MINNEAPOLIS -- Dave Cleveland is known around these parts as a maverick banker who doubles as a tough critic of bigger banks and their sometimesteetering loyalty to small-business customers.

But Mr. Cleveland issues his indictments with a smile, and who can blame him? As founder, owner, and president of Riverside Bank, he says he has benefited enormously from the big guys' tendency to cut and run at the first sign of trouble.

Since the late 1980s, Mr. Cleveland says, his 21-year-old community bank has scooped up small-business customers abandoned by giants Norwest. Corp. and First Bank System Inc., and shown that they were good bets after all. None of those businesses even missed a payment after signing on with Riverside, he says.

In the process, the bank has earned accolades as a community service leader and put together some of the most impressive numbers in the business.

"We've really been able to develop strong loyalty from our customers, and we've done it by really being loyal to them," says Mr. Cleveland. "We've made the commitment to always try to make the deal... to always listen."

The big bankers acknowledge that they cut back on their small-business lending in the late-1980s. "The perception was that we worked out a lot of customers; the reality was that we did," says Bob Anderson, a First Bank executive vice president.

But Mr. Anderson also points out that his bank's portfolio has $3 billion in loans to businesses with sales of under $25 million.

Riverside is trying to build a reputation as the first place in the area to turn for a small-business loan.

With $145 million of assets, the bank is growing at a 20% annual clip.

Return on those assets was 1.79% in 1993; return on equity: 24.85%.

Perhaps Riverside's most impressive figure is this: At the end of 1993, the bank reported zero bad loans in its portfolio.

"We had no past due loans, no nonaccruals. The FDIC called us and said that we had forgotten to fill out a page [on our call report]," Mr. Cleveland recalls.

"To be able to do that, and still be considered a bank that serves its community, is pretty remarkable," he adds.

Over the past year, Riverside has been recognized by the Small Business Administration and several community lending agencies for its commitment to helping fledgling businesses. It also has won the respect of other community bankers.

"A lot of small banks are doing what Dave is doing; they're just not doing it as aggressively as he is," says Al Olson, president of the Independent Community Bankers of Minnesota. "He represents the best of what a strong community bank can contribute to a community."

Mr. Cleveland is not shy about drawing attention to his own success. A former First Banker and banking consultant, he was brought in to help start Riverside in 1973 and decided to stay.

Shrewd, hard-working and well-connected, he rises at 5 a.m. to go over loan applications. Still, Mr. CleVeland gives his crew of loan officers -- most of them have been with him for over a decade -- much of the credit for the bank's success.

"Our officers really care about serving their clients," he says. "Philosophically, they buy into the idea that we, as a responsible member of the community, need to serve the community."

The fact that Mr. Cleveland owns 25% of the bank and has a free hand to make most lending decisions, doesn't hurt either.

Riverside gets about 150 loan referrals -- many from other bankers -- and makes about 50 loans a month. Often, lending decisions are made in less than 24 hours.

The bank's lending limit has climbed steadily, and now stands at $1.25 million. It makes nothing but small business loans, and was recently named a SBA-certifled lender.

Mr. Cleveland sees a message for all bankers in his story: Serving the community can pay dividends if you do it smart. "We're having fun," he says. "That's maybe the most important thing of all."

Mr. Engen is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis. Riverside Bank At a GlanceHeadquarters: MinneapolisFounded: 1973CEO: Dave ClevelandAssets: $145 millionAnnual growth rate: 20%ROA: 1.79%ROE: 24.85%Nonperforming loans: None

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