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In Hunting Country, Bank Offers Guns in Lieu of Interest

Services: The Michigan institution's program is popular and draws investors from all over--particularly rich ones.

March 19, 2001|From Associated Press

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — A gun display inside a bank might seem a bit out of place. Sort of like decorating a veterinary hospital with taxidermy specimens. Then again, this is northern Michigan, a hunting haven where rifles are as commonplace as snow shovels.

The .12-gauge shotgun and the .270-caliber rifle on the wall rack at North Country Bank and Trust's downtown branch are not just teller-window dressing. Plunk down a couple of thousand dollars for a 20-year certificate of deposit and either one could be yours.

North Country offers CD buyers a choice: interest payments that accrue in the usual way, or pricey merchandise such as grandfather clocks, golf clubs and, especially, guns. North Country's "instant interest" catalog lists more than 100 rifle and 18 shotgun models made by Weatherby Inc. of Atascadero, Calif.

The decade-old program has attracted depositors from all 50 states, bank president Ronald Ford says. Not bad for a bank whose 31 branches are all in northern Michigan.

"You're always trying to find something to attract new customers . . . especially people who will put stable money in your core deposits for a long time," Ford said. "It's worked pretty well."

When an order is placed, the bank ships the gun to a registered dealer, who runs a background check on the customer before handing over the weapon.

You Want It, They Have It

A number of other banks have had similar programs. The First National Bank of Colorado, which last year changed its name from the Bank of Boulder, began offering guns instead of interest payments in 1976.

It dropped out in 1998 as interest rates fell and gun manufacturers raised prices, making it harder to give customers a better deal than they could get in sporting goods stores, spokesman Bill Reef said.

"It was very popular," he said. "It brought in quite a bit of money from markets we couldn't have touched as just a small bank in Colorado."

North Country continues to receive substantial discounts from Weatherby by carrying a large inventory: about $500,000 worth of firearms, Ford said. "We have a special vault. You want this or that rifle or shotgun, we have it."

The bank recently moved its headquarters to Traverse City, a small Lake Michigan resort town about 250 miles northwest of Detroit. Previously it was based in Manistique, an even smaller town in the Upper Peninsula, not far from where Ford grew up.

In these parts, hunting is akin to religion--many schools close for the opening day of deer season. Ford, 53, hunts deer and bear in his home state and heads to Canada in search of moose. He hopes to bag a caribou this fall.

Yet while paying homage to the north woods heritage and lifestyle, the guns-for-CDs program is aimed primarily at people living elsewhere--wealthy sportsmen with money to spare for a different kind of investment.

North Country's least expensive offer is a Lightweight Mark V Synthetic rifle for $869 deposited in a CD for 20 years. The same weapon is available for a three-year deposit of $4,009. The costliest is the Athena Grade V Classic Field shotgun, available for a deposit of $3,234 over 20 years or $14,911 over three years.

But the numbers don't tell the whole story, says Michael Tucker, a North Country commercial loan analyst. The gun is handed over upfront, while interest is paid when the certificate matures. Also, the gun becomes more valuable over time.

"Weatherbys are the Cadillac of firearms," said Tucker, who acquired a .270-caliber Magnum Mark IV Deluxe rifle shortly after the program began. "Buying a Weatherby is like buying a house. It appreciates."

North Country advertises its program in hunting and gun collector magazines. It has handed out more than 7,000 firearms and taken in millions of dollars in deposits while receiving up to 40,000 inquiries a year, Ford says.

Those names go onto a solicitation list for the bank's other investments, such as high-interest checking accounts for large deposits.

"It gives you an opportunity to market your products with . . . a lot of very wealthy individuals all over the country," Ford said.

Michael LeBlanc, an insurance broker in Houma, La., came across a North Country ad in the early 1990s and soon had his first Weatherby. He purchased several others through the bank and ended up joining the Weatherby Collectors Assn.

"If a guy's going to go out and spend $1,500 on a real nice gun, and he wants to please his wife . . . he could give her the CD and get his gun as well," said LeBlanc, 39. "That's what I did."

Ford says he hasn't gotten any complaints about the gun giveaway or bank displays.

"It's not like you could take one down and start using it in a robbery," he said. "No ammo available, anyway."

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