Iconic South Dakota banker retiring

Appeared in the Pierre Capital Journal on December 11, 2022.
Written by Gwen Albers / Capital Journal

An iconic South Dakota banker credited with saving First Dakota National Bank and bringing a branch to Pierre is retiring.

Larry Ness, chairman and chief executive officer of the bank for 39 years, will walk away from his career on Jan. 1. Ness worked in banking for 53 years and will remain on as board chairman.

“Larry has had a tremendous effect on First Dakota and across the state,” Rob Stephenson, bank president who will take on the role of CEO on Jan. 1, said. “He’s been a huge advocate as a businessman and community member. He was very heavily involved with the South Dakota Bankers Association and has always been involved with things going on in Pierre.”

Raised a “farm kid,” Ness graduated from Brookings High School, where he participated in basketball, football, track baseball, chorus, band and was senior class president.

Ness received his bachelor’s in economics from South Dakota State University in Brookings in 1969.

While in college, he joined the South Dakota National Guard. Ness retired as a major in the U.S. Army Reserves, completing 24 years of service.

Fresh out of college and interested in pursuing a career in banking, he was hired as a national bank examiner for the Office of the Comptroller of Currency with the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

“I got a job examining banks,” the 77-year-old said. “You meet a lot of bankers and I was a whipper snapper for sure.”

He also learned the trade from those bankers.

Ness then became vice president and loan officer at Mitchell National Bank.

“That was a wonderful place,” Ness said. “My wife and I were there for seven years.”

His sights were set on becoming a bank president and at age 36, was named executive vice president of First National of Volga. Volga is a community of 2,100 in Brookings County.

Two years later, Ness came across an article about First Dakota National Bank in Yankton facing troubles and expected failure.

“I know that bank,” he recollected. “I used to examine them and went down there, applied as the president and they hired me.”

Ness remained with the bank for the rest of his career.

His years with the Office of the Comptroller taught Ness how to fix the bank’s “problem loans.”

“I’m pretty outgoing and they just shook their heads at this 38-year-old kid cleaning up the mess,” Ness said. “I didn’t think it would be a problem. They just made some mistakes. They (some of the employees) were out and I was in, and I hired a few others and we were off to the races.”

It took about two years for First Dakota National Bank to get out of trouble.

“It was an easy deal,” Ness remembered. “You just had to do the right thing.”

He grew the bank from $40 million assets to $120 million after acquiring American State Bank in Yankton in 1988.

“We started buying other banks and just kept expanding,” Ness said.

Today, First Dakota National Bank has 18 full-service and five loan production offices and assets valued at $2.7 billion.

“We hit that yesterday, which is kind of an interesting thing,” he said.

First Dakota was founded on Dec. 7, 1872, and hit the $2.7 billion mark on the date of its 150th anniversary.

First Dakota moved into Blunt and Pierre in 2015 after acquiring Home Federal Savings and Loan. The Pierre branch is located at 322 S. Coteau St. The Blunt office closed one year ago after having troubles staffing the branch and a low volume of transactions. The plan called for moving employees working at the Blunt office to similar positions at First Dakota’s Pierre office. Today, 14 work at the Pierre office.

“I’ve been around a long time and we’ve been able to grow this organization,” Ness said. “I will keep my office and will be here whenever I feel like showing up. We’ve had such a close-knit staff within the bank.”

Ness and his wife, Diane, are the parents of Michael, Aaron and Rob; all three work in banking. Eight grandchildren complete the family. The couple plans to spend more time at the family ranch in Fort Thompson.

Link to article in Pierre Capital Journal.