MINNEAPOLIS - Back in the 1930s, when an executive from the predecessor bank of today's Norwest Corp. wanted to spend quality time with a correspondent customer, the two would typically go duck hunting.

The men would invariably set out with their shotguns to the lakes of northern Minnesota. The ducks that were taken were frozen and saved for dinner. The event that was born, and has occurred in December ever since, naturally became known as the "Duck Dinner."

Over time, the dinner has evolved from a knock-down, drag-out, guys-only brawl to a button-down, co-ed affair that reflects the march of time in both the industry and society at large.

Today, about 450 of Norwest Corp.'s correspondent customers will attend the latest version of the event, now known formally as the Executive Management Conference.

But instead of gambling and drinking, Norwest's current crop of correspondents will pile into the Minneapolis Marriott City Center Hotel to hear a staid talk on changing distribution systems by Thomas Brown, vice president of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, and a presentation by Brian O'Hare, president of Norwest Card Services, about banking on the Internet.

Regulators will be there to interpret new laws, and sessions will be held to explain estate taxes for bank owners and Norwest's investment plans for 1996. The evening will feature a glitzy reception, hosted by Norwest executive vice president James Campbell.

Only a handful of other banks in the country, such as First Chicago Corp., run such events for their customers.

Community bankers say it gives them a chance to network and make deals - it is not uncommon to see a few huddled in the corner talking shop - while getting a handle on the latest industry innovations from Norwest experts.

Most say the new, more professional version of the duck dinner is a positive change. But for those who have been around long enough to remember the good old days, there is definitely something missing.

"A lot of the old-timers would roll over in their graves to see how serious it's become," says Wally Martz, owner and CEO of Goose River Bank in Mayville, N.D. Mr. Martz has attended the conference for 23 straight years, and recalls with fondness a time when whiskey, cards, and talking football took precedence over what regulators and industry analysts had to say.

"Because of the growing regulation and the faster speed of everything today, it's much less jovial and lighthearted than it was even in the 1970s," he says. "I guess it's a sign of the times."

When he was learning to run the family-owned bank in the 1960s, Bill Sands and his father would trek to Minneapolis each December for the infamous duck dinner. He remembers it as a wild time, where the bank's correspondent customers would shed their conservative images. "It was a great event," recalls Mr. Sands, who now attends as chairman of Western State Bank in St. Paul. "You had all you could want to eat and drink, and everyone always had a good time."

Officials at Norwest say the gathering remains an important way for the $71.4 billion-asset bank to build and strengthen correspondent relationships, while providing a subtle marketing tool for Norwest products and services, like acquisition advising, to potential customers.

"It's a good way for us to say 'thank you for your business' to a large group of customers at once," says John Sampson, the senior vice president who oversees Norwest's 1,950 correspondent relationships.

"Correspondent banking is a very important business to us," adds Norwest's Mr. Campbell. "When these bankers come and see the effort and numbers of people here, it sends a very strong message that we don't take this business lightly ... that we really care."

But for many, tradition is still the biggest selling point. "For me, it's the first event of the Christmas season," Mr. Sands says. "It gets me thinking about the importance of old friendships and puts me in the holiday spirit."

From it's start during the Great Depression, the duck dinner grew to include almost any correspondent who could attend, and it gained a reputation among midwestern bankers for a fraternity party atmosphere that had little to do with banking.

"More than anything, it was a chance to renew old friendships and acquaintances," recalls Mr. Martz. "There was a lot of good-natured horseplay and drinking that went on." In those days, wives often would come along on the trip. They weren't allowed at the conference. But many took advantage of the scheduling - the dinner is always the first Thursday in December - to do their Christmas shopping in the big city.

In 1965, the dinner went formal. The executive management conference tag was slapped on it, and the program became a bit more serious, if not yet banking oriented. Speakers typically included Minnesota Vikings players like Fran Tarkenton or Carl Eller.

By the late 1970s, women were in attendance, and spouses were invited.

"Nowadays, it's just like any other convention," laments C. Paul Lindholm, who ran Norwest's correspondent department from 1951 to 1977. "I was against (inviting spouses) from the very beginning, and it wouldn't have happened if I had been there," adds Mr. Lindholm, who now owns the Bank of Maple Plain, Minn. "But it was out of my hands by that time."

The event has more than its share of lore behind it. Once, Mr. Lindholm recalls, a game warden made a surprise inspection of the kitchens just before the dinner. "There were hundreds of ducks laying in the back, and the cooks just about died," because it was illegal to have so much dead wild game, he says. "But they sat him down and fed him a big dinner, and he just left."

More than once, Mr. Lindholm says, bankers lost their shirts playing cards. "We always used to joke that banks were won and lost over the poker table," Mr. Campbell recalls.

Bankers sometimes betray their penny-pinching nature at the conference. A few years back, a department store executive who was invited to speak put a necktie in front of each table spot. He was making a point about changing styles. But when he told the group they could take the ties home, there was a free-for-all.

"Guys were climbing all over each other, shoving two or three in a box at once," Mr. Sands recalls. "You should have seen these bankers scrambling for $10 ties. It was disgusting.

"I still wear mine," he adds with a chuckle.

Drinking, too, has played an integral part in the history, and tales abound of bankers who hit the road too early and were arrested.

One time, Mr. Lindholm says, it was a Norwest executive who landed in jail. Fortunately, the sheriff had attended the dinner - can't be too safe - and he was able to pull a few strings to get the banker released. All of this, of course, was before today's tougher drunk driving laws, and at a time when social mores made it seem appropriate to exclude women from the mix.

More recently, dinner was slashed from the program, in favor of an extended reception. But duck in some incarnation, such as pate, is almost always on the hors d'oeuvres table. When all is said and done, Mr. Sampson says, the steadily more competitive nature of banking has been the event's biggest agent of change.

"Bankers today are very busy, and they won't come to any (event) if they don't think it will offer a good day's worth of value," he says. "We try to put together a program which recognizes that."

Last year, faced with mounting costs - now the conference costs more than $75,000 - and the challenge of piecing together a new, stronger program each year, Norwest officials considered dropping the event.

"We felt like we were competing with ourselves, and that the costs were getting too high," Mr. Sampson says.

But Norwest's correspondent advisory board, composed of small bankers from the area, reacted negatively to the suggestion. "They said, cut down on the food or booze, or charge for it. But don't eliminate it. That would be a huge mistake," Mr. Sampson recalls.

And so, the duck dinner waddles on - if somewhat shorn of its more outrageous rituals. "This conference is such an important institution at this point," Mr. Sampson says, "that we can't stop it."

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