Power Up Profile: Cornerstones of Advocacy

By Kerry O’Leary

For Vaune Johnson—market president for Cornerstone Bank in Dickinson, N.D.—it’s the little things that make the biggest impressions. Cornerstone, whose first charter goes back to 1952 although Cornerstone itself is a 10-years-young entity with locations in both Dakotas, follows an advocacy philosophy of “get involved, stay involved.”

With a single U.S. representative, as well as two senators, the small political pool in which her home state swims brings many opportunities for the $820 million, 14-branch bank to make large-scale waves for the good of not only North Dakotans, but communities everywhere.

Like much of the Dakotas, Dickinson is often in the political spotlight for its place near the Bakken oil patch, and Johnson notes the advantages: “We have some unique opportunities to spend time with the delegation simply because of our smaller population and proximity to energy and oil,” she says.

But it’s the “strong and involved leaders” at the bank who are responsible for not only building, but maintaining, successful relationships with lawmakers. These relationships—on both the state and national level—are personal for some and collegial for others, Johnson says.

“Our staff is very effective at arranging impromptu visits. And it’s those nuanced relationships that you develop on a local level that really facilitate national impact,” says Johnson. “One of Cornerstone’s values is to be a good neighbor and contributor, and each employee is encouraged to contribute to the community. Grassroots involvement is simply an extension of that,” she explains.

She even brought Rep. Kevin Cramer (R) to a local school to participate in the ABA Foundation’s Teach Children to Save financial education program. “He’s the dad of a young child himself,” says Johnson. “Unlike me, who no longer has children in the school system, other employees have an in with the teacher or the PTA.”

Johnson credits ABA for enhancing these efforts, saying Cornerstone’s attendance at the ABA Government Relations Summit, in addition to programs like Teach Children to Save, are key avenues for initiating relationships with lawmakers that can then be maintained over time at home. “There are many materials and resources at our disposal to help us become better corporate citizens in our communities and a stronger voice in Washington,” she says.

Cornerstone’s philosophy stretches to BankPac and the Fund for Economic Growth as well. “The value proposition with BankPac and the Fund is black and white,” says Johnson, who informally encourages each market president to communicate the value to staff at all levels. “You cannot expect just a few banks to carry the load,” Johnson says. “When we pool those dollars we can make the most significant impact on several different fronts.”

As for the future, Johnson is working to ensure advocacy doesn’t stop with the bank’s current leadership, and she walks the walk. “By virtue of my involvement it’s easy to pave the way for some of our other people to become involved,” she says. Up-and-coming staff are invited to Washington to see how Capitol Hill works and gain a better understanding of “the value of an organization like ABA.”

This advocacy succession plan of sorts is something Johnson imparts on Cornerstone’s employees for more than simply having a plan in place.

“We have a young staff and many are brand new to banking,” Johnson explains. “The network they develop when they stay engaged and come to D.C. has a tremendous impact on their career—the opportunities for leadership are phenomenal,” she says.

Kerry O’Leary is an ABA Banking Journal senior writer.


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