Kelly Skalicky is president and CEO of Stearns Bank, N.A. She is the daughter of Stearns Bank founder and Chairman of the Board Norm Skalicky and has spent her career practicing law and working in the banking industry.
Kelly attained her juris doctorate from William Mitchell College of Law and served as law clerk to the Honorable Michael J. Davis. Kelly provided legal counsel to tribes and tribal entities while practicing law with Gover, Stetson, & Williams, one of the country’s largest Indian-owned law firms.
Kelly joined Stearns Bank as legal counsel and was named general counsel in 2011. She was promoted to president in 2017 and added CEO in February 2019. Kelly recently shared her thoughts on Native American business and economic opportunity during a Q&A session.
Question: Do you believe the Native American community is under-served by financial institutions?
Kelly: It is an under-served community. Access to capital is challenging for tribes and tribal members due to a lack of understanding of tribal sovereignty, tribal laws and land holdings. Historic discrimination and isolation of many tribes in remote locations adds to these challenges.
Q: How can this situation be corrected?
Kelly: Access to capital can improve when more financial institutions make it a priority. There must be a willingness to proactively learn more about the financing and deposit service needs of tribes and their members.
At Stearns Bank, we continue to work diligently to understand these specific needs. We recognize challenges and opportunities and address them by investing the time and effort to provide solutions. We are also investing in continued access for isolated areas through our high-tech financing and deposit services through our digital banking platform, StearnsConnect. We embrace the fact that technology is the great equalizer for tribes and tribal members.
Q: How important is it for a financial institution like Stearns Bank to offer financing options to the Native American business community?
Kelly: Simply put, we are one of the very few financial institutions determined enough to do it. Our mission centers on a passion to help others achieve their greatest ambitions – not just easy ambitions – every ambition, regardless of the work it may take to achieve.
Stearns Bank is committed to providing financing where it is needed most. So, if access to financing and mobile deposit services is challenging for Native communities, we need to create solutions. Offering more financing options for Native communities will most certainly bridge the gap and help Native businesses grow and expand the economies and wealth of Native communities. That’s an ambition we are willing to work for!
Q: What drives your passion to provide financing for Native communities?
Kelly: As a lawyer who practiced Indian law, I understand and appreciate tribal sovereignty and the unique nature of tribal law and land. With this knowledge, I can work with the Stearns Bank team to structure a financing transaction or propose deposit services that will fit the borrower’s need while protecting the bank’s interests.
At Stearns Bank, we have a deep understanding of how small business owners need to operate and the wide span of challenges they must navigate.
Q: What is the impact of renewable energy on Native communities and Native business owners?
Kelly: Renewable energy, like technology in banking, is leveling the playing field for rural America, especially Native communities.
Since digester and other waste-to-energy systems work well on rural properties where land is plentiful, owners of these properties, including tribes and Native communities, have a distinct advantage to capitalize on renewable energy. Lowering costs and adding revenue through the sale of excess energy maximizes returns on investment.
With rural Minnesota roots, Stearns Bank appreciates the challenges rural regions face. We also recognize renewable energy as a game-changer that offers tremendous opportunity.
Q: What are opportunity zones and how do they affect Native communities?
Kelly: An opportunity zone is an “economically distressed community” based on a designation made by each state. Investors receive tax benefits in the form of a reduction (or elimination) of capital gains tax when investing in businesses or development in designated opportunity zones.
Many opportunity zones exist on tribal lands, which is a chance for tribes to attract investment capital for new economic development. However, there are strict timelines on the start and completion dates for opportunity zone investments. This is an urgent priority for tribes and tribal enterprises, as well as investors seeking tax incentives.
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing Native American business owners?
Kelly: The lack of access to start-up capital for new businesses and a lack of capital to expand existing businesses are among the most frequently cited challenges faced by start-up businesses, on and off tribal land.
We are a national small business lender with vast experience in a number of industries and loan types. We rank 13th in the nation among SBA lenders, and we are among the top 50 equipment finance companies in the U.S. In our experience, business owners often underestimate their start-up costs. Many start-ups also lack sufficient working capital, which stunts revenues.
We work to fully understand each borrower’s business plans and ensure they have saved or secured enough working capital to meet their projections. This is not unique to Native American business owners. We see it with many small businesses.
Values like integrity, accountability, financial discipline, common sense and a tenacious pursuit of excellence, drive our employee-owners to make customers successful.
Q: How can Native communities be resourceful with limited access to capital?
Kelly: Tribal communities have existed and thrived for centuries, and although tribes have suffered a lack of economic drivers in the past, tribal governance is very strong.
Economic development has increased through tourism, agriculture and manufacturing in recent decades. Tribes are continually looking to diversify and broaden the economic opportunities for their communities and members. They are strategically leveraging their revenues and hospitality and tourism niche drivers to launch other industries to diversify and preserve their economic future.
Q: With expanded financing options, what types of economic development can we expect in Native American communities?
Kelly: Typically in under-served communities, an inflow of investment and availability of financing resources will help communities grow and thrive. They attract more visitors, residents, businesses and prosperity.
Boosting economic development and nurturing opportunity is the ultimate self-determination and economic independence that drives tribal sovereignty.
Stearns Bank’s core mission is to help others achieve their greatest ambitions – and if we can provide financial resources, deposit services and technology that provides greater security and mobility to advance development in tribal communities, we will be achieving that mission.