Roger J. Johnston could be the first banker to formally identify the link between ballroom dancing and community banking.

The 51-year-old chief executive of American Heritage National Bank in Long Prairie, Minn., is building a branch in St. Cloud that will look like a big log cabin and house a ballroom.

"Does a ballroom make sense?" Mr. Johnston asks himself rhetorically. You bet. He figures that if the bank/ballroom can lure just 20% of the St. Cloud area's 30,000 people aged 50 and older, American Heritage could snare 6,000 new customers - and at least $60 million in deposits through a minimum deposit requirement, he confidently estimated.

Mr. Johnston, who recently changed the 133-year-old bank's name from First National Bank of Long Prairie, has tapped into a niche, and his bank's efforts have not only helped business, but also changed the lifestyle of part of the community.

'Complete Social Agenda'

The log cabin branch, due to open in November, is just one part of the strategy to win older clientele by playing up folksiness. Since 1991, the $80 million-asset bank has targeted customers through its "Prairie Companion Club."

"We provide a complete social agenda for them," Mr. Johnston said.

In return, participants must maintain a deposit account of at least $10,000 with American Heritage, although the bank will arrange monthly program fees for people who can't swing the balance, he said.

"In two years, we had 1,000 members in a town of 2,800 people," said Mr. Johnston. The program even has drawn some out-of-town friends and relatives of local customers.

Many rural community bankers could target this demographic group, he said, estimating that 75% of deposits at the average rural community bank are from older people.

At American Heritage, he estimated, 70% of all certificate of deposit holders are 50 or older.

Mr. Johnston, an attorney for 10 years before joining the bank, said that while discussing estate planning with older customers a few years ago, he discovered that many had ample funds but few travel or social companions.

Now, American Heritage's prairie companions partake in seminars, special events, and trips to places such as Europe, Alaska, and Branson, Mo., the music show center.

The competition is aware of the program, but not worried that it will take away business.

"We certainly don't feel threatened by them," said John Herges, the executive vice president who runs the St. Cloud branch of Stearns County National Bank of Albany. His branch also has a seniors program, and boasts a new granite building. "We'll continue to do business as usual," he said.

Participants in American Heritage's Prairie Companion Club love the idea.

"They've really been a lifeline for me," said recently widowed Alice Tiegen, 72, who is looking forward to future trips to the East Coast and Norway.

Marie Motzko, a widow in her 70s, enjoys the birthday and holiday parties, picnics, and bus trips to casinos on Minnesota's Indian reservations.

While Mr. Johnston is certainly no homebody - having floated 2,000 miles on the Amazon, gone diving at the Great Barrier Reef, and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro - he has kept his bank's focus strictly down home.

And American Heritage, which posted a second-quarter return on assets of 1.12%, plans to bring that feeling to its St. Cloud branch.

"We're trying to recreate an atmosphere of feeling warm," he said. "You don't feel that in present-day banks."

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