Few were surprised when Kate Kelly started a bank and became president and CEO. After all, she had been telling people that she wanted to run a bank since she was in junior high. While that might seem like an unusual goal for a teenager, Kelly always loved numbers, depositing her money at the bank and learning about businesses.
So when Heartland Financial USA of Dubuque, Iowa, approached Kelly in 2007 about launching its first Minnesota bank, Kelly jumped in. Then a region president for Bremer Bank, Kelly was working on overdrive. “I was loving it, but I was working very, very hard,” she says. “And I thought that if I’m going to have a workaholic quality, I might as well invest in myself. And I thought it would be cool to put a team together.”
Kelly assembled an investment group, hired people she had known or admired from her 20 years in the banking industry, and secured the state’s last new bank charter. Minnesota Bank & Trust opened for business in spring 2008, right before the financial meltdown. Under Kelly’s leadership the bank prospered during the downturn, growing a bit more slowly than initially planned, but growing all the same. It benefitted from a clean slate of clients without bad real estate or commercial debt, as well as Kelly’s vision to deliver big-bank services with a boutique-bank feel.
Another key was taking advantage of a sudden surfeit of highly experienced bankers with existing strong business relationships. Kelly hired entrepreneurial bankers, and together they cultivated deep connections with clients. “We attracted folks who really wanted to be understood by their bank,” says Kelly. “I remember one of our earliest clients saying, ‘Wow, Kate, I know more people on your team than I ever did at my old bank.’ ”
Kelly also pours her energy into community service. In 2014, she was elected to the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, where the economics major with an MBA shares firsthand business information from the banking trenches.
She brings her passion for education to ServeMinnesota, the state’s administrator of Americorps programs, where she serves as board chair. Kelly has become an important partner of CEO Audrey Suker and a champion of the nonprofit’s work, especially its programs to help Minnesota children become successful readers and mathematicians. “I have to remind myself that she doesn’t work for us full time,” Suker says. “She lives and breathes our work the same way she does as a bank president. It’s a huge gift to me and our organization.”
Entrepreneurial and strategic, Kelly spearheaded the creation of the ServeMinnesota Education Foundation and chairs its board. She recognized that the policy-oriented organization needed a fundraising arm and called on her connections to make it happen, Suker says.
“She’s a natural leader who is always willing to look at what needs to get done and say that we’re going to figure this out,” adds Suker. “She’s the president of a bank, and she makes all of us at the nonprofit feel like we’re in the same league.”
What was your first experience as a leader?
My parents had a summer resort, and they had me run it from junior high on with my younger sister. It was a very independent, responsible thing to do. There are three cabins, and we have rented to many of the same families for 40 years. It’s also how I got my first job in banking. A bank owner brought a group up for a family reunion, and he told me that when I got out of college, he would give me my first job. And he did.
What was your hardest lesson in work or life?
To choose trust over fear. As you lead people, the more you trust, the more things come together. (This realization) comes from years of working too much, when I thought I was the person who had to do everything. It was a burn-out path. When you’re going from a producer to a leader, you have to learn how to trust and hold people accountable.
What is your best habit in work or life?
I’m a very early riser. I tend to everything I want to tend to before 8 o’clock and get organized before the day starts. It’s been a habit for my whole career. Once the day starts, you’re off and running. It keeps me on track.