Father, son find work-life balance in ag banking


FOSSTON, Minn. — Same town, same bank, same last name. Different generations.

Yes, Daniel Paulson and Ryan Paulson are father-son ag bankers.

"There was a job opening here, and he (Ryan) was the perfect candidate," Daniel Paulson says. Other decision-makers told Daniel, "Ironic that he has your last name."

The Paulsons work at the Fosston, Minn., branch of American Federal. Dan, 50, is the ag/business banker and senior vice president. Ryan, 25, is the ag/business banking specialist.

Parents and children frequently work together on Upper Midwest farms and ranches. The Paulsons are a reminder that it occurs in other parts of the ag economy, too.

The Paulson family has long, strong ties to both agriculture and the Fosston area.

Daniel, the fifth generation of his family in the Fosston area, grew up on the family farm north of Fosston in the Gully/Trail, Minn., area. He graduated from Fosston High School and then North Dakota State University in Fargo.

After finishing high school, he joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency as a farm loan officer in 1989 in Fosston. He joined American Federal in Fosston in 1996.

"So this is hometown," Daniel says of Fosston.

That's true for Ryan, too.

Ryan graduated from Fosston High School and then Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. After college, he worked in Fargo for another banking company as a credit analyst. Then, about a year ago, the Fosston bank had an opening for an ag banker.

"We were looking for a qualified, good person with the experience. And, sometimes with the rural communities, it's hard to find applicants. We always look for people with connections to the community," Daniel says.

Ryan fit that description perfectly, his father says.

Others in the group making the hiring decision, including the Human Resources department and senior management, thought so, too, Daniel says.

"He was obviously the best candidate for the job, and everyone agreed," Daniel says.

Ryan says he liked living and working in Fargo. But he and his wife, who's also from the Fosston area, were visiting Fosston just about every weekend.

"There was a triggering moment. We were driving back to Fargo one night from a weekend up here (Fosston is north and east of Fargo) and we thought, 'We really must like being there, because we're doing this two-hour drive every weekend,'" Ryan says.

Ryan accepted the job offer, first working for several months in American Federal's corporate office in Fargo. That helped him get to know employees there and to better understand how the company operates, he says.

He began working in Fosston in the spring of 2017. Because of his strong ties to the community, bank customers knew him and accepted him.

"Trust is so important in banking. And the trust factor was high from the get-go," Ryan says.

Strong town

Agriculture dominates the Fosston bank's business, just as it does for banks in other farm and ranch towns.

Farmers in the Fosston area raise many crops; wheat, corn and soybeans are most common. Cattle are found in parts of the area, as well.

Fosston, population a little over 1,500, is part of the Grand Forks Metropolitan Statistical Area, which consists of North Dakota's Grand Forks and Minnesota's Polk counties. Fosston's distance (about 70 miles) from Grand Forks and other relatively large towns in the area gives Fosston businesses a boost. U.S. Highway 2 runs through Fosston, too, which also helps.

"We're pretty proud of our business community. It's bigger and more diverse than some people might realize," Daniel says.

The bank's core trade area is within a 50-mile circle of Fosston, but it has customers from the Canadian border to the north "all the way down to southwest Minnesota," Daniel says.

"We have customers who have never been in this building," he says, noting that personal connections with bank employees attracted those customers and modern technology allows them to bank from a distance.

But personal ties, including on-farm visits by bankers, remain crucial to working with customers, he says.

Daniel has his own ties to farming, including a brother who farms full time.

And Daniel farms himself on a small scale.

"I do a bit of farming on the side. Keeps the dirt under my fingernails and keeps me humble," Daniel says.

"And it's a great thing for me to be doing. One, I love doing it. And it keeps me informed with what's going on with customers. A much smaller scale than my customers, but we're doing the same thing," he says.

Working together

Daniel says he knows fathers and sons who frequently clash on a personal level. For them, he says, working together professionally probably isn't a good option.

"Don't do it, because it will wreck you family," he says.

Daniel and Ryan — who discussed potential problems before Ryan accepted the job with American Federal — are careful to separate their professional and personal lives.

Ryan uses this analogy: "I would never throw a snowball at my boss. But away from work, he might find one coming his way ... At home, he's Dad. At work, he's my boss."

Daniel offers this advice that may apply to nearly every situation in which parents and children work together: "Be prepared to take some corrective criticism from your son. Be ready to hear from him when you can do something better."

Ryan's job reviews and other personnel issues are set up in a special system to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest.

Daniel says, "As a parent, you're proud when your kid succeeds." And now, as a bank manager coaching his son, "There might be a little more satisfaction when he succeeds. That's the cool part."

"The flip side is, maybe it's just a bit harder when they fail at something," Daniel says.

The Paulsons say they expect many good, productive years together at the Fosston bank.

Daniel smiles and says, "It hasn't been a year yet (of working together at American Federal). But so far, so good."