We sat down with Jeff to learn more about him, his leadership style, and the impressive growth of Crown Bank.
Growing by 60 percent in three years is impressive. How did you get that done?
First of all, I need to stress that I didn’t turn around the bank by myself. When I stepped into the leadership role three years ago, the first thing I did was assemble a team that has the same values as me – honesty and integrity. I believe that if you say you’re going to do something, you do it. I was able to put together a team of people who think outside the box and who sit down and really listen to what our customers are saying. Instead of saying no, our team looks for opportunities, tries to figure out a way to get things done, and helps our customers be successful.
How did the pandemic affect Crown Bank’s business?
When the pandemic hit, we made the conscious decision to keep lending money. The government had two rounds of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) Loans, which allowed us to offer more opportunities to our clients. When some of our competitors were turning off their funding sources, we wanted to be there for our customers. We worked around the clock to take on any customer whose bank let them down. When those businesses needed the money, someone needed to be there for them. That work we did during the PPP days paid off and many of those customers we helped during that time are now customers today.
Has Crown Bank experienced growth in new areas?
Before I took over, we didn’t do a lot of commercial real estate lending. We provided a lot of equity lending, but we didn’t do long-term financing. When the PPP loans were forgiven, we made a conscious choice to get more involved in commercial real estate lending. A significant part of our 60% growth has been in the commercial real estate area.
As you look at the Crown Bank website, there are a lot of client stories there. What was your rationale for highlighting clients?
I truly believe that our client’s success is our success. In addition to rebranding the bank over the past two years, we made a decision to highlight the real stories of our work with our clients. Whether it’s helping them weather the storm of a pandemic, creatively structure funding to buy more collateral or partner on deals to reach business goals faster, we are there to help make the possible, possible. It’s not just a marketing line, we mean it and I’m proud to say we have some of the best bankers in the business at Crown that can make that happen.
What is your approach to building client relationships?
We build trust with our clients by providing them with opportunities for more cash flow so they can invest in and expand other areas. We’re able to make these decisions and move quicker than most of our competition because of our team’s expertise, and because we’re all locally-based. We’re nimble, and this all helps us build loyalty and cement relationships with our customers.
We’ve invested in a strong team here that has a lot of knowledge of different areas of the banking business so we can best support our customers. A lot of time, customers will come in and they’ll want a huge line of credit to buy a large amount of fixed assets. Our team has the experience to know when a line of credit is the best option and help customers avoid tying up their liquidity in a term loan so we may steer them in a different direction.
Our bankers can look at real estate deals and help our customers structure deals to improve their repayment abilities on their commercial loans.
Can you give us an example of how Crown Bank bankers go above and beyond to help its clients?
One of our clients owns intellectual property that goes into ATMs and provides prepaid cards, and they came to us because they needed to buy a lot of new kiosks to distribute their cards. Intellectual property isn’t strong collateral in the banking world because it’s not tangible, like construction equipment or real estate. It’s not easily valued, and you don’t know if you’re going to get your money back out of it.
We were able to look past this because we valued that they’ve been in business for a long time and that they are experts in their field. A lot of banks might not have taken intellectual property as value. We see the value. We see a strong management team that knows what they’re doing, and we believe in them. We were able to provide them with additional funding so they could expand their business and grow into different markets.
Why is Crown Bank different?
I can sum it up in three points. We really care. We answer the phone. We call people back.
We’re different because we see the value in our customers’ expertise, and we believe in them. We work closely with our customers to find the best possibilities that help them in the long run, not just the short run. We have a strong team that knows how to look outside the box and look at all the opportunities. We take the time to sit down with our customers and find out what they’re really looking for and come up with a solution that works for both them and the bank. Our team has the experience to provide that kind of feedback.
How would you describe your leadership style?
My management style is laid back, but firm. While I expect people to do their job and to do it right, I also hire people who have good ideas and the confidence to make a decision. I want to provide direction but allow my team to take ownership of their jobs. I want people to feel like they are a part of their personal growth and the growth of the bank. Overall, I want everyone to feel comfortable working here.
I’m a “walk around” guy, which means I walk around to my team and find out what they’re working on, bounce ideas off of them, and let them bounce ideas off of me. I’m somebody that has a vision and likes to collaborate to see how we can best get it done.
What does growth for Crown Bank look like?
Currently, the bank is at $324 million in total assets up from $195 million two years ago. In the next two to three years, I’d like that number to be $500 million in total assets.
What do you enjoy most about the work you do?
What I enjoy most is working with people – my team, and our customers. Numbers are my passion, so it’s fun to work with Paul Moen, our CFO, and figure out what’s going on with the bank and how we can improve. I like a challenge and the ability to keep innovating and growing.
Did you always see yourself as president and chief operating officer?
This was my dream job. I started as a commercial loan officer in 1998, worked my way up to CFO where I was able to help make decisions on how to manage a bank. I got the opportunity to be President/COO three years ago, and it’s been nothing but a dream job since then. I look forward to continuing to get better and helping the bank become even stronger.
How would you describe your work ethic?
I grew up in Iowa working summers on my grandpa’s farm, so you can imagine that I learned from the best how to work hard. When I took over as President/COO of Crown, I was the first one here and the last one to leave. I think it’s important to set an example, and I strive to do that.
It all comes down to caring about your job. I care about this place, and I want this place to be successful, so I’m gonna do what it takes. If that’s making coffee in the morning, I’ll make coffee in the morning. If that’s standing up for what I think is right, I’ll go have that tough conversation.
I’m not afraid to have the conversations that need to be had so that things run smoother. I’m motivated by opportunities for growth, and I’m always looking for those opportunities. I want to be the biggest and best bank we can be, within our parameters, and that’s what drives me.
Tell us a little about your life outside of Crown Bank.
When Wessels isn’t working long hours, he’s home in Edina with his wife Debra. The two have been married for ten years and share a blended family of three daughters: Kelsey, Kinsey, and Taylor.
Five years ago, Debra bought the Christmas Corner, which is a seasonal pop-up business that has been a fixture in local shopping malls including Ridgedale Center for the past two years. Wessels makes regular appearances at the store on weekends where he applies his banking skills to running the cash register.
“It’s a fun way for us to spend time together and I’m pretty good with money and finances, so I think it’s a good fit,” Wessels jokes.
The Wessels can also be found at the Edina Country Club where they both participate in golf leagues. They also enjoy traveling and he’s a member of the Normandale Lutheran Church in Edina.
Overall, Wessels has relished the challenge of leading the bank through this tumultuous time.
“This is definitely my dream job and I’m honored that the owners of the bank have put that faith in me,” Wessels said. “I’m looking forward to the continued challenge of growing the bank and making things possible for the many customers we serve.