Much has changed since motorists lined up for blocks to deposit physical paychecks on Friday evenings at Citizens Independent Bank, but the St. Louis Park bank still maintains its independence and community focus.
The bank is celebrating 65 years since it opened with six employees at 5001 Excelsior Blvd. in January 1950.
When it opened, Citizens State Bank, as it was then called, became the first local bank since the failure of the St. Louis Park Bank in 1915, according to the St. Louis Park Historical Society.
When it added a drive-up window with a drop-off slot for customers to use after hours, Citizens State Bank claimed the distinction of becoming the first in the area to offer customers banking “round the clock.”
Eventually, the bank outgrew its original site, which is currently home to a Dairy Queen. The bank moved across the street to 5050 Excelsior Boulevard before moving to its present home at 5000 W. 36th St. in 2004. Along the way, the bank added branches in Robbinsdale in 1982, Hopkins in 2000 and Plymouth in 2001.
The bank’s first move across Excelsior Boulevard provided it with space owned by Park Nicollet. Employees pushed carts of bank documents, safe deposit boxes and money across the road to the new location.
“We had police with shotguns making sure no one took money,” Chief Operations Officer Laura Tillotson recalled.
Employees volunteered the use of their pickup trucks to move equipment, said Bank Card Officer Lisa Louis. At one point, both the old and new locations were in operation at the same time, requiring employees at the old location to walk documents across Excelsior Boulevard to the new location for processing.
“We were all like, ‘Do not get hit by a car!’” Louis said. “We were the courier service. We crossed Excelsior Boulevard bravely.”
After Park Nicollet declined to renew the bank’s lease amid the health system’s growth, Citizens Independent Bank moved into the newly built Wolfe Lake Professional Center in 2004. The bank occupies about half of the first floor of the center and about a quarter of the second floor.
The bank moved money with armored vehicles this time, but employees ceremoniously carried some items by hand in honor of the bank’s first move.
“We walked through Wolfe Park with empty bankers boxes we pretended were full of great things,” Marketing Director Becky Bakken said.
When the Wolfe Lake Professional Center site opened, Citizens Independent Bank closed a branch at Minnetonka Boulevard and County Road 25 that operated for about 25 years. That site now hosts a Starbucks.
In the old days, the area looked much different, before the construction of Byerly’s, Target, AAA Minneapolis and other destinations, longtime employees said. The bank is so old that one of its board members recalls using a wooden step to talk to a teller, Bakken noted.
Many of the bank’s leaders have been with the business for decades.
“I think the longevity of the bank itself is just the people,” said Tillotson, who has worked for the bank for 38 years in all.
She recalled the days when tellers had to manually look through ledgers about a foot high to look up a customer’s balance.
“Meanwhile, they’re waiting,” noted Louis, who has been with the business for 42 years.
She recalls drawers and drawers of checks taking up bank space, as well as a complicated sorting system, and the days when bank desks included ashtrays.
“It was like ‘Mad Men,’” said Bakken, referencing the popular television series about the advertising industry in the ‘60s.
At one point, the bank only owned two large calculators, and employees had to use their math skills to manually calculate many transactions.
“When we got one of our own, it was so cool,” Tillotson said.
Like much of the rest of the industry, Citizens Independent Bank today offers mobile and online banking but still seeks to maintain its community-oriented philosophy, Bakken said.
“We still have the philosophy that customers are people, not numbers,” Bakken said. “We hang our hat on being part of the community.”
Connie Bakken, who bought the bank in 1980, placed an emphasis on education, allowing tellers to move into new roles as personal bankers, commercial lenders or other positions, Tillotson said.
The bank now boasts 80 employees in four branches, and Connie Bakken (no relation to Becky Bakken) still visits to greet employees, although she leaves the day-to-day operations to her son, President and CEO Brad Bakken.
In a newsletter for customers, Brad Bakken said he is proud that Citizens Independent Bank remains unmerged and locally owned after so many years.
“We’ve enjoyed being part of the growth of the communities we serve, the rebirth of older neighborhoods and the growth of new ones,” he wrote. “We have no intention of being anything other than what we are and have been for 65 years; a true community bank!”
Contact Seth Rowe at [email protected]