In 1996, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe purchased a local bank in Onamia, Minnesota, becoming only the third Tribal nation in the United States to own a bank. The Tribe renamed it Woodlands National Bank, and it became the first Tribal-owned bank to be granted a national charter.
At the time of purchase, the bank counted $17 million in assets. Before the turn of the century, assets substantially increased to $25 million, prompting Mille Lacs stakeholders to open more branch locations.
Whereas some national, non-Tribally owned banks are wary of lending to individuals or businesses on reservations due to a lack of understanding of sovereign rights, combined with other compounding factors like poor or nonexistent credit histories, Woodlands National Bank is expanding economic opportunity for Tribal members and entrepreneurs. Woodlands is meeting Native American demand for a broad range of financial services on and off reservation in Minnesota and in neighboring states.
For instance, Woodlands opened a bank in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, thanks to the support of several nonprofit organizations.
“This is a low-income neighborhood with a high concentration of Native American residents that had virtually no access to traditional banking. This branch now serves approximately 800 customers with traditional checking accounts, personal loans and home loans,” Ken Villebro, President and CEO of Woodlands National Bank, told Native Business Magazine.
That said, Woodlands maintains a strong presence in urban areas to stay competitive. “Early on, we operated strictly in small rural communities which made growth a challenge. We made the decision to focus more of our growth strategy on developing small business banking customers in the Twin Cities market,” Villebro said.
Over 20-plus years, the bank has expanded its resources to bring the benefits of full-service banking to small businesses—such as cash management, remote deposit, ACH, electronic wire services and more. For personal accounts, Woodlands offers checking and savings accounts, personal and auto loans, retirement accounts, and more.
Woodlands National Bank is also one of the largest originators of HUD 184 mortgages in Minnesota, and the bank obtained an “Outstanding” rating in the Community Reinvestment Act.
The Woodlands Way
Beyond earning the respect of customers as a trusted advisor in financial and related matters, Woodlands National Bank is committed to going the “extra mile” to provide exceptional customer service. The bank refers to its personalized service as “The Woodlands Way.”
Too often, customers at mainstream banks are talking to someone new each time they need assistance, explained Villebro. “Our management team has been with Woodlands for over 18 years on average and our entire officer team has been with Woodlands for over 13 years on average. This provides for continuity of service that cannot be found at most banks,” he said.
In today’s banking environment, many institutions have similar products and rates, which means the only defining difference between banks can be levels of service, and a deep understanding and respect of concerns and needs specific to Native Americans.
“Because we’re Tribally owned, we understand what it’s like to make loans to Tribes or Tribal entities or Native homeowners. I feel like we’re more sensitive to the unique needs of our diverse clients and business owners,” said Sarah Oquist, Chair of the Board of Directors for Woodlands National Bank. “We’re a community bank. One of our core values is to cultivate long-term relationships with our customers, so that we’re partnering with them in their success.”
A founding member and CEO of minority- and women-owned Sapientia Law Group, Oquist is the first female and first Mille Lacs Band member to chair the Woodlands’ Board. Oquist underscored that providing jobs within local communities is important to Woodlands National Bank. “We have 51 employees, five of whom are Native American. We’re always looking at [ways to enhance our] succession planning and training. How do we create environments for people to learn and grow and enjoy their work? Our team will be best able to provide good customer service if they feel like they’re being treated well, too,” she told Native Business Magazine.
Among the ways Woodlands National Bank is growing its customer base and building loyalty is through online banking services. “Technology is ever-changing,” acknowledged Oquist, adding that Woodlands aims to offer the latest online banking services to clients. “We’re always making sure we have the right vendors and technology to provide those [online] products; and also educating our team, so that they can support those products; and then educating the customers, so they know how to utilize the products. We believe one of our biggest opportunities is to provide online services that successfully support our customers in their banking needs.”
In addition to the benefits of receiving or making direct electronic deposits, customers of Woodlands National Bank will soon have access to even more online banking tools. “We are focused on rolling out expanded online services including more individual access in the coming months and online account applications and personal loan applications to Minnesota residents in the coming year,” Villebro said.
It’s continuous upgrades like this that keep Woodlands sustainable and competitive in today’s market. “I think one of the main goals for me is to continue to grow Woodlands National Bank in a very healthy way, and to continue to improve service to the various communities where our branches are located,” Oquist said.