A Cultured Approach

Mashenka Lundberg was instantly taken with CoBank’s distinctive mission and culture, and with a strong commitment to mentoring, she and the company are committed to instilling that passion in others

Within five minutes of her first job interview at CoBank, Mashenka Lundberg knew her potential next employer had a unique culture, as representatives gushed about the organization. Managers couldn’t help themselves from almost immediately extolling the virtues of the Colorado-based bank’s distinctive mission: to promote the growth of agriculture and the development of rural America.

Operating as a cooperative, CoBank is owned by its shareholder customers. As such, its customers and their financing needs guide the bank’s strategic direction, and leadership is focused on the singular purpose of serving them every day.

“This mission is always top-of-mind,” Lundberg says. “It’s not just words on a plaque.”

Enthusiasm for the work is infectious, and Lundberg caught the bug soon after accepting the position of senior vice president and general counsel. For a lawyer, the work is as diverse as the clientele, which include different types of farmer-owned cooperatives, food and agribusiness companies, and rural utilities. “No two days are remotely the same,” Lundberg says.

CoBank provides loans, leases, export financing, and other financial services to customers in all fifty states. Lundberg’s duties include counseling C-suite executives and the board of directors, overseeing annual directors’ elections, and participating on committees formed by the Farm Credit System (FCS). Her varied responsibilities working within an organization with a tightly focused business—and a surprisingly large one at that—have given her a unique perspective on the general counsel role. As a lawyer with significant participation in setting business strategy, she has learned much about navigating between the legal and business spheres.

At first glance, CoBank’s focus on rural areas may cause some to think of the organization as a quaint niche bank. However, assets of almost $120 billion make CoBank one of the nation’s largest commercial/industrial lenders. With just 900 full-time employees, the company posted profits of $937 million in 2015.

“As a cooperative, half of our profits go to shareholders,” Lundberg explains. “We do not have a nonprofit mindset.”

CoBank also provides wholesale loans and other financial services to affiliated Farm Credit associations that supply retail financing to more than 75,000 farmers, ranchers, and other rural borrowers in twenty-three states. The scope of CoBank’s business encompasses sophisticated financial transactions that can include funding for complex projects such as wastewater treatment plants, hydroelectric dams, and communications networks.

Projects and programs from borrowers have to qualify under the FCS rubric established by Congress one hundred years ago, mandating that they serve agriculture or rural communities. This is a far different situation from the mainstream commercial banking world, where such specialized eligibility requirements are not an issue.

Lundberg leads a nine-person legal team, made up of seven lawyers and two legal assistants, who work on a wide variety of legal issues for the bank. As general counsel, Lundberg’s day-to-day responsibilities include “corporate secretary-type of duties” for the twenty-eight-member board of directors. The unusually large governing body is composed of representatives from the diverse industries and geographic areas to which the bank caters. Lundberg says working with people with such a wide range of backgrounds and experience yields insightful views from across the customer spectrum that help strengthen the bank.

She also finds working with such a varied group intellectually and professionally stimulating. They have a broad cross section of views and interests, she says. For instance, a communications co-op representative might offer insight on how new technology can boost rural economies, or a rancher might inform the board about an emerging market for US beef. These opportunities give CoBank better insight into the financial products and services its customers need. Through her work, Lundberg has a hand in fostering these kinds of developments—a task that she finds gratifying.

CoBank’s mission allows the organization to approach business a bit differently from commercial banks focused primarily on quarterly profits, Lundberg says.

“Profit and loss are important, of course, but we have a bit more patience with customers and more leeway to work with them in certain situations.”

Agriculture, with its inherent volatility related to weather and global commodity markets, requires this approach. Most conventional banks, by contrast, cut their losses faster with customers who experience setbacks.

“We have a proven track record of sticking with our customers over the years,” she says. Some of those customers have been in business for many decades, and have earned the benefit of the doubt, adding that CoBank is very much a “relationship-lending bank.”

Some of those relationships are represented on the board, which is continually renewed through competitive, annual director elections. Lundberg is in charge of overseeing the nominating and electoral processes—both highly regulated activities, with all election supporting materials requiring compliance scrutiny. An independent nominating committee taps two people for each available slot so each position is contested. Lundberg’s regular duties also include compliance work on standard disclosures such as quarterly and annual reports.

Lundberg takes on special projects as well, such as CoBank’s new public/private economic development initiatives to attract investors for rural infrastructure projects. She also serves on FCS committees made up of representatives from the system’s nationwide network of banks and retail lending associations.

These committees work on common issues, such as a newly formed group examining reputation risk on which Lundberg will serve. The committee is just getting started, and it’s anticipating situations where it might take on pressing concerns such as how social media impacts organizational reputations.

“That’s something that every business needs to grapple with,” she says. “It’s just a reality of doing business today.”

Another topic that sparks Lundberg’s professional pride is her department’s mentoring efforts. CoBank is in its second year of participating in the joint residency programs of the University of Denver and University of Colorado’s law schools. This initiative gives new legal graduates who have passed the bar a valuable postgraduate experience.

The position is hands-on, with residents spending a year in CoBank’s legal department working on a wide variety of assignments.

“Our goal is to give them as broad an experience as possible,” Lundberg says. The resident works in both the general counsel’s office and the loan documentation department. Specific tasks include regulatory research on board elections matters, legal annotations on multiple issues, loan file reviews, analysis of confidentiality or nondisclosure agreements, and special projects such as developing new human resources processes for the bank.

The resident is matched with a seasoned staff attorney who manages the new lawyer’s workload and acts as a personal mentor. “We want to make sure that they are getting enough work, but are not drowning in it,” Lundberg says. The resident gets exposure to many aspects of law, and looking at the big picture, it’s a kind of opportunity of which the profession could use more.

“It’s an important type of program because I think it helps with the challenge of giving young lawyers good training and opportunities,” she says.

SPOTLIGHT ON: COBANK

CoBank is one of the largest private providers of credit to the US rural economy. With almost $120 billion in assets, it specializes in lending to agribusinesses, rural utilities, and farm credit associations serving farmers and ranchers throughout the United States. CoBank is a member of the Farm Credit System, which was formed by Congress in 1916 to provide dependable credit to rural communities.

The benefits for CoBank include getting additional legal help at a reasonable cost, and it gives more people exposure to “a great place to work,” as well as demonstrating a way for the company to give back and give new lawyers a good start on their careers.

In 2016, CoBank participated for the first time in the “1L Pledge to Diversity,” a summer internship program for law students who successfully completed their first year. Students from under-represented groups and backgrounds in the profession participate in clerkships and also get exposed to a wide variety of legal research, file reviews, and basic document drafting.

When it comes to mentoring experienced legal staff, Lundberg’s approach calls for frequent feedback—both pats on the back for jobs well done, and constructive criticism when necessary.

“It’s important to give feedback right away and not wait until an annual performance review,” she says.

Cultivating talent, she feels, is an important part of her duties. “To enable us to do what we do, we need to attract and retain people who are good at their jobs and committed to the business,” she says. Her aim is to develop legal professionals who are as enthusiastic about their workplace as the managers who greeted her a few years ago during her first job interview. Priming the cultural torch, Lundberg believes, pays future dividends.