Brave New Brand: A Conversation with Dave Ehlis of Bravera, Pt 1

In this special episode, Sean and Gina welcome Dave Ehlis, President and CEO of Bravera Bank, a regional banking leader in the Northern Plains. In this conversation, Dave discusses the bank’s rich history and new challenges they faced as they continued their path to growth. When the financial institution formerly known as American Bank Center was expanding their reach, they needed a more ownable name as they moved into new markets. Dave describes the decision-making, change management and consensus-building needed for such a large-scale institutional change, and ultimately how a rename and a rebrand to Bravera brought out a tremendous amount of institutional pride for their customers and communities.

Text Transcription

Intro: This is Believe in Banking, a podcast series for decision-makers, influencers and leaders, featuring experts taking on the financial industry’s most pressing issues with insight and empathy. The podcast features information and conversations designed to enlighten and empower. Here are your Believe in Banking hosts, Sean Keathley and Gina Bleedorn.

Sean Keathley: Welcome to our podcast for Believe in Banking. I am Sean Keathley, CEO of Adrenaline.

Gina Bleedorn: And I’m Gina Bleedorn, Chief Experience Officer at Adrenaline.

Sean Keathley: Well, Gina, we have a very special guest today. Do you want to make that introduction for us?

Gina Bleedorn: I do. We are thrilled to have Bravera Bank’s President and CEO, Dave Ehlis. Welcome, Dave.

Dave Ehlis: Thank you, Gina.

Sean Keathley: Well, Dave, we are thrilled to have you. I think what would be great for our audience, if maybe what we just started with, give us a little bit about the background and maybe we’ll call it fast facts, but who is Bravera Bank? Tell us a little bit about your organization.

Dave Ehlis: Sure. Well, thank you, Sean. So, our background and history goes back quite a ways. So our bank was founded in the early 1900s. We’ve done a number of mergers and combinations since then, but I would say our roots really go back to a small town in Western North Dakota where we were founded in the early 1900s. And as was typical of what was happening here at that time, it was very much a pioneer town. And I would say that culture has carried forward with our bank today. Today, we’re a $3 billion organization. We do have three different charters, we’re the process of merging them all into Bravera. That will be accomplished by early next year. We also have a wealth and an insurance company. Our core customers are within our communities; farmers, ranchers, small business owners and citizens of our communities. So, we’re certainly very focused on our communities and our story has very much evolved with them, and I think that our culture today even carries forward many of those characteristics of those pioneers, characteristics like courage or optimism, humility, curiosity, adaptability, resilience, all those things were super important back then and they’re still very, very important today.

Gina Bleedorn: Dave, you have established so much as a bank. What have you done recently to help reaffirm the commitment to the community that you’ve always had? Tell us a little bit about today’s accolades for what Bravera is doing.

Dave Ehlis: Sure. I mean, we are extremely engaged in our communities, and we do that in a number of ways. We’re absolutely committed to giving back to our communities. In 2022, for example, we had over 4,000 hours of community service that our employees volunteered their time. And we very much encourage that. In fact, we want all of our employees to do at least 8 hours of community service a year. So it doesn’t matter if you’re an FSR or if you’re in my position, we all enjoy and are expected to do that. And I think it’s part of the reason why people are part of Bravera as well, because of that commitment to our communities. We also are a tremendous financial contributor to our communities. So last year for example, we contributed over $900,000 to various charitable works or investments in our communities. And so we’re a strong believer in supporting your community. We think it’s core to our mission, it’s core to what we do, and it’s something that we very much enjoy doing as well.

Sean Keathley: Well, Dave, listening to that, and of course, we know it, but it makes me think it might be time to talk about the story because Bravera has not always been your name. And as you think about the journey you’ve been on, I have to believe that the DNA of who you are, the type of people you employ, how you’re weaved into every neighborhood you’re serving probably is part of the beginning of maybe why you went on this journey, the naming and the branding that you went through. Where did all this begin in terms of the bank, the brand, and trying to align who you were inside and what the front door said you were with people that maybe hadn’t met you yet?

Dave Ehlis: Right. Well, we’ve been a growth company and we plan to continue being a growth company. And I would say our earliest thoughts about rebranding were very practical. We probably didn’t realize all the other benefits that would come out of it until much later, but our previous name was American Bank Center. And of course, we were super proud of that name, we love that name, but it’s not unique. And we had more challenges as we grew into more communities where we had other banks that had similar brands or financial institutions had similar brands. And so we decided that we needed a unique brand that really told our unique story and really represented who we were. So, I would say at the beginning, it was a very practically-driven decision. As we went through the process, I think many of the benefits that we’re seeing today really were probably only obvious to us a little bit later in the process. But, we’re now in North Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, we continue to expanding new communities and we wanted a name that was unique, represented who we are, and something that could carry us forward for many years.

Gina Bleedorn: Dave, one of the things we dealt with you from the get-go was multiple brands, multiple names. Tell us about what you faced having done a number of acquisitions as well as having divisions with insurance and wealth. How was the state of the multiple brands and how did you come to the decision to unify using one name, number one, and then make the decision to rebrand from American Bank Center to a net new name? Those were two pretty big decisions. Not many do, but you made them upfront. Can you tell us about that?

Dave Ehlis: Sure. Thanks, Gina. Well, one of the, I guess, internal debates we had when we started this journey was do we have a model, a multi-branded model? Because there are models like that and there are some of those that have been very successful. And so it was something that we really did consider. What we really did as we thought through it, and of course we worked with our partners at Adrenaline as we thought through that as well, that we just became more and more, I guess, convinced of the benefits of having a single brand. It’s something that would really unify the company because I think some of the positive impacts of having separate brands is that we were uniquely represented in different communities. Probably the downside, we never really got the brand strength out of it across our geography, and I think it also contributed to maybe made it harder to create one culture within the company as well. So those are really the things that drove us to the decision that we ultimately needed to align under one brand.

The other benefit that we really thought through is that if we’re going to change, it’s going to be a change for everybody. And if everybody had the change or had the opportunity to change, then it was also an opportunity for us to really unify the company under one name, one culture, and really one plan going forward.

Sean Keathley: Dave, one of the things that is synonymous with every one of our clients that’s successfully rebranded is strong leadership. It absolutely cannot happen without strong leadership. And so one of the things I always wonder, as well, tell me about your board. You had a lot of history and heritage, you’ve been in communities a very long time. How was your board’s reaction when you first started to think about, “We’re going to change the name of the bank”?

Dave Ehlis: That’s a great question, Sean. Well, I mean, I think the first question was why? Why are you doing that? Of course, because as you well know, a name change is not an insignificant endeavor. I mean, there’s a lot of work, there’s a lot of expense, there’s a lot of risk when you do it. We’re fortunate that our board, even though they certainly have, as we all do, we have a lot of pride in our company, they had a lot of pride in the name American Bank Center. I think they also realized the need to do it and ultimately had the courage to do it as well because there is risk in change. And so I’ll give our board a lot of credit, I think, for trusting our management team. I know having Adrenaline along our side helped considerably as well because we had an expert that could really guide us through the process. And I think those things really ultimately gave them the confidence that we were doing the right thing and that we were positioned to do it in the right way.

Sean Keathley: Well, another thing that is happening with all the people that are rebranding is they’re in growth mode. And you’ve already said that. We know your bank is growing to serve more communities. Talk a little bit about that trigger. You really had the mindset that something had to change, but maybe it was during that last acquisition, where it was kind of like the leg goes over the fence, now is the time. And then you really do start to think that as opposed to the things we’re going to lose in this, I had to really start to recognize some of the things I’m going to gain because I think you have a longer list of things you’ve gained today than you did when you made the call. So just talk about the idea of that multi-brand, that last acquisition and when you said said, “Now is the time.”

Dave Ehlis: Yeah, I think for us it was really as we expanded into Montana. There is another bank in there that we essentially had the same brand as what they had. So that was a clear trigger, we needed to make a change. We also just really believed we wanted something that was ownable and unique to us. So as we grew that, we wanted a name that we could uniquely brand ourselves, would uniquely represent us. And so that really became clear and clearer too as we went through the process that a) it was time to do it, we wanted a unique name that represented who we are or a brand that represented who we are and who we aspire to be, and then also, a realization that delay, at some point, is not to your benefit because obviously the larger you get, the more expensive the endeavor becomes and the more change management that you have to go through as well.

Gina Bleedorn: Dave, you were so instrumental in having the foresight and realization of all of those things you just said. Tell us about the process. Even amongst the leadership and the executive leadership at the bank, not everyone was fully aligned. And honestly, that’s normal, but tell us how you worked through that process to make sure all key stakeholders got on board, either initially or eventually. What was that process like? What were some of the hurdles and how did you overcome them?

Dave Ehlis: Well, I think by using the word process, Gina, you said it very well. It very much was a process. And I think that you have to understand that it will be a process. And you’re right, not everybody was in favor of it to start with. I think we all got there in a reasonable point of time, I guess, or time period. But I think the process actually helped it. That it wasn’t something that just we did within a week that you decide you want a new name and it magically appears. And so I think going through that process actually is an important part of the change management. So we first started with, which was facilitated, as you know, by yourself, Gina, but an internal discovery session where we brought a lot of our management together, our senior management, and spent time really understanding who we were. And so I think that was a key part of it.

There was a lot of external research, so reaching out to our customers in a very analytical way to have a viewpoint of how our customers viewed us. And then of course the whole entire process of selecting a name and choosing it. So I think the process itself actually helped with that. And I think that’s one thing that people have to realize if they start on something like this, that it is going to take time, it’s going to take commitment. But I believe the process helps to create the buy-in in it as you go through it.

Gina Bleedorn: Dave, you experienced, in real time, the challenge of that process. Like you said, it’s not a light switch, you don’t see the name on paper and the next day it becomes so. There is often long periods of legal verification and questions about how ownable is this or not. But ultimately, when you ended up with Bravera as the name and forge your path as the positioning, and again, knowing that it takes some time for that to really sink into the fiber of who the bank is and what it really means, but what does it mean now to you as far as the values of the bank and how the name and the positioning reflects that?

Dave Ehlis: What it means to all of us, obviously we’re tremendously proud of the name. Many of us, I believe, as we went through the process, and obviously you’re familiar with it, you’re presented with a set of names and then you narrow it down to a selection and trademarking is a part of that. But I believe it just really represents who we are. Bravera itself, the words bravery and truth, there probably aren’t two finer words when you think about the positive attributes of human character. For us, as our history, going back to that pioneering spirit being rooted in the Prairies, certainly those are two characteristics that have been important. They were needed if you were to survive in many cases as a pioneer. So it just really represented who we are. Our team is extremely proud of it, it’s created a great deal of pride within our team. But to me, the name just so well represents who we are. Forging your path, obviously also forward-looking, but rooted in strength. And again, I think that so much reflects the communities we serve, the people we serve, our clients and our employees.

Sean Keathley: Dave, listening to you talk, it’s always my litmus test for was it successful? This is proof that we fit a brand to what was already existing. We did not change who you were as an organization, we just gave you a better outward manifestation of it. And so with that being now validated, think back, we deal with a lot of bankers, we know you’re managing risk and this is an emotional decision, which even, and you know this, money’s emotional, which is why relationships and banking will always be important. But when and what was the first thing that happened when you thought, “We got it right”? So we hear your confidence today, but go all the way back, what was the first thing that you just said? And maybe you didn’t tell anybody, but you said it, “We got this right?”

Dave Ehlis: That’s a great question. And there were probably many moments of that, Sean. I mean, personally, I loved the name from the start. I mean, I think it just fit us so well. It wasn’t solely my decision, but I certainly was rooting for Bravera to be our choice. But I think for us, as we started communicating the name to some of our internal staff and some of our staff who’d been around a long time and were very proud and committed to the American name, as we shared that with them, we had a number of them that really, really bought into it quickly. And that’s probably, as you’re going through this process, obviously the risk you’re always thinking through is, “Well, I may like it personally, but will everybody else like it? And how will this change go over within our community?” And so I think that, to me, is when we started sharing it with some of our senior tenured staff, that had been with the company a long time, were very proud of the current name and they were wowed by it, that made me feel a lot better.

Sean Keathley: Well, and you’ve said process a couple of times, and I think that there is a recipe and you really have to follow the recipe. And one of the things I’ve always heard Gina say, “You’ve got to get your internal commitment and buy-in first.” Your next is your current customers, and then it’s the market. And so you do start inside out. And so if you think about the first tier of that inside, we know you will never make 100% of people happy when there’s change. But I think we always find out, then when done properly, that even the dissenters become an opportunity to reinforce the brand story. Was that true for Bravera?

Dave Ehlis: Well, that was absolutely true, that, as you know, Sean, when you go through change, you’re going to have a certain segment that is advocating very early for it and gets on board earlier. There’s going to be another segment that takes a little more time to warm up to it. And then there is a portion that probably just aren’t going to like it right out of the chute. And we did see, I would say, a pretty quick convergence from if it’s up and to the right is to those that really like it, moving to that direction. And I think that’s because it was well done. I mean, the outcome was very good and it generated a tremendous amount of pride, I think, as we rolled it out to our staff, our communities, and our customers. But I would also say that you do have to make a significant investment in change management and don’t underestimate that.

Our marketing team did a great job of just communicating as much as we could early and often. Obviously, you can’t communicate everything right away as you’re going through it, but we were very transparent to our entire company that we were going through a rebrand. As we were able to reveal components of it, we did that. As we went through it, we also were transparent to our communities early on that we were going to be doing this. They didn’t see it just when the name came out. But I think you have to really execute a very determined communication and change management program. And certainly, erring on the side of more communication is better than less. And so I think that was a major component of our success as well, was that we were very deterministic in our communication and change management.

Gina Bleedorn: Dave, you had an extra special challenge. Well, all rebrands have their own special challenge, but we had a pandemic in the middle of your brand launch planning. We were supposed to launch in 2020, ultimately pushing it to 2021. What was that like having so much change occurring at the bank, amidst macro change and navigating a lot of uncertainty? You had to deal with so many things outside of your control, and you did it. You did it ultimately incredibly successfully, and then we were able to have an in-person, full launch in ’21 when it was safe to do so. But how did you successfully navigate such uncertain waters?

Dave Ehlis: Well, that’s a great question, Gina. It was a very unique time to be trying to do something like this. And we did make the decision, obviously once the pandemic started, that we didn’t believe it was the right time to do it. Because to truly do something like this right, I think you have to be in the right frame of mind. As our leadership team, our staff, and with what was going on at that time, we just didn’t feel it was the right time to do it where there were a lot of concerns within our communities about people’s families, their own health, the health of their business, and it didn’t seem like the right time to do it. So we did delay it until 2021. I believe that was absolutely the right decision. It would’ve been very difficult to do it. It would be very difficult, also, I believe, in the middle of an event like that to create the positive energy that really is so essential to a change like this.

Also, I do believe that by waiting until 2021, it gave us a little bit more time probably to make sure that we really went through the process in a very, I guess, methodical way. The trademarking took a little longer than what we thought, so that helped, that little extra time to do that. And then I also think by late 2021, which is when we launched it, people were ready. I mean, they were ready to start coming back out again, they were ready to reengage. And so it really, I believe, worked in our favor from that standpoint as well.

Gina Bleedorn: You said one of my favorite things that anyone has ever said about going through a rebrand, which was that you began it as a practical effort, but there were all of these upsides that you didn’t necessarily anticipate, or if you did, you didn’t know what far-reaching impact it would have. You chose to change because you were making acquisitions and had multiple names and had a non-ownable name, expanding into an area with another bank of a similar name, highly practical. But the upside, and my ultimate favorite quote you said to me was, “People tell me they see Bravera everywhere now, but we’re in the same places we were before.” Tell us about what are some of those notable impacts that you didn’t foresee that have helped advance the bank forward?

Dave Ehlis: You’re right. I mean, I’ve heard that many times myself is that, “Boy, we see you everywhere.” And we’re not really in that many more places than we were before in each of our communities. So I think that just points of the fact that by having a unique name, a very well-developed name, and the great branding and logo and everything that goes around that, just makes you more noticeable. I mean, it just does, and it did that for us. The other thing I think it’s really done for us is created just a tremendous, or maybe a new level of pride for our employees. So I think our employees have always been prideful of our company, but having a unique brand that is so well-represented and was so well-created has, I would say, taken that pride to a new level. And we see it with, we have our casual Fridays where people wear logo gear. They generally wear it throughout the week, people wear it on weekends and are proud to do that. And so I think that’s just a representation of another thing we didn’t really expect is how it would take our pride and engagement in our company to another level.

Sean Keathley: Dave, it just dawned on me, you were part of the supply chain problem. You guys bought so much logo gear, we couldn’t keep it in stock. That tells you that you’re onto something, right?

Dave Ehlis: It does, yeah. I think that when we had our vendor, our clothing vendor kept selling out of our branded clothing, I think it really was a great confidence builder for those of us that maybe had some trepidation here and there as we were going through the process.

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