Brave New Brand: A Conversation with Dave Ehlis of Bravera, Pt 2

In this special episode of the Believe in Banking podcast, Sean and Gina welcome back Dave Ehlis, President and CEO of Bravera Bank. In part two of their discussion, Dave talks about how the bank rebrand would come to life inside their branches and across their growing network – from smaller more rural branches to larger ones in bigger cities. He talks about the power of optimism and how instead of fixating on the downsides of change, leadership across their organization focused instead on what could go right, and how committing to investing in manifesting this brand to branch change would pay off now and in the future, in the people and places Bravera would serve. Finally, Dave shares his deep belief in banking and how he sees Bravera’s commitment to customers all around, supporting them throughout their lives.

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 Believe in Banking podcast. I am Sean Keathley, CEO of Adrenaline. In part one of our special guest podcast, we had the good pleasure of talking with Dave Ehlis, president and CEO of Bravera Bank. They are a regional banking leader in the northern plains of the US. Dave shared Bravera’s unique origin story as American Bank Center and talked about the imperatives for a name and brand change while the organization prioritized growth. He touched on how their leaders came to consensus around decisions and managed change with people throughout their entire organization. In part two of our discussion, Dave discusses how that change manifests itself in the branch environment and across the entire Bravera network. He talks about how with such a big change for the organization, some people may tend to worry about what could go wrong, but instead, Bravera’s leadership focused on what could go right and the opportunities ahead that would come out of embracing change.

Sean Keathley: He addresses the new Bravera brand, how it honors their organizational history and carries it forward in a new way. Finally, Dave shares with us why he believes so strongly in banking and its ability to help people. It’s an insightful and inspiring conversation with one of banking’s best. You mentioned the benefit of people noticing union communities you’ve already been in, but let’s also realize that’s a big commitment and the branch infrastructure has to be updated. I love a comment you made earlier that once you decide to do it, the quicker you do it, the less you’re going to spend. It just pains me as I look across the nation and I see people with these names that aren’t ownable, build new branches with new signs into new towns. I know one day it’s going to have to change. And so just talk a little bit about the effort that you went to, to think about making sure that because this now represented who you were and the branches are the stage for your people in each neighborhood, you took to heart updating those branches to reflect the new brand.

David Ehlis: Yeah, that’s right, Sean. We wanted to do it right and I think that if you make a change like this, you have to be committed to doing it right and there is a certain amount of investment that goes with it. So obviously, Sean, you probably are very familiar with the process. We worked with your team and involves going out and taking an inventory essentially, of all of your current branches and basically capturing it in photographs where you are today and then deciding what level of change you want to do within each branch. And obviously, it varies.

For us, we have some very rural locations that the amount of investment that you can make is a little bit more limited than in a larger location, but we wanted to make sure that the brand, regardless of the size of the location, was very well represented. We also were in the middle of a branch transformation effort ourselves, in installing new technology and basically upgrading and refurbishing branches. So it did fit well within that process as well, but it was a, I would say, probably about an eight-month process to go through that from essentially inventory of where we were today and then making that change. As I travel out to our branches, whether it is in our larger markets, our rural ones, I’m always very proud of how they look and the changes that we made and how we used it as an opportunity to really update where we might have needed some updates as well.

Sean Keathley: So Dave, we just mentioned that your markets aren’t all the same and you have to think about bringing the brand of life in very rural markets, to your point, growing markets, growth markets. You’re doing a balance, you’re protecting your markets, your legacy markets. You’re in many towns. In other cases, you’re going to new territories. Tell us a little bit about the idea. I think some people think of the physical transformation being “We’re going to slap a sign on every building,” but I don’t think that’s how you all thought about it and your marketing team was incredible and instrumental in helping us make sure that the brand came to life that the appropriate levels.

David Ehlis: Sure, you’re right. It takes an investment that we knew we had to commit to making an investment in our branches. So it wasn’t just a sign and we first of all, started with taking an inventory of all our branches, so working with Adrenaline to get a photo inventory essentially of the interior of our as-is state and all of our locations, and then looking at it branch by branch in what type of investment could we make, what was justified and how do we make sure that they really represent who we are, what we wanted the branch to represent. Part of that was, there was an interior kit of parts, there was some painting, interior signage, and obviously, the amount of investment changed a bit depending on the branch, but that was clearly a part of it. We also, at the time, were in the middle of installing new technology and upgrading several branches, so it fit well into that process.

Gina Bleedorn: This kind of massive change is in a way a once in a career, maybe once in a lifetime opportunity for people at the bank. And with change, I’ve said to many audiences, the fear of change in general, holds organizations back. And you’ve said it’s because people tend to focus on what they’re losing, their minds go there first. You focused elsewhere. Can you tell us about that?

David Ehlis: Sure. I mean, you’re right. To me, I think human nature is that we tend to… We’re much more in tune to what we might lose and what we might gain. What we really tried to do within our leadership team is to really focus on what could go right. We spent a lot of time as we were rolling it out both to our staff and to our communities, really reinforcing that message, focusing on the positives.

Again, if you have a great product, it helps as well. And we really did have a great product and we rolled out the new brand, so that certainly made that job easier, but we had to be intentional about that, that we have to focus on the positives of this change, especially early on as you’re starting that process when you’re still building your courage for that change to really be intentional to think about what might come out of it and the positive impacts that it might have. I would say we also were very much our partners at Adrenaline, Gina, Sean, you were very instrumental that having someone with you on that journey who’s done it before, who you can trust, certainly helps to build that courage as well. And then also the work that you did in sharing examples with us of banks who’d gone through the process and there before and after. And the benefits of that certainly were very helpful as well.

Sean Keathley: Dave, that reminds me of Lance Hall at Origin Bank. They were community trust bank and just had the same problems. They were growing into Texas and there was a community trust of 300 of them, and they knew they had to do it. They tried to do it themselves first. After trying that, when Lance called us, he said, “My advice would be get professional help.” So whether it’s Adrenaline or someone else, you would agree with that, get the professional help.

David Ehlis: Absolutely. Yeah, I would a hundred percent agree with it. I don’t think that, yeah, you could do this on your own. I mean, it’s just not what… We’re bankers. We’re not experts at branding and I would highly encourage anybody to get professional assistance as you’re going through something like this.

Sean Keathley: Well, and to do a check in on Origin, Lance and his team are now, they’re 10 billion in assets. So we never say the branding is going to create explosive growth. But as a banker, how would you describe how brand plays a role in your growth?

David Ehlis: Sure. I believe it’s a fundamental component to it. First of all, if you have pride in place, it helps you to attract the best staff. And I believe we’ve seen to that, it increases your awareness, your presence in your communities, and it helps in staff attraction and staff retention. So we definitely have seen that. I do believe that it does have a direct business impact.

For us, for example, we’ve had record numbers of new account openings the last couple of years, and obviously, there are a lot of things that we’re doing to make that happen and you can’t tie it directly to a brand, but I do believe that our brand has fondly been a component of that. So I believe it helps you to attract staff, it helps you attract customers and it just enhances your overall standing within your community, which is important to growth. So yes, it’s hard to measure. I mean, it just is and that’s kind of the nature of doing something like this. But for us, I believe it’s been a very key component of our growth the last year and a half. And I think it’s going to help us as we grow, as we go forward as well.

Sean Keathley: Brand, the word, means a lot of different things to a lot of people. But when I’m talking to bankers, I mean, I do think of culture is a huge part of it. And so as you think about the reasons you think brand helps you grow, maybe there’s a story you can tell us about how you can stay successful with this brand promise as you grow the bank. And we might have to pull up one Ted Lasso in maybe an episode from season one. How would that apply to your ability to scale and not lose who you are? Can you give us an example of that?

David Ehlis: Sure. Our culture is to be a company of advisors and the Bravera brand, we believe, represents that very well. And the story that you’re referencing from Ted Lasso, there was an episode where he quotes to be curious and not judgmental. And we have a great example of that.

We have many of them, but one of them that came to my attention was we had an individual that came into one of our branches, this was about a year ago, and didn’t have the appearance of someone that had, let’s just say, significant resources. And our staff did a great job, like they would do with any client, doesn’t matter if you have $200 or 20 million dollars, we treat everybody the same. And they treated this gentleman with respect, the curiosity. Well come to find out, he did have quite substantial financial resources and has become a very loyal client of the bank, a proponent of the bank. And to us, it’s just a great example of not being judgmental, being curious, being an advisor and taking your time to give advice to your clients, regardless of what you think they might or might not have. And we’re super proud of examples like that. We see those often within our company.

Gina Bleedorn: Well, you were just this month even, recognized as the best place to work in Dickinson. It’s clear that your brand infused culture of how you treat people and having values that go top down and bottom up are manifesting themselves. Tell us, in today’s landscape, we know we’ve just been through some recent events with regional bank failures that have many customers scared and uncertain about the financial industry landscape and what is safe or not. Tell us about what that means for you. What would you say to customers asking about, “Is my money safe? What is the difference between Bravera and the community banking industry as a whole in light of these recent events?” How would you speak to that? Especially to somebody that isn’t in the industry and doesn’t know?

David Ehlis: Sure. I mean, that’s a great question, Gina. Obviously, we’re all impacted by what’s going on within the industry today, even if it’s directly impacting us or not. For us, I believe there’s several things that have calmed our customers and calmed our staff. One is that I mentioned, we’ve been here a long time. So even though we have a new name, we’ve been here over a hundred years and there have been a lot of good times and bad times within those a hundred plus years. So that’s certainly something that is to our benefit. The other thing I really believe is that as a community bank, we are just so deeply rooted within our communities and we’ve been that way for such a long time that people, I would say, view us in a different lens than maybe some of the things that are happening farther afield from us.

So it’s certainly something that we’re definitely aware of, we know we have to continue to earn that trust of our customers. We haven’t really seen it impact us. And I think that’s the story of most community banks right now to a high degree. I think simply because we’re so deeply rooted within our communities and they understand the risks that we do and that we don’t take and that we’ve been doing this a long time, we’re committed to doing it a long time in the future, and that we’re very well diversified within our communities and don’t represent the same maybe types of risks that we see in some other places.

Gina Bleedorn: You are no stranger to challenges given what you’ve just been through already and the process ups and downs, the COVID ups and downs, and now today. So given all you’ve been through and where we are today, if another CEO asked you, “Dave, I’m thinking about right now, going into a rebranding process, renaming perhaps rebranding,” what advice would you give them?

David Ehlis: So I’d say first of all, make sure you’re committed because it does take commitment to do it, then you have to be willing to see it through and you have to be willing to accept that there will be some challenges along the way. And I think that’s true for any change management process.

The other point of advice I’ve given is make sure you have a partner who you can work with, whose done it before and you can trust. And for us, it was the team at Adrenaline. And so that was a great help to us and great comfort to us as we went through the process. The other piece, and we’ve mentioned that before in the podcast, is that look past the risk to what can go right, because I think that that’s so important as you’re contemplating doing something like this, is that we often focus on what might go wrong when in fact you really have to spend time being intentional about what can go right. And I also think that as you go through the process, you’ll discover more things that can and will go right than you anticipated before you started it.

Sean Keathley: Dave, that’s great advice. In the tone of advice and reflection, did anything surprise you? Bankers don’t love surprises. Did anything surprise you?

David Ehlis: That’s a great question. I mean, I don’t know that we had many surprises. I think I was probably more surprised on the positive side after we had gone through the process and launched the name about how quickly and how well our communities sort of engaged with and adapted to the new name. And it’s almost like they don’t remember what our old name was anymore. And we’ve only been in a year and a half. And so I would say that probably surprised me in a very positive way. We thought that the change management with our communities would be much more difficult than it was. I think the internal change management is probably always more difficult than the external change management, but our community is really quickly engaged with the new name and developed, I believe, the same pride for it that we have.

Sean Keathley: We find that to be true, but we would never dare say it to someone too soon. And it is a testament to the commitment to the process. If you can go with great heritage and concern by some, to just a year and a half later having trouble remembering back, I do believe you’ve not only seen the benefits, your communities, your customers, your employees, the talent you’re getting, but you’ve also, you’ve paid homage to the history. And I think that’s always a delicate balance. How do we honor the rich history? And your bank has rich history, but set us up for success to go as many years forward and do that with class and taste. And I think that’s what you’ve pulled off.

David Ehlis: Yeah, I do believe that Sean, and you said it well, that as you go through a process like this, you have to make sure you honor your history, who you are and then carry that forward in a new way. That, I believe, is an important part of it. Mean even when you look at the photographs that were chosen and that we used to represent all of our imagery around our new brand, it’s very, very much rooted in our communities, our customers, working people, farms, ranches, families, and so that has so well represented as well. But you do definitely have to… I don’t believe you would ever want to choose a name that did not very closely tie to who you are, but also have some aspirational looking forward to who you aspire to be as you go forward as well.

Sean Keathley: And that’s well said and you’ve already said it, but just to underscore and just the own ability, one of the things I hear from your team and others that have done this is, you now get credit for what you do. There is no confusion. And that’s one of the most frustrating things. If you’ve got great people and great culture and there’s confusion in the market. So we’re so proud of you, you’re leading change through an industry. You’re growing, not losing who you are. Honored today to have you as a guest. And we know for sure our listeners enjoyed listening to your story. It’s an amazing one. It’s going to inspire people to think about their journeys. We always end with an important question and as people listen to this, it’s maybe silly we have to even ask it because I think you’ve talked about it throughout the entire story, but we know you do. But tell us, Dave, why do you believe in banking?

David Ehlis: Why I believe in banking, and particular why I believe in community banking, so I block off the first two Thursdays of each month to visit with customers, and yesterday, I was out visiting with farm clients who are just starting planting in Central North Dakota. And you can really see what we do for those clients. I mean, we help them or finance their new equipment purchases, their land purchases. We’re funding the growth of their crops. When you spend time like that with clients who we depend on and who depend on us as well, that’s what makes you believe in what we do and helping them through their journey, growing their business, transferring their business to their next generation, making sure we’re helping them to protect it with insurance products. That’s why I believe in what we do and I think that’s why my colleagues at Bravera believe in what we do as well.

Gina Bleedorn: Wow, that was a beautiful answer, Dave. Kudos to all the leadership and passion and heart you have put into the bank and how it’s manifested in such real ways for your people, for your communities. You are living a brand promise. That is something we are honored to see and we’ve been honored to know and be a part of this. It is such a representative example of what hopefully other banks can be inspired by, learn from and bring back to their communities and to their organizations. So thank you tremendously for spending time with us today on Believe in Banking.

David Ehlis: Thank you, Sean. Thank you, Gina.

Outro: You’ve been listening to Believe in Banking, a podcast series created to empower decision-makers, influencers, and industry leaders in financial services. Be sure to also join us on our flagship site,