A passion for standing tall

Bill Reiling is a leader in improving the urban community

Talk to Bill Reiling for two hours, read a stack of newspaper stories and call his family and friends, and one word always surfaces in best describing him and his approach to life:


The passion comes out in different ways — but it’s always there. He is quiet, reflective and studious as he listens, and his voice is measured as he first responds to a question. The voice also has an edge, however, and it becomes more intense as he expounds on an issue. His face beams, and he plays with a sheet of paper, creasing it over and over.

Just what motivates him?

"He cares," said his son, Mark, who worked with his dad for a decade at Towle Real Estate before buying the business from him in 1993. "He has a high energy level. It rubs off on people, and things get done. As you build a program and grow momentum, you get the whole team moving together, and it becomes infectious."

The elder Reiling just smiles when asked about his passion and other descriptions of him — as a dealmaker, a wizard, a scrambler and a cheerleader. There is a some truth to all of them, he acknowledges, and it all boils down to one’s attitude and willingness to work with people.

"I am passionate," he said, "and I think that’s good. I’ll talk about something, and people will say, ‘Now Bill, tell us how you really feel . . .’ "

Passion has been part of Reiling’s career as a mortgage banker, the owner of a real estate services company and, in recent years, as the chairman and owner of three community banks in the Twin Cities. He always has been invigorated by challenges in his work and the quest for solutions to vexing problems.

The St. Paul native grew up in Roseville on a family homestead that was settled by his great-great-grandfather in the 1850s and today is the site of Roseville Central Park. Reiling attended Cretin High School and worked summers as a carpenter and roofer for his family’s construction business.

He enrolled at St. Thomas in 1950 and intended to follow in the footsteps of his brother, who studied physics and advised him to do the same.

"So here I am in physics as a freshman, getting Ds — and that was a gift!" he said. "I left class one day, went to see my adviser and transferred to business. I liked it, and it matched my skills."

An ROTC student, he served in the Air Force after graduation in 1954 and earned an MBA in finance from Northwestern University. He went to work writing residential mortgages at Eberhardt Co. in 1957, moved into commercial real estate financing there in the 1960s and advanced to become executive vice president. By 1973, he was restless.

"I always wanted to own my own company," he said. "In fact, I mentioned that in the Cretin yearbook in 1950, and I wanted to own one by the time I was 40."

He made his deadline when he moved to Towle and purchased a minority share. He later bought the rest of the company and over the next two decades expanded its scope to include a full range of real estate services. He also began to dabble in the banking industry, purchasing Franklin National Bank in Minneapolis in 1984, and he sold most of Towle in 1993. Oldest son Mark, who had joined Towle in 1983, and his wife, Kathleen Nye-Reiling, were the buyers.

"He was a role model," Mark said. "He was a well-rounded professional — not a one- or two-dimensional real estate guy but a 10-dimensional real estate guy. He understood all of the different aspects of the business, and people respected him for that as well as his integrity and his sense of ethics."

As he left Towle, Reiling enthusiastically plunged into banking and added St. Anthony Park Bank (1992) and University Bank (1994) in St. Paul to what today is called the Sunrise Community Banks system. Their locations led to a decision to focus on community lending and reverse inner-city blight by making loans to first-time homeowners and people who wanted to start businesses in rickety old buildings. Some of these borrowers were immigrants with little experience or credit history, but they had a desire to succeed.

"We started out with a brand position — that we wanted to be known as a leader in improving the urban community," Reiling said. "Our brand phrase was ‘an uncompromising belief in our customers and the way they deserve to be served.’ I shortened that to ‘personal caring service.’ "

A favorite saying that reflects Reiling’s philosophy is "shine your shoes and stand tall."

"Let me give you an example," he said. "When we bought University Bank, we fixed up the building, which was in tough shape. We shined our shoes first and we stood taller. Then we went out wherever we could and articulated our vision for the community. If we could improve it by lending money to people who would fix up their houses and start businesses, and if they got the vision, they would shine their own shoes and stand taller.

"We don’t write white papers. We’re not into studying, but doing. We’re doing it in St. Anthony, we’re doing it in Frogtown and we’re doing it in Whittier. Those are old neighborhoods — and we’ll be shining shoes forever. And that’s OK."

One person who has shined her shoes is Racha Neeporn Adams, a Thailand native who immigrated to the United States in 1973. She studied at the University of Minnesota and worked different jobs until opening AM Corner Drug on the East Side of St. Paul in 1989. She is the owner and pharmacist and her husband, Jay, manages the business. Their banker? University Bank, naturally.

"They are willing to help, so whenever we need help, we ask them," Adams said. "They pay attention to our needs and understand our issues. They have been wonderful."

The risks have paid off for Sunrise. Assets of the three banks have tripled, to $200 million, under Reiling’s ownership. Franklin and University have received "outstanding" ratings from federal regulators for their Commun-ity Reinvestment Act lending; the loans by University in its primary market area increased from 14 percent in 1994 to 80 percent last year.

Reiling’s second son, David, is president of University Bank. He worked at City Corp. in Los Angeles until 1995, when he decided to come home and work for his dad.

"He’s a hands-off kind of manager," David said. "He comes in and gives us his philosophy, and it’s up to the bank presidents and officers to make the daily decisions. There are no politics or hidden agendas. There is a nice balance between the mission and performance of the bank."

Another person who benefited from a Sunrise loan was Gov. Jesse Ventura. His fledgling campaign for governor went to two dozen banks in the fall of 1998 seeking a loan for television advertising but was turned down. Reiling had his bank officers check out Ventura, and the bottom line was "the loan made sense," Reiling said. He caught some flak for making the loan, but he looked at it differently. "How do you discriminate today and not tomorrow?" he asked. "I said, ‘The loan is the right thing to do,’ so we made it. And it was paid off."

Reiling’s community efforts have extended beyond the banking business. He worked closely with Catholic Charities in the 1980s on an arrangement in which he purchased a building that housed the Dorothy Day Center in downtown St. Paul and sold it to the agency on a favorable contract for deed. A similar deal went through on a Minneapolis building. Catholic Char-ities ended up owning the space, not leasing it, and cut its expenses.

His motivation on those projects? He had heard a speech about homelessness and people living on the streets, he said, "and I couldn’t sleep. I had to do something. There are people, like me, who have resources and enough courage to do something, so I did it. What’s the worst that could have happened? I could have been stuck with a building."

Reiling’s recollection of this story had started the same way as other stories that he shared — calmly and in a subdued voice. But the more he talked, the more animated he became. He continued to play with the same piece of paper, creasing it over and over. His face beamed. He pounded the table.

He was just being what everybody says of Bill Reiling when asked for a one-word description: Passionate.


Bill Reiling and St. Thomas• Earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1954.• Elected to the board of trustees in 1982, and serves on the Board Affairs and Physical Facilities Planning committees. He also is on the St. Paul Seminary board.• Received the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1988.• Is proudest of his role as co-chair of the campus-wide committee that nominated the Rev. Dennis Dease to become president in 1991 and his involvement in establishing the Minneapolis campus.• Sees three primary challenges for St. Thomas — how to finance the education of students less capable of affording it; how to raise additional funds to operate new buildings and programs; and how to use technology more efficiently in delivering education.