People-First Culture Propels Bell Through Pandemic


Like many companies across the U.S., Bell Bank was riding high early in 2020, amid an economy that had come roaring back following slow gains post-recession. Bell was seeing record growth and record earnings across our divisions. With our focus on providing unequaled personal service that builds lifelong customer relationships, Bell was moving full speed ahead to open new full-service branches and offices in 2020. Our close-knit teams, across a company strongly committed to growth – but never at the expense of a people-first culture – were looking forward to more of a year full of the connections, traditions, celebrations and opportunities that contribute to Bell’s culture and family atmosphere. 

Then the COVID-19 virus hit. 

Remote work had been an exception at Bell. It was about to become the rule – except for our “frontline” team members, who remained on duty as part of the essential service of community banking. Whether employees worked remotely or on-site amid an evolving understanding of risks and practices, both groups faced major changes in work spaces and requirements, along with uncertainty and anxieties that impacted almost every aspect of their lives and work.

Forever Changed

Bell Bank’s response to the pandemic crisis, and the changes and adaptations that we’ve made, have likely forever changed our company – surprisingly, in many ways that are positive. We are going to be a stronger team and a stronger company because of how we responded both internally and externally, in ways that stem directly from the culture that is the essence of our company.  Early in the pandemic, even as executive leadership considered the evolving impacts, fallout and responses – economic and social – among our financial business lines, Bell’s managers, guided largely by a focus on culture and the health and safety of our teams, needed to continually monitor and respond to the physical, mental and emotional circumstances for our employees, customers and members of our communities.

By March 16, more than 1,200 of Bell Bank’s 1,500 employees across the country were sent home to work remotely. Our IT team swung into action, making sure all 1,200 had the access, equipment and communication channels they needed to perform their work, and by the end of the week, all but a handful were working from home, with little to no impact on production. 

Meanwhile, Bell’s frontline teams were in for months of significant angst about potential exposure to team members or customers with COVID-19. While we made changes in our facilities and processes to minimize their risk, that anxiety never disappeared. For several months, our retail banking locations were open primarily via drive-up, or by appointment if someone needed to see a banker in person. Like other businesses, we’ve installed Plexiglas shields and implemented additional cleaning and sanitation protocols, and we’ve promoted mask-wearing, social distancing and other recommendations, following CDC as well as state/local guidelines.  

Staying Connected

For all of our team members, perhaps the key element we implemented was a daily email communication sent directly from our president and CEO, Michael Solberg, to every Bell employee across the country. Michael’s first email went out March 16, headed with a theme emphasizing both self-care and service to others: “Wash your hands, and wash other people’s feet!” In the months ahead, employees understood and embraced this slogan (which dovetailed perfectly with our “Happy employees! Happy customers!®bottom line and company culture).

Michael consistently conveyed several key themes in his emails: our company is financially strong, our employees’ jobs are safe, and team members should be reaching out to their managers – or even to any member of Bell’s executive team – at any time with their concerns or questions. Michael also asked for (and got, by the hundreds) responses from team members on how the pandemic was impacting their lives – in both serious and humorous ways. Those emails became a daily “lifeline” for employees, providing guidance, reassurance and connection at a time when it was desperately needed.

Challenges of the pandemic have been unique for us in terms of the issues we’ve needed to proactively address, the connections and follow-up we’ve needed to make and the resources needed to help our employees – and their families – maintain both physical and mental health. Bell’s HR team also started sending regular emails, providing a wealth of health resources in collaboration with our health insurance provider, ranging from mental health counseling, to daycare and school advice, to online fitness video options and other resources. Additionally, chief culture officer Julie Peterson Klein developed a weekly email for the “Bell family” to focus on employee topics such as gratitude, leadership and giving.

Learning From the Past

While our experience, like everyone’s, was new, Bell Bank’s leaders drew heavily on the experiences of the Great Recession of the late 2000s to help make the adaptations we need to. In fact, EVP Patrick Chaffee (who oversees Bell’s banking, wealth management and insurance services) surmises that if the pandemic had hit even a decade ago, it might have been even more devastating to the economy. By early April 2020, Bell’s executive management and financial leaders were rethinking budgeting scenarios, using more conservative budget models and continuing to build up loan loss reserves every month to further protect our balance sheets against future negative impacts. This planning positively impacted what and how we were able to communicate to our employees to continue to give them confidence. 

Bell’s response to COVID-19 has been and remains challenging – especially since we have locations in multiple states – but our primary objective is always the safety of our staff and customers. The best decision Patrick says Bell has made throughout the pandemic was focusing primarily on the safety and wellbeing of our staff. 

“It goes back to our bottom line of ‘Happy employees! Happy customers!®'" Patrick explains. “We know that if our employees feel safe and secure in how we approach a crisis, they will continue to provide the exceptional customer service Bell Bank is known for.”

Empowering Employees to Make a Difference

A major part of Bell’s people-first culture is our unique Pay It Forward initiative. Each year, every full-time employee receives $1,000 and every part-time employee $500 to Pay It Forward as they choose to people and organizations in need. It’s an amazing program that has opened our eyes to the needs of those around us, empowering more than $18 million in employee giving since 2008. And in the spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic had many people sheltering in place, Bell doubled employees’ funds for the year, granting every full-time employee $2,000 and every part-timer $1,000, so they could make an even bigger difference last year. 

Since 2008, Bell has given away more than $18 million through the Pay It Forward program. But the power of the program isn’t in the numbers, it’s in the stories.

Here’s just one example: When COVID-19 forced Inspire Innovation Lab in Moorhead, Minn., to close its doors to business as usual – and cost the lab an operations grant – the lab’s director thought she might have to lay off employees and temporarily shut down. A Bell Bank team member used her Pay It Forward funds to help, allowing the lab to switch focus from providing science, technology, engineering, art and math (STE(A)M) learning opportunities for kids to helping families with distance learning. Because of the Pay It Forward program, the lab was able to continue operations and not lay anyone off, bridging the gap as the organization waited for federal relief.

And, near the end of the first week of social justice protests after the killing of George Floyd, and the riots and fires that followed, a school in Minneapolis was asking for donations for students displaced when the places they lived were burned. Bell mortgage lender Alex Nelson set up a drop-off location, and collected a whopping $100,000 worth of donations. She also started a Go Fund Me account to help families pay their rent.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Alex commented. “We are impacting the community in a good way. It fills my heart to see it.”

The social justice movement has had a big impact in moving Bell forward on initiatives it had already been looking at before the pandemic and the protests. Now, building off the company’s people-focused approach and our long tradition of community giving, Bell has hired a community development officer to help guide the bank in supporting neighborhoods, minority-owned businesses and nonprofit organizations in communities historically underserved by financial institutions.

“Bell was founded on relationships and personal connections within our community,” comments Michael Solberg. “As we continue to join new communities and neighborhoods, we want to build meaningful relationships, one customer at a time, through the work of our team members and how we pay it forward.”

We all know there continue to be plenty of challenges ahead in these uncertain times. At Bell Bank, we have tried to stay connected and united to face those challenges together, and to help our customers and others in the community face them, too. In the long history of our company, we’ve been through crises, and we’ve always emerged stronger. Our vision for the future of Bell Bank takes the long view – and that means making good decisions that will take our company through this crisis and have positive impacts for years to come.

Deposit and loan products are offered through Bell Bank, Member FDIC. Investing and Wealth management products are: Not FDIC Insured | No Bank Guarantee | May Lose Value | Not A Deposit | Not Insured by Any Federal Government Agency.

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