DULUTH, Minn. - Community banks should be more like small-town hardware stores, according to Wayne Finnern, president of Farmers State Bank of Madelia, Minn.

Independently owned hardware stores in small towns often affiliate with big-name hardware companies to market themselves better and to gain a broader range of products. Likewise, independent banks could band together to create a sense of "common identity" while retaining independent ownership, says Mr. Finnern, chairman of an Independent Community Bankers Association of Minnesota task force on the issue.

"How many of you bankers have in your town a locally owned independent hardware store?" asked Mr. Finnern last week at the general session of the trade group's annual conference in Duluth.

Nearly all the bankers raised their hands.

"How many of those hardware stores are not affiliated with a group such as Coast to Coast (or) Hardware Hank?" Mr. Finnern queried.

Most hands stayed down.

The idea of independent banks participating in a banking network is a new strategy the trade group is pursuing.

Its board of directors endorsed the idea in July. Last weekend the group's member banks followed suit, passing a resolution that "members work together to create a common identity and to utilize an effective communication program to strengthen our ability to grow and enhance our banking franchise."

The program initially will be little more than a marketing device. Participating banks will be able to use the phrase "Member, FutureBank Network" on signs and advertising.

As it develops, the network is expected to give member banks access to new products and services. Possible products include investment or mortgage services, a credit card to draw on a borrower's home equity, and childrens' and seniors' programs.

The trade group task force is continuing its study in hopes of devising ways of administering and distributing such products.

"You will retain your independence by beginning to work together," said Allen Olson, the trade group's president. "Lots of people move around the state. They don't just move in and out of the metropolitan area. They need to have some way to identify the financial institutions that they want to do business with."

The independent bankers group also arranged consumer focus groups on bank identities.

Among the findings of Jerry Rossow, president of Northern Lakes Marketing Group, Minnetonka, Minn., was that members wanted to see their community banks work with other community banks.

The first step of the common identity approach will be a communications program, called Working Together for a Great Tomorrow, to introduce the FutureBank network concept.

Task force members at the conference already sported T-shirts bearing the phrase, with the words "working together" printed in big blue letters over a picture of a sunrise.

They said they believe that by joining forces smaller banks will be able to survive in the increasingly competitive financial services arena.

"Independent community bankers are not a dying breed," Mr. Finnern stressed. "We've got many unique strengths.

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