The Best of Both Worlds

Despite assets approaching the $1 billion mark, Starion Financial maintains a small-town mentality and a commitment to community

As CEO of Starion, Craig Larson has taken the helm from his father. Larson’s aim: to maintain steady growth while remaining connected to the communities that made the bank’s success a possibility in the first place.

Craig Larson likes to tell a story about customer service. Years ago, his teenage daughter’s friend came through the drive-through teller at one of his banks, but left without taking her $100 cash withdraw. After her shift, the teller hand delivered the cash. The story might not sound unusual for a typical community bank, but Starion Financial is anything but typical. While its roots are small town, the growing organization has 14 branches in communities ranging from 800 to 500,000 people in both North Dakota and Wisconsin, and is nearing $1 billion in assets.

Despite the bank’s reach, Larson, who assumed the CEO role in 1997, says small-town service and community development continue to define Starion’s banking style. “We consider ourselves a ‘supercommunity’ bank,” he says, adding that the model combines the products and services of big institutions with the warmth and familiarity of neighborhood banks.

Larson works closely with direct reports to ensure the bank is accomplishing its goals—one of which is maintaining a high level of community involvement at each Starion location. “My father once told me that when you go into a small town, if the town is doing well, you’ll find a community bank behind that town supporting it,” he says. “We are passionate about supporting our communities, whether it’s by financial donations or donating our time.”

A good bank can support its residents in many ways, including financial support and community involvement. Larson believes in both. In 2012, Starion provided $350,000 to charities in health care, arts, youth development, and other areas. Moreover, the bank’s leaders encourage all employees to find a cause they are passionate about, and the bank has senior staff members in leadership positions at two trade associations in North Dakota. “There is lots of travel and time involved in what they do, but we believe in allowing them this freedom, because it’s a help to the community and to our industry,” Larson says.

While Starion strives to maintain its community bank feel, it also offers current products and technology. “Some of our customers are in small towns and aren’t able to quickly stop by a branch, so they value having online and mobile banking to manage their accounts,” Larson says. Starion also has a wide variety of services available. “A lot of banks offer personal and business banking services, but we’re able to also provide mortgage, investments, and insurance services,” Larson says. “This is a great convenience for our customers because we can manage all of their financial needs under one roof.”

Larson’s father, Frank, founded Starion Financial in 1969, and the bank remained active in small agricultural towns for the next 20 years. In 1989, Starion found itself in North Dakota’s second largest community—and the company just kept growing. “Unlike some organizations that have grown over the years, the vast majority of our growth has been organic,” Larson says. “We’re really proud of that.”

During Starion’s growth, Larson and his father have kept the customer and community pillars that Larson remembers from his youth. “I came into banking at the age of 21 and remember hearing people say how much they loved our banks because of tellers who knew them by name,” he recalls. As the bank approaches $1 billion, Larson remains dedicated to “making sure Starion remains that small community bank that we’ve always been.”

“It’s not just about how we are making money, but how we are serving people.” —Craig Larson

Larson says he learned these lessons primarily from his father, who his friends, colleagues, and employees describe as a community builder. “[My father] is more concerned about the good that his organization does than the bottom line,” Larson says. “It’s not just about how we are making money, but how we are serving people.”

Part of that service comes in working with clients in times of hardship and trouble. Larson’s father has taught everyone involved in the family business that, although a bank is a for-profit business, banks have a real community responsibility. Larson knows that one day his father will be gone, and he’ll be in charge of the family legacy at Starion. “I know that sentiment will always remain,” he says. “No matter how big we get, we will always be a family owned community bank at heart.”