Banker recognized for decades of career and community service
After more than 60 years in banking, Castle Rock Bank President and CEO Dan Nicolai still sees life at a small bank as a series of opportunities.
"People come in and sometimes, if they need, call me at home, and we're available to them," Nicolai said. "Working for a larger bank, you're not. You work in your cubicle or your stall and that's it. Here we do everything. ... At times, the demands on my time are overwhelming, but I regard it as an opportunity."
Nicolai's career and community involvement in both Castle Rock and Farmington have spanned decades, an accomplishment recognized last month when Nicolai was presented with the Legacy Award by the Dakota County Regional Chamber of Commerce. The award recognizes a business professional who has made a "lasting impact on their company and the economic vitality of Dakota County through their leadership, mentorship and business acumen," contributing to the community and region for more than 20 years.
The 2015 winner, Don Chapdelaine of SKB Environmental of Rosemount, presented the award to Nicolai at the Chamber's Business Excellence Awards program on Thursday, Nov. 17.
Although Nicolai is honored to have received the award, he is quick to credit community building and strong partnerships for many of the initiative and projects he has been involved with.
"I didn't do anything outstanding to earn that award, but I did work with hundreds of people over the years — particularly our bank staff, very talented, dedicated people — that make good things happen if possible," said Nicolai.
An accidental start in finance
Nicolai has been part of Castle Rock Bank since 1956. At the time he was working for Norwest Bank of Minneapolis, but was asked to work in Castle Rock while one of their current bankers was called up to the Navy.
For two years, Nicolai did a little bit of everything — worked as a teller, managed loans, and balanced the books at the end of the day.
"We counted the money, added the checks, and hopefully came out on balance," said Nicolai.
At the time, Castle Rock Bank was responsible for about $2 million in total assets. Today, that figure is more than $200 million.
In 1958, after changeover in leadership at the bank, Nicolai was invited to return to manage the day-to-day operations at the branch. In 1961, he was named president and CEO, a position he has held ever since.
Despite the seemingly clear trajectory of his 60-year career, Nicolai said he got his start in the financial industry "quite by accident."
After graduating from college with a double major in economics and philosophy, Nicolai joined the U.S. Army, hoping for a post in Europe where he could "enjoy the good life." Instead, he was deployed to Fairbanks, Alaska, where he worked supplying weapons and ammunitions to combat units for almost two years.
When he returned to Minnesota, Nicolai was poised to begin a career at Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M), but his plans took a turn after a chance meeting in the Twin Cities.
While hauling cattle with his brother, the boys made a stop at Stockyards National Bank in St. Paul, where Nicolai was approached by the bank's vice president about a job. Nicolai asked what he'd do — work with the banker, primarily on livestock loans — and how much he'd get paid.
"He said, 'Well, I don't know, I'll pay you what you're worth!'" Nicolai recalled. "The following Monday I went to work, but I went to the bank instead of Minnesota Mining, and I've been there ever since."
Community first, last and always
The guiding philosophy of Castle Rock Bank, developed when it was organized in 1916 and maintained under Nicolai's leadership, is that the institution should be "operated for the good of the community, first, last and always."
"We're available to help in most any case that seems reasonable and where we can make a difference," said Nicolai. "I feel the bank is a very important part of a community."
One important way Nicolai and Castle Rock Bank have given back to the community is through support for scholarships at Prairie Creek Community School, now a charter school in Castle Rock.
Prior to becoming a charter school, Prairie Creek served as a private school for the small community. When the school was founded as a private institution, the cost of tuition could sometimes be a challenge for families hoping to have their son or daughter attend.
When principal Caroline Jones came across a student she felt could benefit by attending, she'd make her way over to Nicolai's office to share the story and make a pitch.
"I knew what was coming — at the end of every story, she'd say 'Now Dan, I'll pay half their tuition if you pay half ... some accomplishments, you know?" Nicolai said.
"He often donated the majority of the remaining 50 percent of tuition of at least one, if not two, students per year," Jones told a reporter for Northwestern Financial Review. "As many as 15 students were helped with tuition by Dan. I could not have gotten those kids into the school without him."
In addition to providing financial support for community events and educational scholarships, Nicolai has a history of community volunteerism that also contributed to his selection for the Legacy Award.
He was part of a beautification committee in Farmington that helped install the first "Welcome to Farmington" sign, and was the finance chair for a committee fundraising to build the Farmington Swimming Pool. Nicolai was also a founding board member of the Farmington Area Education Foundation and continues to be active with the Community Action Council for 360 Communities.
"That's how things get done, people working together," said Nicolai. "I feel very fortunate to be exposed to great people."