by Joni Astrup
In 1974, Debbie Smith decided to take a break from college and work for awhile.
A girlfriend was a receptionist at The Bank of Elk River and told Smith the bank was hiring.
Smith applied and clinched a job after being interviewed by Pat Dwyer.
Four decades later, she’s still there. Smith celebrated her 40th anniversary with the bank last month.
Asked the key to being a successful business woman through the years, Smith laughed and then cited loyalty, longevity and dedication.
“I always tried to do my best and I always put the bank ahead of myself,” she explained.
A native of Sioux Falls, S.D., Smith moved to Elk River after her dad’s job with NSP led to a transfer to the nuclear plant in Monticello. She graduated from Elk River High School in 1973 and then attended Anoka-Ramsey Community College.
Smith’s plan had been to take a year’s break before returning to college. She originally wanted to be a pharmacist, then changed her mind and thought she would be an accountant.
But, about a year after starting at the bank, Smith married her husband, Casey, and then had kids. Her banking career dovetailed nicely with family life, and she never found a compelling reason to work somewhere else.
“It’s a very good job,” she said.
Smith started out as a proof operator, then moved on to teller and then to bookkeeping. When the bank’s School Street office opened in 1986, Smith became the branch manager.
In an interesting footnote, there was one bank robbery at the School Street office, although Smith wasn’t managing the branch at the time. In that case, a man with his face wrapped up like a mummy rode up on a bicycle and robbed the bank. Police apprehended him a short distance away.
Smith managed the School Street branch until 1999, when she returned to the main office in downtown Elk River where she works in consumer lending.
Smith said it has been a perfect environment because she grew with the bank, taking classes and learning on the job. One of just 11 employees when she first was hired, she now is part of a staff of 100.
When she first started out, the bank was located in a compact space along Jackson Avenue where Pompeii Pizzeria is now. So-called “bankers’ hours” were still in effect, with the bank open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursdays and from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Fridays. There were no drive-up lanes and no personal computers. Checks were alphabetized by hand and savings accounts were updated by writing the interest in a small booklet kept by the customer.
Early on, one of Smith’s tasks was training a new teller named Stewart Wilson, who started at the bank in 1975. Wilson now is the bank’s senior vice president and a member of the Elk River City Council.
Wilson said he and Smith got along well from the start.
“The bank at that time was a very kind of somber, quiet work place, other than Debbie, who really kind of livened things up quite a bit. She was very outgoing and liked to laugh and enjoy her work,” Wilson recalled.
One of the legacies of their time working on the teller line is the bank’s first employee Christmas party, a tradition that continues today. Wilson said they convinced the bank’s president at the time, Milt Dwyer, to sell some silver quarters that a customer had brought in and use the profits for the party.
Wilson said Smith continues to be a joy to work with and is a professional banker who has forged a lot of long-lasting relationships with colleagues and customers alike.
“She loves her work, she loves the people she works with, and that’s really evident,” he said.
Smith said the people are the best part of the job. She likes the consumer lending aspect of her work because she can help people achieve some of their dreams.
She also likes the fact that the bank has been family-owned by the Babcocks since it was founded in 1885.
“They treat you like family. You really do feel like one of theirs,” Smith said.
She has known three generations of Babcocks through their affiliation with the bank, including the current chairman and CEO, John Babcock, who represents the fifth generation of Babcocks to lead the bank.
Besides logging 40 years in banking, Smith has contributed to the community. She volunteers at the Community Aid Elk River food shelf, delivers Meals on Wheels and works at the bank-sponsored Riverfront Concert Series. She also is one of three coordinators of Gifts Anonymous, which provides Christmas gifts to children in need.
Smith and her husband have three children, Casey, Mindy and Chaz, and eight grandchildren.
Tammy Andrews, the bank’s director of marketing, said Smith is one of several long-time employees at The Bank of Elk River. When about a dozen bank employees went to lunch recently to celebrate one employee’s 35th anniversary, they did the math and determined that they had a combined total of 433 years of service at the bank.
“With job hopping the way it is, you don’t start and finish at the same job anymore. It just is almost unheard of,” Andrews said.
Smith’s advice is simple: “If it’s something you love, stick with it.”