Chris Caswell began as the president of American Bank in Albert Lea and Alden in November. His great-great-grandfather operated a sawmill in the settler days of Albert Lea. – Tim Engstrom/Albert Lea Tribune
Chris Caswell began as the president of American Bank in Albert Lea and Alden in November. His great-great-grandfather operated a sawmill in the settler days of Albert Lea. – Tim Engstrom/Albert Lea Tribune

Archived Story

Manager at American Bank favors community banking

Published 9:43am Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The president of American Bank in Albert Lea and Alden grew up in a newspaper family in southwest Iowa and wanted to become a journalist.

“I wanted to go to Columbia and get a journalism degree, but my dad talked me out of it,” said Chris Caswell, 56.

Instead, he pursued a degree in accounting and management before switching majors, getting a degree in finance from Iowa State University in 1980. Still, like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather worked in community newspapers, Caswell has managed to have a career in community banks and has avoided the big chains.

He was born in Clarinda, Iowa, where his family owned the twice-a-week newspaper Clarinda Herald Journal. When he was 10, the family purchased the Red Oak Express in Red Oak, Iowa, and his grandfather, Carl, continued at the Clarinda paper. The Express also came out twice a week. The Caswells were the second family to own it in its then-100-year history.

Two years later the Caswells bought the Glenwood Opinion-Tribune, a weekly, and four years they acquired the Malvern Leader, a weekly. These newspapers, a weekly in Corning and a shopper in Council Bluffs were printed on Goss presses the family owned at their Red Oak facility, the headquarters of a company the family named Southwest Iowa Publishing. The presses also did contract work for art calendars. Red Oak is the birthplace of the art calendar industry — those giveaway calendars companies give customers, often with wildlife paintings reprinted on them.

Their family had a good relationship with the prominent Shenandoah family of Henry Field, founder of the Henry Field’s seed nursery. One of the sons, John Field, owned the newspaper in Hamburg. The Field family was a major competitor of Earl May in the seed business, and both families owned now-legendary radio stations in southwest Iowa.

Iowans know former Des Moines Register “Iowa Boy” columnist Chuck Offenburger, who these days operates the news and opinion website Offenburger.com. Caswell said Offenburger got his start as a sports editor at the Shenandoah Evening Sentinel, while Chuck’s older brother was sports editor in Clarinda for Caswell’s grandfather. The two Offenburgers were dueling sports editors in southwest Iowa. Dan pursued a career in education, eventually becoming the athletic director at Creighton University in Omaha.

Caswell’s first job in newspapers was as a delivery boy. His second job was as a groundskeeper. By 13, he was working in the mailroom, collating advertising inserts, and eventually he worked his way into the prepress darkroom, where he made plates for the presses using a big camera.

He did work for advertising, too. He created classified and display ads. He learned how to use a wax machine and a pair of scissors to create ads by hand.

The family had farm roots, too. His family had 250 head of black Angus cattle on a farm near Red Oak and his grandparents on his mother’s side farmed near Clarinda.

During his junior year at Iowa State, the Caswells sold their interest in newspapers to Daryl DeVries, who began building ownership in several newspapers in the region starting with the Carrollton, Mo., paper and several papers in Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa and California.

Today, the Red Oak Express and Clarinda Opinion-Tribune are owned by Shelbyville, Ky.-based Landmark Community Newspapers.

Making contact through a friend in his fraternity, Caswell ended up getting a part-time job during college at First National Bank in Ames, home of Iowa State.

Caswell worked for 15 years in West Des Moines at Hawkeye Bank, Iowa’s largest ag lender at the time. In 1994, it was sold to out-of-state interests and nowadays is part of US Bank. Caswell left Hawkeye to become president of the West Des Moines branch of Brenton Bank, the largest family-owned bank in Iowa.

Ownership in the banking industry was turbulent in the 1990s and 2000s, but Caswell managed to stick with community-based financial institutions.

“I was just always a small-town guy,” he said. “I want to help that way of life survive and thrive.”

Brenton was sold in 1999 to Wells Fargo, which had merged with Norwest the year before. Caswell in 1998 saw the sale coming and departed. He had been contacted by a headhunter to work for the John K. Hanson family that founded Winnebago Industries in Forest City, Iowa, at Manufacturers Bank & Trust.

In 2006, thanks to college friend Dan Hammen, Caswell returned to Red Oak and became the president of the Great Western Bank branch. It was sold in 2009 to National Australian Bank. Caswell moved back to Forest City and launched Caswell Financial Services, a financial advisory practice selling stocks, bonds, mutual funds and similar investments.

That’s what he was doing for four years when the opportunity in Albert Lea came along last fall. Caswell became president at American Bank in mid-November 2013.

During the career, he and his now-ex-wife Sarah raised three children, all of whom graduated from Forest City High School. They were married for 22 years. He was married to a second wife, Jill, for five years. Don’t fret for him, though, because these days he is dating a woman from Mason City.

American Bank is based in Mendota Heights, with four locations in the St. Paul area, in addition to branches in Alden and Albert Lea. He said one of the bank’s goals is to be a leading ag lender in the area.

“That is certainly the core of what we do,” Caswell said.

He said he wants to see the bank active in the community and in economic development. He said being a key home lender is important, too.

“We want to help Albert Lea and Freeborn County put the shoulder to the wheel,” Caswell said.

Customer service where bankers know customers on a first-name basis and decisions are made locally is important to him.

Caswell had been a member of the Lions Club in Forest City and wanted to join a service club in Albert Lea. He asked Adrian Thorson of Amerinational Community Services, upstairs in the American Bank building, which service club was the most active.

She said by far the Noon Kiwanis Club. He was inducted as a member last week. (Disclosure: The writer of this story is president of the Noon Kiwanis Club.)

Caswell enjoys RV travel, paddling kayaks and fishing in his motorboat. He likes attending Iowa State football and basketball games. An Iowa State helmet graces his office. Though he hasn’t been downhill skiing for years, he likes that, too. He said he looks forward to putting his kayak on Fountain Lake and was excited to read the news last week about plans to build a launch for canoes and kayaks along Albert Lea Lake at Frank Hall Park.

Interestingly, Caswell, when he was 22, was one of the youngest commanders in the Civil Air Patrol. He led a squadron out of Red Oak, leading cadets who were aerospace engineer students as well as pilots. They had an ambulance and Air Force surplus equipment and were tasked with being prepared to assist in the event of a plane crash.

His family has Albert Lea roots, too. His great-great-grandfather moved from Maine to Albert Lea and ran a steam-powered sawmill, cutting oak and walnut trees. His name was Lebeus Addison Caswell, whose father had invented the first horse-drawn corn planter. After seven years, L.A. Caswell and his family moved to Boone, Iowa, owning a sawmill south of the Kate Shelley High Bridge.

L.A.’s son Grant started the family’s interest in newspapers. He owned the Dennison newspaper and had a share of the Ames Evening Tribune. He founded the Iowa Press Association, which today is the Iowa Newspaper Association.

Grant’s son Carl was not merely a publisher but also a cartoonist, artist and ventriloquist who started an aviation school in Wichita, Kan., and had been a barnstormer in the 1920s.

Chris Caswell’s mother died 10 years ago and father nine. His oldest brother, Steve, is a retired Air Force pilot who became a corporate pilot for Commercial Federal, and his older brother, John, is a founding partner for Minneapolis-based Galliard Capital Management.

The three brothers enjoy going to a cabin in northern Wisconsin.

 

Chris Caswell 

Age: 56

Address: 1428 Spartan Ave.

Livelihood: president of American Bank in Albert Lea and Alden

Family: single; son, 30, in Marion, Iowa; son, 27, in Mason City; daughter, 25, in Des Moines

Interesting fact: When raising his two sons, he was active in Boy Scouts and served on the board of directors for the Mid-American Council in Omaha.