The Strength of Storytelling

By Monica C. Meinert

For Ken Johnson, president & CEO of North Shore Bank of Commerce in Duluth, Minn., success in advocacy starts with sharing stories.

“One of the things I focus on is trying to figure out what’s unique about us, and then share with lawmakers why they might be interested in seeing what’s happening here at the bank and how we’re helping their constituents,” Johnson says of his approach to lawmaker visits. “We talk a lot about what kinds of good things we do in the community—the nonprofit organizations we support, the small business lending that we do to help local entrepreneurs, our mortgage area that provides homes for many people.”

Ken Johnson (second from left) hosts Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn., second from right) during a bank visit.

Johnson has been a passionate advocate for the industry for almost a decade since he was asked by Doug Lewis, the bank’s owner, to step in and fill a position on the government relations council of the Minnesota Bankers Association. (Lewis had been actively involved with the MBA for more than 25 years). Since then, Johnson has played an active role on the council (he currently serves as past chair), is a member of the MBA board of directors, and also spent three years as a member of ABA’s Community Bankers Council.

North Shore Bank has previously hosted lawmakers, including Rep. Rick Nolan (D) and Sen. Al Franken (D). During these visits, “I start out with a conversation about our ownership structure,” he explains. “We’ve been around for over 100 years under the same ownership, the same family structure. We’re quite proud of that and we would like to keep it that way, but we highlight to our lawmakers that there are some things that are happening that make it challenging at times.”

As the top originator of residential mortgages in northeastern Minnesota, the $266 million community bank has a unique perspective on the effects of regulation such as the TRID or Qualified Mortgage rules. “We try to stress that many of these changes have been first and foremost a burden to the consumer—whether it’s the time they have to wait to get their money or the fact that many feel so overwhelmed by paperwork that they can’t possibly comprehend,” Johnson says.

Johnson also makes a point to involve employees—particularly those in compliance and mortgage origination departments—in lawmaker visits.

“They talk about how their jobs have changed over time, especially how the compliance area has changed,” he explains. “Lawmakers love to hear specifics about exactly what in the regulation is making things difficult for our compliance team. And then we go to the mortgage originator and they talk about how the customer is impacted and what the customer response has been. That seems to really get their attention.”

Johnson acknowledges that while a single branch visit doesn’t always translate to sweeping legislative change, it can go a long way to helping lawmakers deepen their understanding of the challenges facing the financial services industry. “I think that in both cases, [lawmakers]have walked out of here with a really different level of understanding of how the consumer has been impacted and how the bank has been impacted by regulation.”

That’s why it’s critical for bankers across the country to speak up and tell their own stories, he adds. “When people say you can’t make a difference, I say ‘nonsense.’ You absolutely can make a difference, you just have to develop relationships and be persistent.”

And when it comes to sharing stories, Johnson tells his employees that it’s not about talking points, but personal experiences. “Just share your perspective on what’s going on in your bank. That’s really the story that you need to tell. Whether you know what the industry talking points are or not, just say what’s happening in your bank and how it’s affecting you or affecting your customers.”


About Author

Monica C. Meinert is a senior editor at the ABA Banking Journal and VP for editorial strategy at the American Bankers Association, where she oversees ABA Daily Newsbytes.