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First National Bank draws on past, looks to future

First National Bank of Bemidji is almost as old as the city itself. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

The fledgling city of Bemidji was one year old in 1897 when Andrew Warfield started the Bank of Bemidji with the first five customers depositing a total of $910 in checking accounts.

Two years later, F.P. Sheldon chartered it nationally as First National Bank.

In 1918, Rudolph Welle, the first of the family that now owns the bank, graduated from St. John's University school of business. He had been working with his older brothers at a bank in Melrose, Minn., but at age 21, he was seeking a full-time job. He had offers from banks in Luverne, Minn., Beach, N.D., and Bemidji, but the offer of $8 train fare brought him here.

In 1927, Rudolph was elected to the First National board of directors. He saved his money to buy shares, and when the owner's family wanted to sell, the bank and the community were thriving. Rudolph and his brother, Nick, borrowed money and bought the controlling shares.

Joe Welle, who came to the bank in 1955, is Vice President Hugh Welle's father, Vice President Paul Welle's uncle and President Tom Welle's brother. Joe served as president until 2000.

When Rudolph died in 1969, Joe and Nick borrowed money and bought his shares.

In 1971, Paul's father, Bob Welle, took out a loan from Joe to buy the shares from Nick and other family members. In 1972, Paul went into the Peace Corps in Cameroon, Africa, for two years to help people with economic development. He started working at First National in 1981. They recruited Tom from the presidency of a bank in International Falls in 1985, and Hugh came on board in 1987.

First National Bank Bemidji and the Welle family continue to serve the community in long-term financial relationships.

"This 'partnership for generations,' we try to do business that way," Paul said, referring to the First National slogan.

The Welle family is now in the fourth generation at First National since Becky Welle Bentfield, President Tom Welle's daughter, has joined the team.

Paul said the bank has always made loans in a conservative manner, focusing on the Bemidji area, and didn't get involved in the housing boom and bust. He said some business people told them they were missing the boat when the economy was accelerating during 2005-2007

"As my cousin Hugh said, that boat turned out to be the Titanic," Paul said.

He added that First National isn't unique in that business model, and the same could be said of other local banks.

What is different, Paul said, is that the bank executives deal directly with customers, he in investments and deposits and Tom and Hugh in commercial lending.

"It works for us; we want to see who our customers are," Paul said.

Because of the conservative business model, Paul said, the bankers don't spend unproductive time managing foreclosures and can concentrate on serving customers.

"So far this year, we've grown quite a bit," he said. Assets have increased in the first months of 2009 from $448 million to $490 million, and the volume of activity has been the greatest ever in the first quarter of this year. However, Paul said, because interest rates are low, net profits are down.

The bank employs 110 people and employees own 23 percent of the bank.

"They're an important part of the success, so they deserve rewards and incentives," Paul said.

He, Tom and Hugh are the inside members of the bank's board of directors, with six other Bemidji business people serving as outside directors.

The First National Bank Bemidji Foundation also contributes to the community making donations to about 115 organizations, the largest contribution being to the Boys & Girls Club of the Bemidji Area. Employees also are encouraged to give of their time by volunteering.

"As a local, family-owned business, it's part of the community," Paul said. "That's still the way we try to do it."

He said First National's bid for the future is the new bank building on Paul Bunyan Drive Northwest and the commitment to continue working with local customers.