South Dakota banker makes transition to newspaper man

South Dakota banker makes transition to newspaper man

Olmsted, Monte

Each Wednesday as he thumbs through the latest edition of one of his weekly newspapers, Bruce Orison is reminded of his career switch-one that now leaves ink on his hands and a personal satisfaction because another paper has hit the stands.

Five years removed from his days as a Midwest regional bank president, Orison has grown into his new career as a small-town newspaper publisher in South Dakota and Iowa.

Gone are the days of reviewing loans, and nail-biting,caused by bank regulators while overseeing most of Minneapolis-based Marquette Bank’s Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota holdings.

Today, as a man in charge of four small weekly newspapers near Sioux City, Iowa, Orison has replaced his banking duties with tasks such as reporting on city council meetings and high school sporting events, and selling advertising to local businesses.

What a change for a man who had limited newspaper experience.

“The last time I did this was in Journalism City at Boys State,” said a chuckling Orison, recalling his stint in high school covering mock government events for the American Legionsponsored program.

The former president of Marquette Bank of South Dakota in Sioux Falls, S.D., Orison decided to leave banking in 1995. A few months before Orison departed the industry he and wife Susan bought their first newspaper the Leader-Courier in Elk Point, S.D.

The couple knew a little bit about the newspaper industry During his years as a banker, Odson met a number of newspaper industry insiders throughout the communities in which he worked.

He knew about the marketing side because he and bank staff often dealt with the advertising and editorial departments of local newspapers. A few newspaper publishers also served on the boards of banks where Odson worked.

And, as bank president, Odson joined the editorial board of the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, the state’s largest newspaper.

As a novice newspaperman, Odson found early on that it wasn’t easy juggling editorial advertising, circulation and the technology aspects of the business.

“It felt good, but it was scary” Odson said of the switch. “Whether you’re leaving banking or a large corporation to buy your own business, you come into it at the base level of knowledge. It’s the learning curve that’s your key”

The main reason Odson left banking: He wanted to be his own boss.

The last 15 years of his banking career were spent with institutions owned by the Carl Pohlad family best known for Marquette Bank. In 1981, he joined Farmers & Merchants Bank in Huron, S.D, where he became president. Odson left South Dakota in 1986 to lead Marquette Bank Northeast in Minneapolis. Three years later Odson returned to South Dakota as president of Valley National Bank in Sioux Falls, bought by Pohlad from longtime South Dakota banker Erling Haugo. The bank eventually changed its name to Marquette Bank of South Dakota.

“After working in banking-a changing industry-and for some exceedingly strong individuals, it’s very nice to be an entrepreneur on my own,” said Odson, who runs four newspapers with a combined circulation of nearly 5,000.

Odson and his wife-a certified public accountant-rely on each other in operating the papers, and a 7100-circulation “shopper.” Besides the South Dakota newspaper, the couple own three newspapers in Iowa: The Akron Register-Tribune; The Independent/Advertiser in Haywarden, and The Examiner in Ireton. The papers have won numerous awards under Odson’s leadership.

The banking and publishing industries aren’t as different as one may believe, Odson insisted. For example, both build communities. If a newspaper or bank doesn’t love its community nobody else will, he said. “In essence, newspapers do the same as banks. If a town has a good newspaper and a good bank, it’s going to do well. One pumps the money in, and one pumps the psychology in.”

The public also has a similar bond between the two industries.

“Banks and newspapers are quasi-public institutions. Both may be owned by one shareholder, but because of how they serve their communities, their customer base feels an interaction and feeling toward them, and has very specific expectations.”

Finally publisher Odson finds himself in a similar role as that of a community banker as both offer independent voices in their respective industries. That’s important during times of consolidation that have struck both banks and newspapers.

“There are a lot of chains buying up newspapers, and independents like myself are becoming rarer and rarer,” he said.

The major difference between Odson’s old life as a banker and new one as a publisher is that the 52-yearold now works for a small business with 15 employees. Work can’t always be delegated to staff.

Odson added that newspapers also are driven by a more sales-oriented culture as the pursuit for rev enue grows intensively each week. But, he expressed some relief in not ing that he’s writing far fewer memos and attending fewer internal meetings than he did as a banker.

Now living in Vermillion, S.D, with his wife and three children, Odson no longer helps bank customers such as farmers obtain loans; rather, he helps them in other ways. Like the recent time a proud farmer informed Odson that one of his ewes gave birth to four lambs. A picture of the young animals later ran in Odson’s newspaper.

“The specifics are different,” Odson said of banking and publishing, “but the commonality and themes are very similar”

By Monte Olmsted

Copyright NFR Communications Inc Apr 8, 2000

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