Al Wolf was walking out of the cafe with his father as a boy in Linton when the town banker called out from across the street that he needed Wolf’s father’s signature on a note for the loan he used to plant his crop.
It was at that moment Wolf says he realized how necessary a community bank was, even for his independently minded farmer father.
“It’s very important to have a bank that knows about the industry that’s there,” Wolf said.
A lawyer by trade, Wolf didn’t work directly in finance, but that didn’t stop him from having an impact on the community banking industry in North Dakota, serving as general counsel to the Independent Community Banks of North Dakota. And his recent retirement from the board of the local community bank he helped found marks the close of his lifetime of involvement.
“Al always believed and continues to believe in community banks,” said American Bank Center President Dave Ehlis.
Wolf had been lobbying for a number of groups in the early ‘60s when ICBND approached him to help it organize. Wolf would make many trips to Washington, D.C., testifying in the halls of Congress, and he said he became known for helping rural lawmakers craft responses that allowed them to speak with authority on the importance of community banks.
A few years later, a number of local investors were worried about big banks coming in and taking over the North Dakota market.
A couple of men from Montana had bought controlling interest of the State Bank of Burleigh County in 1976, where Alvin Haas was serving as executive vice president. So Wolf said local leaders, including surgeon Dr. James Moses, and United Printing owner Joe Hauer, approached him, Haas and later, Myron Pfeifle, and said: “Let’s do our own thing.”
The first Friday of December 1977, Bismarck State Bank opened. Wolf had help it get its FDIC certification.
“It really started as a community bank,” Ehlis said.
Working from a temporary office trailer near the Gateway Mall, where one of the American Bank Center branches still sits today, Haas told the Tribune at the opening: “We are anxious to get into business and get introduced to the community."
It was in 2009 that Bismarck State Bank joined with American State Bank out of Dickinson to become today’s American Bank Center, Ehlis said.
“The founders really saw a need for a bank that was community focused, small business focused,” he said, serving businesses such as dentist offices and legal practices that were often passed over by the bigger banks.
Today, American Bank Center is among the five largest community banks in the state, said ICBND President Barry Haugen.
The growth of the company under the board’s leadership is one big achievement that has taken place while Wolf has served, Ehlis said.
“They did it through good times and bad,” he said.
In 2016, the board set another growth goal — to double the company’s size by 2024.
Haugen said American Bank Center's success speaks to the adaptability and flexibility of community banks. Wolf spoke out against interstate and branch banking on behalf of ICBND, a fight which ultimately was lost. But American Bank Center has turned it to its own gain, growing and thriving in the state better than some of the big brands.
"Al has been a big part of that for a long, long time," Haugen said.
With increased size has come more products and services. The company has diversified to include insurance, trust and wealth management. And Wolf said he’s proud that the bank was among the first in the state to have an investment broker on its main floor, bringing all aspects of financial planning under one roof.
Ehlis said that innovation continues with initiatives, including American’s “Branch of Tomorrow,” which automates day-to-day banking services and gives employees more time to focus on customers.
“We aspire to be a company of advisers,” he said.
Wolf has also been an advocate of how the bank gives back to the community, and the company donates about $600,000 annually, according to Ehlis. One such donation that was meaningful to Wolf was given to Annie’s House, which commemorates North Dakota native and 9/11 victim Ann Nelson. Wolf said he was close with the Nelson family. When his own daughter canceled plans last minute to go to New York City on that fateful day in 2001, it made him grieve for them even more knowing he could have experienced the same pain.
"Even though it's evolved into a large sophisticated financial institution, it's still at the heart of the community," Haugen said. "They rarely say no to a good cause."
And Haugen said American's leadership and talent development is at the backbone of how towns, such as Bismarck, become cities and communities.