The Stearns Bank equipment finance operation in Albany, Minn., has a much bigger front desk than anyone could expect.

It only takes one person to greet visitors and welcome the FedEx delivery person in this office about 25 minutes west of St. Cloud. But eight people are needed in reception just to make sure that up to 1,000 phone calls a day get answered after only one ring.

Answering the phone right away reflects more than a Midwestern banker's sense of courtesy. At Stearns, it rises to the level of corporate strategy.

The Stearns equipment finance unit in Albany is in a business known as small-ticket leasing. Last year, Stearns did 13,000 financing deals and has 40,000 customers, said Kelly Skalicky, the bank's president.

With a portfolio of more than $1.2 billion as of the end of last year, the back-of-the-envelope math works out to be about $30,000 per customer. What Stearns is after, in each case, is a business relationship that lasts longer than one lease deal.

This sure seems like a stretch — imagine Chrysler Capital committing to building an authentic relationship with every Ram pickup buyer it financed. Yet it's also clearly what Stearns is doing. And there's plenty of evidence this strategy works.

A trip to Albany — a town of more than 2,600 in the heart of Stearns County — and the equipment finance group also takes you to the bank's birthplace more than 100 years ago. The Stearns Financial Services corporate headquarters now are in downtown St. Cloud.

Kelly's dad, Norm Skalicky, bought a majority stake in Stearns County State Bank in 1964. Today, the company's owners include employees in an ESOP, according to public filings, but Norm Skalicky remains the boss.

The appeal of a drive to Stearns County was to see how the economy was doing, given that community banks are often a great proxy for local economic vitality.

And Stearns Bank is thriving. In the category of banking companies with $2 billion to $10 billion in assets, Stearns once again came in at No. 1 in the American Banker's national performance ranking, with a three-year average return on average equity of nearly 23 percent.

It's one of those small number of banks on the latest ranking with a loan-to-deposit ratio that exceeds 100 percent, meaning it's had such robust demand for financing that it could really use more deposits to lend.

As it turned out, though, Stearns Bank doesn't just finance the ambitions of business owners around greater St. Cloud. Its deals might include financing a veterinarian's van in southwest Florida or a dairy farmer's feed mixer in Wisconsin.

Stearns has other national business lines, too, but most of its assets are in equipment finance. A commercial equipment lease that Stearns finances is really just a finance contract that has a loan embedded in it.

The user of the equipment can't pay for the whole thing in cash so agrees instead to make regular lease payments. The equipment dealer needs to get paid up front, of course, so together they turn to Stearns to provide that money.

The equipment finance group goes back to a small acquisition in 1976, and its offices were once in the Albany bank basement. This week, nearly 200 people worked in its sunlit facility that is about to be expanded again, as space is now so tight that workstations are shoehorned between rows of cubicles.

It's more a nicely appointed call center than bank office, and out in the middle of the wide-open floor is the workstation of Kelly Skalicky.

Skalicky, named president earlier this year, thinks of herself as more of a back-office manager than a deal maker. Yet this week she described a recent meeting with the finance manager of an Ohio equipment dealer, who told Skalicky that he saw cheaper lease deals that week in the market. Sure, Skalicky said, but many competitors treat lease finance like a commodity to be sold on price.

The basic idea of Stearns is that lease finance can instead be sold with better service and personal relationships, even when the primary tool is just a telephone. It shouldn't need to be the cheapest every week.

The company uses its information technology to free up more time for staffers to speak with customers. And in walking through the space with reception manager and HR coordinator Julie Roerick, a 19-year veteran of Stearns, you could see a few employees tapping on keyboards, but most were either on the phone or talking to each other.

What staff is listening for, Skalicky said, are reasons to go ahead with a financing, not kill it. Banks have to carefully assess the odds of getting paid back, of course, but here the credit analysis is done deal by deal.

"We don't have a credit box," she said, using the finance term for a strict set of loan criteria. "We really don't. We don't have a credit algorithm."

Brittney Muenster of Muenster's Olde Homestead Farms near Green Bay, Wis., said she had plenty of experience with banks and the hassles of getting underwritten when she sought financing for a feed mixer. A dealer then handed her a business card for Stearns Bank.

After her first credit application and due diligence painlessly wrapped up with Stearns, she still heard regularly from her Stearns account manager. When she recently needed financing for a skid loader, she said, Stearns was the first bank she thought of.

Even that finance manager in Ohio who still shopped for cheaper credit understood the value proposition of Stearns, Skalicky said. He described for her how he showed off in front of the sales reps from his showroom, bringing them into his office to listen as calls to Stearns really did get answered on just one ring.

When Skalicky slid over her business card, it had just one phone number. It was for her cellphone, and she promised she would pick up right away. 612-673-4302