BY Kris Bevill & Randy Newman
PHOTOS BY J. Alan Paul Photography & courtesy of Alerus
How Alerus Weathered Total Devastation and Emerged Stronger Than Before
The winter of 1996-97 is the stuff of legend in North Dakota. After an abnormally wet fall, winter set in early and stayed too long, unleashing a continuous lineup of blizzards from October through early April that left the state buried under record-setting seasonal snowfall totals exceeding 100 inches. A one-two punch of freezing rain followed by a blizzard in early April delivered winter’s final bow to the Red River Valley, making conditions miserable for people who were already filling and stacking sandbags as they braced for inevitable spring flooding.
Alerus’ current headquarters is also located in downtown Grand Forks. The company re-established its headquarters in downtown Grand Forks several years after the flood and fire and played a key role in helping the community rebuild after the disaster.
And flood it did. Communities from south to north battled the rising Red River and suffered damages as a result, but none was harder hit than Grand Forks. On April 18, 1997, despite weeks of effort to prevent it, the Red River breached dikes within the city of Grand Forks, and floodwaters quickly began to overtake the community. The city ordered its residents to evacuate, and as the community emptied out, the situation continued to careen out of control.
On April 19, fire broke out in downtown Grand Forks and spread to 11 buildings, completely destroying some and severely damaging others. It was an ironic and devastating twist for everyone affected, including Alerus—then known as First National Bank North Dakota—which occupied three of the 11 buildings that burned in the fire.
Alerus occupied three of the 11 buildings that burned in a fire that ravaged downtown Grand Forks during the 1997 Red River flood. The Golden Square building (shown here) housed all of the company’s client records and was totally destroyed.
One of the bank’s buildings burned completely to the ground, taking all of its customer records with it. Most of what remained in the other two buildings was lost to floodwaters or damaged by smoke. The company was literally turned to rubble overnight. Meanwhile, its employees and customers were simultaneously displaced from their community and coping with personal-property damages that ranged from flooded basements to total loss.
Randy Newman, president, CEO, and chairman of the board at Alerus, was president of First National Bank North Dakota at that time and led much of the response and recovery effort. He refers to the disaster as the “flood and fire” because while all of Grand Forks had a flood, it was the fire that did the most damage to his company.
Many of Alerus’ customers were displaced in small communities throughout the area after the flood, and so the company bought an RV and received special permission to cross state lines in order to bring banking services to its customers. They dubbed it the Mobile Bank.
“We were down and out,” he says. “We had to rebuild everything from scratch. Few companies have gone through damage to that extent and bounced back.”
But Alerus did bounce back, and, in fact, grew stronger than before—expanding over time to offer a full line of financial services and establishing additional locations in Minnesota and Arizona. After operating successfully for the 20 years since experiencing the worst disaster in North Dakota history, Alerus provides an incredible example of how to prevail when faced with extreme uncertainty. Here are Newman’s top five tips for companies on how to survive a natural disaster.
1. Be Prepared
Financial institutions are required to have disaster plans on file, but all businesses would be well-served to ask “What if?” and map out a basic strategy to deal with unforeseen circumstances. You can’t prepare for a disaster, but you can prepare to recover.
We established a calling tree to identify who should be contacted, and specific duties were assigned to leadership members ahead of time to ensure an orderly reaction. I’d suggest keeping additional vital information easily accessible, including a list of advisers and employees and a strategy to address lost or destroyed technology such as employee laptops. Most importantly, once you have a plan in place, test it and back up EVERYTHING.
2. Care for Employees
About 200 people worked for Alerus in Grand Forks at the time of the flood, and many suffered personal loss. Leadership’s top priorities were to contact employees, make sure everyone was safe and then ensure their well-being so that they could focus on caring for our customers.
Through our property-management company, we negotiated with a local contractor to ensure that employees’ homes were rebuilt in a timely fashion by guaranteeing payment until employees were reimbursed from their insurance companies. A previously established employee-assistance program known as the SMART (Small miracles are reached together) fund received contributions from leadership and banks around the country and was used to provide financial assistance to employees.
For the entire summer, employees were provided free hotel rooms and meals in Fargo while they worked from temporary office space there. Employees who opted to commute were reimbursed for travel expenses. Because many of our employees were parents with school-age children, we fast-tracked the establishment of a replacement building in Grand Forks so that employees would be able to return before the start of the next school year.
3. Communicate With Your Customers
Even though we were hurting as a company, our main focus was on customers and asking them how we could help. And we aggressively pursued solutions for those affected.
Employees created maps showing three tiers of damage to the city—water to roof, water on main floor and water in basement—and became experts in the various disaster-related loan programs in order to provide mortgage-holders with targeted solutions based on the level of damage they had experienced. They researched the best methods for document restoration and provided the service at no charge to safe-deposit-box customers.
The company also increased lines of credit; suspended loan payments for a period of time; and launched an immediate campaign to alert customers to hours of operation, open locations, contact information and assistance opportunities. Whatever our customerservice people were doing before the flood didn’t matter. Everything started over.
4. Be Creative
Many creative ideas were born during the period after the flood and came from all levels of leadership. The most memorable was a solution to provide displaced customers with access to their accounts. Mobile banking was not yet an everyday occurrence in 1997, and so we devised our own way to bring the bank to customers who were displaced in communities throughout Minnesota and North Dakota.
We purchased a motor home; outfitted it with an ATM, teller line, and customer service staff; and received special permission to travel to communities over several days—bringing banking services to those who would otherwise have had to drive hundreds of miles round-trip to conduct their banking.
5. When The Unexpected Happens, React Quickly And Confidently
No one predicted that a fire would destroy buildings in the midst of a record-setting flood event. Rather than reel from disaster, though, leadership went into action to set a course for recovery.
Following the fire, we quickly secured hotel space in Fargo to establish workspace and provide housing for displaced employees. Unsure of the public’s reaction to the disaster, we requested and received a large amount of cash from the Federal Reserve in Minneapolis to ensure that we could support customer withdrawals if necessary.
Weekly meetings were held to keep track of the rebuilding process.
Of course, not everyone agreed with every decision made, but strong leadership and dedicated employees joined together to overcome an incredible deficit. It took time, and we had down years, but looking back at what we went through and where we are today, it has exceeded what I thought was possible. We weren’t just happy with surviving. We wanted to thrive.