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'I've had a good career here'

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It's become an increasingly rare thing for someone to spend virtually their entire life in the same community where they were born.

Detroit Lakes native Jeff Grabow certainly didn't plan on doing so when he graduated from Moorhead State University with a degree in business economics.

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"That's just the way it worked out," he says.

Grabow retired from his position as CEO of Bremer Bank in Detroit Lakes on Dec. 31, after more than 26 years with that financial institution, and nearly four decades in the banking industry.

Most of those 40 years were spent in Detroit Lakes -- but it wasn't in Grabow's initial plans to return to his hometown after college.

After graduating first from Detroit Lakes High School in 1965, Grabow went on to earn a degree in economic administration, with an eye toward a career in financial services.

His first job was with a retailer in Fargo; his second one was even farther afield, as an inspector with a large commercial insurance provider in the Twin Cities.

Factory Insurance Association, which was collectively owned by a group of 60 large stock companies, had given Grabow a large area to cover.

"I was sent all over Minnesota, Iowa, North and South Dakota," he said. "They trained me to inspect their fire protection equipment and services."

After a couple of years of doing that, Grabow was looking to find a job in his original field, banking.

"That was my focus," he says. "I wanted to get into financial services."

You can go home again

When his opportunity came knocking, it was in the form of a job back in his hometown.

"My dad was in business here for many years, and his company did business with First National Bank (now Wells Fargo)," says Grabow.

"My dad had a conversation with Arnie Porkkonen (then a vice president at First National), who asked what I was up to," says Grabow.

That conversation led to a job interview with Porkkonen.

"He gave me my start," Grabow says, adding, "He was a heck of a good man, who died too young."

After about eight years at First National, Grabow took a job with American Bank and Trust in Moorhead -- which is, by coincidence, also part of Wells Fargo now -- and would spend the next four years living in Moorhead with his family.

He was successful enough in his position at Moorhead to come to the attention of C. LeRoy Larson, who was the CEO of First American Bank in Detroit Lakes.

"He hired me as a senior lender," Grabow says -- and his family subsequently made the move back to Detroit Lakes, where they put down roots.

"The two people that influenced me the most in setting the stage for my career were Arnie Porkkonen and Roy Larson," says Grabow, who worked for Porkkonen from 1972 to '78, and Larson from 1984 to '94.

He would end up staying with First American Bank for the remainder of his career.

In the fall 1996, he replaced Don Haas (who had succeeded Larson) as CEO of First American Bank, one of about 100 banks chartered under the holding company of Bremer Financial Services.

Over the next 26 years, the local financial institution would change its name to Bremer Bank, acquire a branch in Perham, and most recently, was involved in a consolidation with the Bremer banks in Lisbon, Casselton and Minot, N.D., under the charter of the Fargo bank.

"We became a branch of the Fargo bank," Grabow explained, noting that those were probably the three biggest changes he has seen during his tenure at Bremer.

A legacy of giving back

"I've had a good career here," he says. "I like the work, I always have."

One of the biggest reasons for that enjoyment, Grabow believes, is that he was able to be involved in a variety of community organizations, starting with the Detroit Lakes Lions Club, where he held several offices at the local and state level.

Over the years, he also became involved with the local Jaycees -- including a stint as president -- as well as the Elks, Eagles, Chamber of Commerce, and most recently, the Kiwanis Club.

He was also heavily involved in the United Way of Becker County, where he "went through all the (officer) chairs to be the chairman," as well as the Booster Club and Youth Hockey Association.

On the business side of things, he has served on the Industrial Development Committee and the Detroit Lakes Development Authority, as well as the Arena Commission and many other county and city committees.

Currently, he is a member of the Kiwanis Club and serves as president of the Boys & Girls Club Endowment.

In short, Grabow says, "I've served in a number of volunteer capacities through the years, as a supporter of the community.

"It's all part of the way we do business here at Bremer," he explains. "The bank prospers because the community prospers -- and that only happens if the people get involved with the non-profits and other volunteer services.

"We were always encouraged to do that," Grabow continues, noting that many of the bank's senior staff members have continued the tradition of community involvement that began with the company's founder, Otto Bremer.

Though he has enjoyed every minute of his career with Bremer, Grabow says, he thinks now is the right time to move on to new challenges.

"I'm not necessarily looking to work again (in another profession)," he says. "It isn't that I didn't like what I'm doing...but after that many years in the business, I'm 63½, and I figured, if I could do it, why shouldn't I?

"I liked to say that I work to live, I don't live to work."

What he was really working toward all those years, Grabow adds, was to spend weekends and holidays with his family -- which includes wife Leann, their children Matthew and Andrea, both married now, and six grandchildren.

Daughter Andrea lives in Colorado with her husband Michael and their two children; son Michael lives in Prior Lake, Minn., with wife Michelle and their four children.

Grabow hopes to spend as much time on the Colorado ski slopes with his granddaughters as he can, and when he's not skiing, he'll be in the stands watching his oldest grandson play hockey in Prior Lake.

"We love hockey," he says.

A trip to enjoy the Florida sunshine is also in the works, and he wants to travel to other parts of the country as well.

But the summers will, as always, be spent at the family's home on Lake Eunice, which Grabow has no intention of selling.

"We have a lot of reasons to stick around here," he says, noting that he has two brothers and a mother who still live in Detroit Lakes. (His sister lives in Green Bay, Wis., while his youngest brother makes his home in Willmar.)

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Vicki Gerdes
Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers and editor of MN Boomers magazine for the past 13 years. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.
(218) 847-3151
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