Minnesota banker and philanthropist Otto Bremer had a reputation for putting others' interests before his own. Now, nearly 50 years after his death, the banking company he founded is putting him first-in its banks' names.

Bremer Financial Corp., St. Paul, is changing the names of each of its 14 subsidiary banks-they were all called just First American Bank-to Bremer Bank.

The switch started last week at the St. Paul flagship bank with an announcement at the opening of the eighth of its branches, which are all in the Twin Cities. Bremer's 13 other banks, with 79 branches in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota, are to be renamed by November.

"We have always conducted business based on Otto's community spirit, which is why we are proud to give our organization his name," said Stan Dardis, president and chief executive officer of $3.2 billion-asset Bremer Financial.

Bremer Financial is the second midwestern company of late to rename its subsidiary community banks after its founder. In February, Johnson International Inc., a Racine, Wis.-based bank holding company owned by the S.C. Johnson wax-magnate family, changed its banks' names from Heritage Bank and Trust and Biltmore Investors Bank to Johnson Bank.

"Community banks are all looking for ways to differentiate ourselves," Mr. Dardis said. "With all of the clutter and noise clamoring for customers' attention, we wanted our name to show customers who we are."

Bremer's name change also highlights the company's unique majority owner, the Otto Bremer Foundation, which Mr. Bremer founded in 1944 to relieve poverty, aid children, and promote public health. The only U.S. bank holding company owned primarily by a charitable foundation, Bremer Financial donates its profits to churches, schools, and other entities that support Mr. Bremer's values.

"As we are successful, we pay dividends and the foundation invests back in the communities we serve," Mr. Dardis said.

Mr. Bremer, a German immigrant who never married, made his foundation the bank holding company's owner so that his wealth would continue to help others after his death. Bremer Financial has performed well for the foundation. Last year, the company posted a respectable 1.22% return on assets and a 13.32% return on equity.

Bremer is keeping pace with industry trends. Last year, it opened four supermarket branches, established a telephone banking system, and acquired $80 million-asset First National Bank of Devils Lake, N.D.

The company's returns allowed the Otto Bremer Foundation to distribute $14 million of grants in 1997 to groups such as the Grand Forks (N.D.) Public Schools, the Jewish Community Center of the Greater St. Paul Area, and the Center Against Sexual Abuse in Superior, Wis.

The name change comes at a time when many of Bremer's competitors are taking on new identities. First Bank System changed its name to U.S. Bank after it bought U.S. Bancorp last year. And Minneapolis-based Norwest Corp. plans to drop its name when it joins with San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co. this year.

Kevin Tynan, who heads Tynan Marketing in Chicago, said Bremer Financial's latest move to drop its generic First American name and stress its roots may be a smart one.

As a bank name, First American "is fairly common," he said. "'Bremer' may have significant marketing importance." But he wondered whether some of Bremer's customers might assume the bank has been sold.

Troy Beaver, Bremer's marketing director, said Bremer research indicates 80% of the bank's customers knew before the name change that the Otto Bremer Foundation and First American were related. Just to be safe, the company has a print and television ad campaign explaining the change and Bremer's past.

"This give us a chance to again tell why we're different," Mr. Beaver said.

"The Bremer name allows us to go back to our history."

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