Meet Ben Franko, Mortgage Lender and Home Loan Expert

Ben Franko, Mortgage Lender at Merchants Bank, and his son

Ben Franko, Mortgage Lender at Merchants Bank, and his son.

Get to know Ben Franko, Mortgage Lender at Merchants Bank in Eau Claire.

When did you start your banking/lending career?

Ben: I’ve been in banking since September 2005. I’ve worked in many positions on the retail side of the bank, such as a personal banker, customer service supervisory, branch manager, mortgage officer and mortgage sales manager. I started with Merchants on June 30, 2017 as a mortgage lender and I’m happy to use my experience in credit and customer service to help people get homes they could afford.

What is your best borrowing/banking tip?

Ben: My top home buying tip is always get pre-approved for a mortgage before you start the home buying or building process. It’s important to understand how the purchase you’re making will affect your budget.

What is something smart borrowers do?

Ben: This ties in with getting pre-approved for your mortgage: be prepared, know how your costs will interact. Just because you can afford a payment on paper, doesn’t mean that’s realistic. It’s a bad idea to stretch your budget; you want to be comfortable making that payment even when unforeseen expenses come up.

What’s one thing your mom or dad taught you about money?

Ben: One of the things I was taught from a young age is you work very hard for your money, so spend and save wisely. It’s always good to avoid making impulse purchases. Picture your dream home.

What is your favorite room in your house and why?

Ben: I’m very fortunate to have my dream home, and my favorite room is my kitchen/sunroom. I love being in the kitchen cooking and entertaining. It was the most important feature when we were looking, so when we walked in we knew immediately we were home.

If you had $1,875,000, what is one FUN thing you’d do with the money?

Ben: I would go back to Europe and spend most of my time in Belgium and Holland where my family is from.

Fraud and Scam Updates – February 2018


Review our most recent fraud alerts and updates to help keep your personal information secure. Want to be automatically updated about recent scams and fraud? Sign up for our Alerts emails here.

Computer Pop Up Scam

Have you heard of this scam? You are on your computer when a pop-up warns that your computer is compromised. If you don’t act now, your computer will crash. Offering to help, a scammer dials into your computer to try “fix” the issue, meanwhile gleaming your personal information. Sometimes, the scammers require a payment to “fix” the computer. In the end, the scammers have what they wanted all along, the personal information they got off your computer and now your credit card information you used to pay them. Please be on the lookout for this scam to protect your private information.

Stolen Mail

Our customers have reported an increase in stolen mail, including people who use their mailbox for outgoing mail.

We’d like to remind all customers to be cautious when sending or receiving personal information, bank account information or checks through the mail. If you’re expecting something to arrive and it doesn’t, check on it – balance your checkbook to make sure all checks clearing your account are for the amount you issued. If you are sending checks through the mail, consider putting your mail in a United States Postal Service Collection Box or take it to the Post Office.

Sharing Login Credentials

It’s never a good idea to share your login credentials, or any private information, with anyone, even people you know or think you know. This tip is especially important to remember when you’re talking to someone over the phone on a call you did not initiate. Please remember that Merchants Bank will never ask for your personal information unless you have previously initiated a conversation with us about your accounts or an application.

Family Emergency Scam

Merchants has recently seen an increase in imposter scams. Customers have almost fallen for some emergency scams, including being asked by a fraudster posing as a relative to send money for bail. If you’re asked to send money in an emergency situation, verify the true location of your friend or relative before responding – even if the person you’re talking to sounds like someone in your family.

Be a skeptic. If the situation doesn’t sound right, it’s time to do some more investigating. If you have doubts, just call or come in to discuss the situation with us. We’re here to help.

Next Steps If You’ve Experienced Fraud

If you notice fraud on your statement, be sure to contact us within 60 days from the date your statement was issued. In most cases, if the fraud is reported within 60 days we have a better chance of resolving the issue. After 60 days from the statement’s issue date, there is nothing we can do to retrieve the lost funds.

If you think your bank account information has been compromised or you are a victim of identity theft, contact your local Merchants Bank and ask to speak to a Customer Service Representative.

Congratulate New and Promoted Staff

New Staff

BromCourtney Courtney Brom, Teller, Winona

Courtney is originally from Winona and is studying math teaching at Winona State University. She has a second job at Prairie Ranch Kennels and previously worked at Menards as a Head Cashier. In her spare time she likes to hang out with friends and family, read, be outdoors, and in the summers she likes to watch her brother race.

Terri Derouin Terri Derouin, Teller, Rochester – Green Meadows

Terri has held several positions with the Rochester Public Schools and currently works at Century High School as a Budget Secretary. Terri is an avid sports fan, loves movies, music, the outdoors (especially the mountains) and summer road trips.

Amy Gross Amy Gross, Teller, Caledonia

Amy is currently a part-time Health Coach and previously worked at Gundersen Care Center as an Activities Aide.

Chris Kreisel Chris Kreisel, Trust Associate/Benefit Plan Specialist, Winona-Downtown

Chris’s experience includes more than seven years working as a Retirement Educator; he helped 401(k) participants and plan sponsors across the country. He has industry certification as a Certified Mutual Fund Counselor (CMFC) and a Certified Retirement Services Professional (CRSP).

Jessica Norgard Jessica Norgard, Teller, Rushford

Jessica previously worked at S&A Petroleum and JT’s Bar & Grill. She enjoys playing with her son, spending time outside, and cooking.  

Daniel Pohnl Daniel Pohnl, Commercial Banker, Eau Claire

Daniel has been in banking since 2011, working in mortgage loans, as a credit analyst and most recently as a commercial banker, all in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro market. He is an experienced SBA (Small Business Administration) Lender.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he had a double major in Accounting and Finance. He is originally from Rhinelander. Read more about Daniel joining Merchants here.

Arlene Schwerzler Arlene Schwerzler, Mortgage Lender, Red Wing

Arlene is a familiar name and face to the Merchants Bank employees and many customers in Red Wing. As a long-time mortgage lender at Merchants Bank in Winona, she served many customers in Red Wing. Arlene has been in banking for more than 30 years. She started as a Mortgage Lender at Merchants Bank in Winona in 1998 and also spent a short amount of time at Merchants Bank in Rochester. Read more about Arlene’s return to Merchants here.

Lynda Sobotta Lynda Sobotta, Mortgage File Representative, Winona

Lynda is originally from Winona, and has returned with her husband after living in Austin for a while. She spends Friday nights with her granddaughter and has two dogs that keep her company. Lynda previously worked at Winona Health and Riverside Electronics.

Mike Stangl Mike Stangl, Commercial Banker and Mortgage Lender, La Crescent

Mike has been working in the La Crosse market as a mortgage lender since 2012. From 2001 to 2012 he was in the Marshfield, WI, market working in banking in a number of roles, including mortgage, consumer, and commercial lending. Mike is involved in the community, donating his time to a number of organizations, including the Mississippi Valley Conservancy, Coulee Region Humane Society, and the Hunger Task Force. Read more about Mike joining Merchants here.

Erik Stegemann

Erik Stegemann, Credit Analyst, Merchants Bank Equipment Finance

Erik previously worked as a Ag/Commercial Loan Officer at Citizens Bank in Iowa. Erik is a sport enthusiast and avid Gopher fan. He also enjoys anything about the outdoors such as skiing, boating, volleyball and basketball.

Transfers and Promotions

Carol Bell Carol Bell, Credit Card Specialist, Winona-Downtown

Carol has transferred to the Credit Card department as a Credit Card Specialist. She has been with Merchants since 2002 and was previously a Mortgage Underwriter in Winona.

Mollie Brink, Lending Assistant Team Lead, Winona

Mollie has taken on additional responsibilities moving to Lending Assistant Team Lead. She started with Merchants Bank as a Lending Assistant in 2014 and has shown the leadership and initiative to succeed.  Prior to joining Merchants she  worked at Winona National Bank for 5 years as a Teller and Teller Supervisor. She has a degree from Winona State University in Human Resources.

Marcus Krings Marcus Krings, Credit Card Manager, Winona-Downtown

Marcus has been promoted to Credit Card manager. He has been with Merchants since 2012. He was previously an Electronic Banking Specialist and most recently the Credit  Card Specialist in Winona. Meet Marcus here.

From the President’s Desk: Winter 2018

PresidentsFeature-BlogHappy New Year! I want to thank those of you who favored Merchants Bank with your business in 2017. We remain committed to meeting your financial services needs in the year ahead with a high degree of personalized service and attention that we believe sets Merchants apart from other banking organizations.

Over the course of the next few weeks, you will likely read/hear about another record year of earnings performance for Merchants Bank. As a publicly-traded Company which is owned primarily by Winona area families and our employees, we do take great pride in our financial performance and delivering a return on investment to the local owners of Merchants, many of which have placed confidence in our organization for decades.

We also know that our customers are the reasons for our success. We sincerely appreciate the loyalty of all of our customers. They are the reason Merchants continues to grow in providing financial services to an expanding service area throughout southeastern Minnesota and west-central Wisconsin.

It’s also important to share with you why I feel so strongly that our continued financial strength is a tremendous advantage to all of our customers and communities. Our performance is the driver of our ability to make meaningful investments back into our business and in our communities. Direct ways our customers and communities benefit from the financial performance include:

  • The safety of our customers’ deposits – stewardship of the deposits we are favored with is the foundation for the trusted relationships we have with our clients and for us goes well beyond the security provided in the form of FDIC insurance.
  • Direct contributions to the economic vitality of this region – the commitment we make to the stewardship of our customers’ deposits include prudent deployment of those dollars in the form of loans that help families and business-owners in our communities. In 2017, we made $389 million of new residential mortgage loans, helping hundreds of families buy new homes. We made $250 million in new business loans, helping business-owners throughout the region expand, add jobs and contribute to economic growth.
  • In 2017, Merchants Bank made $584,000 of direct financial contributions (2.74% of pre-tax earnings, well in excess of our minimum standard of 2%) to organizations in our communities. Priorities of support include education, health/social services and the arts.
  • Investment in technology – while we will always be an organization committed to personalized service, we know we need to continue to up our game in the delivery of digital banking solutions as the needs of our customers evolve. In 2017, we increased our technology spending by more than 33%, with priority emphasis on protecting the information security of our customers’ accounts and enhancing our strategic digital banking roadmap for future solution enhancements
  • Investment in our people – at Merchants, we will continue to staff our branches with local decision-makers and customer-focused people with a passion for taking care of clients. That’s why we continue to add jobs, while many in our industry are making personnel reductions and closing branches.

Everything we accomplish at Merchants is a total team effort. And that starts with the loyalty of our customers. We appreciate our customers’ loyalty and do not take it for granted. And, as we continue to enjoy financial stability and performance success, please know that we will continue to reinvest in significant ways that are good for customers and our communities. 

Nancy Crandall Knows Merchants Bank is the Real Deal

Nancy Crandall of Real Deals with Brian Hokanson of Merchants Bank.

With so much on her mind with her new business, one thing Nancy Crandall didn’t have to worry about was Merchants Bank. She said banking with Merchants is easy and convenient, and she especially appreciates the help she receives from Senior Lender Brian Hokanson.

“Merchants Bank has been there for me every step of the way as I designed and executed my business plan. Brian offered valuable retail insight and advice, and he’s always very supportive,” Crandall said.

Crandall said she recommends Merchants to anyone looking for a banking partner because “they really do view you as a business partner and are invested in your success, personally and professionally.”