Jim Campbell is the quintessential old-school Minneapolis businessperson. He grew up in small-town Minnesota, graduated from the University of Minnesota, spent his whole career at one of the biggest and best-known companies in the Twin Cities, and has been mind-bogglingly active in com- munity affairs.
So it’s interesting to learn that this career—with Norwest Banks and its eventual acquirer Wells Fargo—almost didn’t happen.
“I really had no interest in banking whatsoever,” recalls Campbell, 63. He graduated with an industrial management degree, and was ready to accept a job offer from Ford and move to Detroit. But his wife, Carmen, was looking for a teaching job, and in the end, it seemed best to stay in Minnesota. He had worked summers for a bank in Rochester—thanks to his father, a banker in nearby Byron, where Campbell was born and raised—and the would-be engineer eventually got a job as a credit analyst with the august Northwestern National Bank in downtown Minneapolis.
He got in just as a staid, highly regulated industry was starting to transform. And perhaps because he didn’t plan to become a banker, he was able to respond more openly and nimbly to change than those locked into traditional practices.
Campbell’s first big break at Northwestern came in 1972, when he was asked to become president of a recently created equipment-leasing subsidiary—a venture he had helped propose. “Well, what’s a 30-year-old going to say to a chance to run your own business? I said, ‘Sure, I’d love to,’” he recalls. “I basically left the mainstream of traditional banking and had a chance to go off and do something new and exciting. Within a few years, we were producing 10 percent of the bottom line of the bank, which is 10 percent incremental income—a big deal to a business that’s pretty traditional.”
Four years later, he was heading the bank’s national division, managing Northwestern’s relationships with Fortune 500 clients across the country. He got another big break in 1979, when he was named president of U.S. National Bank, an Omaha outpost of Northwestern National’s parent, Northwest Bancorporation, or Banco for short. Campbell’s experience in Omaha, where he brought Banco’s Nebraska operations under a more centralized system, would serve him well when he was called back to Minneapolis in 1984. As president of Banco’s flagship operation here, he brought all Banco entities in the Twin Cities under central leadership.
“The St. Paul people really never wanted to talk to the Minneapolis people in our bank, and the Bloomington people were in this incredibly rapidly growing environment, and they didn’t want to play ball with the folks downtown,” Campbell recalls. “I mean, it was a confederacy. We spent more time competing against each other, and we were all in the same family.”