieve some boredom. You can get out and get a sense of the area.”

The nation’s capital, with its historical sites, has become Barsness’ favorite city to explore while running. He’s also hit the pavement in marathon races in cities including New York, Chicago, Boston and London. The latter race, the largest in the world, attracts 40,000 runners and winds past historic United Kingdom sites including Big Ben and Buckingham Palace.

When not on the run with the IBAA or in his sneakers, Barsness keeps close watch of his community and bank, the two things that have made his existence possible and career successful. He enjoys watching Prior Lake residents grow and become successful thanks in part to his bank’s deeds.

“It’s very rewarding living in a country founded on entrepreneurial spirit and helping make that happen.”

Copyright NFR Communications Inc Mar 6, 1999

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.