Leading the Field

Five community bankers ensuring our industry’s bright future

By Beth Teig-Mattson and Michael Lotti

Community banking has a great future. Look almost anywhere and you’ll find talented young people shaping our industry. They’re smart, hard working and dedicated to the highest ideals that have distinguished community bankers as our most trusted financial service providers.

This month ICBA Independent Banker highlights the careers of five accomplished community bankers who have the respect of their supervisors and peers. Through hard work and innovation, they have risen through the ranks of their institutions to shoulder increasing responsibility, showing at every step a special dedication to outstanding performance for their institutions, customers and communities.

Each has a different story to tell, but each story confirms once again that community banking has a bright future ahead.

Improving People, Products and Processes

Craig Sievertsen will tell you that an important part of his success has been being part of an organization full of people with shared values. At his current position at Banner Bank in Walla Walla, Wash., that value statement is, “Do the Right Thing.”

Yet, it is clear from Sievertsen’s track record of success across his 12 years in the banking industry that another key factor in his success is his strong drive to search for new ideas, new processes and new programs that can be mutually beneficial to both customers and the bank.

“The thing that makes Craig successful is that he is always looking for the best way to serve the client within the needs of the bank,” says Jill Rice, a senior vice president and senior credit officer at Banner Bank. “He is always working to improve himself and the people around him to strengthen the team and, in the process, strengthen the bank.”

Currently, Sievertsen serves as senior vice president of consumer and small-business lending at Banner Bank, a $4 billion-asset community bank that operates 86 full-service branches in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

Sievertsen took responsibility for Banner Bank’s consumer and small-business lending group two years ago. In this role, he has strengthened small-business lending processes, improved the group’s relationship with the bank’s commercial lending team and implemented a very successful Small Business Administration Express program. One goal he has pursued is enabling the bank’s lending sales force to respond to client needs with more confidence and consistency, he says.

Sievertsen says there is no substitute for hard work and getting feet on the street. “The days of being able to wait for calls or have three or four centers of influence who can send you leads are probably gone, in large part because it is a very competitive environment,” he says. “So, there needs to be a disciplined approach to sourcing leads, and it needs to be followed consistently. It can’t be the flavor of the week—calling on dentists one week and pipe distributors the next week.

“Community bankers certainly need to have knowledge of some of these industries that are in our communities. But I would suggest that you need a disciplined approach to regularly reach out to these folks.”

Those changes also have helped bring in more business to Banner Bank. In 2011, loan production increased by $18 million, up 75 percent from the prior year. Outstanding loan balances also increased by $13 million, up 26 percent in that first year. In addition, loan production volume for 2012 is expected to exceed that of 2011 by a further 10 percent.

One tool in particular that was instrumental in that increase was the SBA Express program’s launch. During the first year alone the program approved 58 loans totaling $5 million that would not have been approved otherwise.

Another new program that Sievertsen rolled out in October is a small-business banking group. That team will work in conjunction with the retail branch staff to better support the small-business customer—a core part of Banner Bank’s customer base.

“The small-business client is extremely valuable to our company because they make up the bulk of our commercial portfolio,” he points out.

—Beth Mattson-Teig

Tackling the Job of Compliance

Higher education with a career centered on teaching and finance is a family tradition for Michelle Hetzel. Both her father and brother are CPAs, her mother was a second-grade teacher, and her husband, Marc, teaches at the local community college.

Hetzel’s current position as auditor/compliance officer for Better Banks reflects her family heritage. She spends half her time at the bank reviewing financial documents and procedures and the other half training employees.

Before being promoted in 2008 to auditor/compliance officer for Better Banks, a six-branch, $235 million-asset community bank in central Illinois, Hetzel had accumulated more than 20 years of bank-related experience. This experience included nine-plus years as a process coordinator for the Federal Reserve Bank in Peoria and more than seven years in the bank’s mortgage processing area.

“It helps to have extensive banking experience,” Hetzel offers, but she admits that her compliance learning curve was steep. She credits her success to her curiosity and appetite for learning. She checks a variety of daily and weekly industry compliance updates and regularly attends compliance seminars. “I can’t say enough about ICBA—their compliance experts, their seminars and their online webinars are invaluable.”

According to Rula Roberts, Better Banks vice president of human resources, Hetzel has fulfilled the community bank’s auditing/compliance mission established when its board of directors appointed her as the bank’s first full-time auditor. “Better Banks has developed a compliance-friendly culture due to Michelle’s direct leadership,” Roberts says. “Our compliance program has become a way of life because we all understand the importance of following best practices and procedures. Everyone is actively involved in our compliance program, from our senior management to our new hires.”

“Her excellent and thorough audit work, combined with compliance audit and training, gives the Audit Committee assurance that our internal controls are in excellent shape, especially for a bank of our size,” adds Karl Kuppler, an attorney who serves as Better Banks’ audit-committee chairman.

For Hetzel, the modern bank compliance officer has to use teaching skills more than ever to build a compliance-centered bank. “Rules are rules,” she says, “but people want to know why they are following them—when they do, they feel like they are part of the team.”

—Michael Lotti

Putting People into Technology

A ccording to James Gordon, IT shouldn’t be a community bank’s No. 1 priority, or even its second or third. The business of the bank—helping people make financial transactions—should always come first.

That’s why Gordon, as first vice president of information technology at Needham Bank, a $1.1 billion-asset community bank with five branches in suburban Boston, makes sure his IT team understands banking as well as the latest technology. “Some techies don’t cross party lines and see how their technology is being used or misused,” he says. “They ‘hunker in the bunker’ and are fine with inadequate processes or technology.”

His mantra to them: Be problem-solvers, which starts with understanding issues from a banker’s perspective.

Since joining Needham Bank in 2007 as an associate vice president, Gordon has practiced what he preaches. When asked to improve the process of dispersing construction and commercial real estate loans—which make up 20 percent of Needham Bank’s portfolio—Gordon rode around with the bank’s construction inspection specialist for a couple of days. “Then I gave them all iPads. They could file photos and notes on site, and I made the address the file name, so all they had to do was click on it for directions.”

The result: Most contractors were able to get money on the same day they requested it, solidifying Needham Bank’s reputation as the best bank in the area for construction and commercial real estate loans.

Likewise, when Gordon couldn’t find a good program for Needham Bank’s board members to securely review documents electronically, he hired a Web developer and invented the BoardIQ software portal. “It’s not flashy, but it’s secure, and the interface is intuitive,” he says. “Now board members can quickly find everything they need.”

Gordon and Needham Bank are even getting requests from other banks to license BoardIQ, something that they hope to do in the near future.

At his numerous webinars and speaking engagements, Gordon stresses the importance of having a flexible outlook when it comes to banking IT. “What you did at your last bank won’t work. You have to reinvent your playbook so that your IT supports the business and not the other way around.”

—Michael Lotti

Remembering a Movie Classic’s Message

Lucas N. White is carrying on a long family tradition in not one, but two industries. He serves as both vice president and director at The Fountain Trust Co., a $260 million-asset community bank in Covington, Ind. White also is a partner with the law firm of White & White Attorneys LLP. He is part of the fourth generation running the family bank, as well as a fourth generation of attorneys.

Another family tradition for White was watching the classic Jimmy Stewart film It’s a Wonderful Life. “The moral of the story for us was that you need to watch your bank and protect it,” he says.

White has carried that movie’s message with him in his current role at Fountain Trust, which includes playing an active part in managing the bank’s $100 million in investments and chairing the bank’s asset-liability committee. As part of the bank’s senior management team, he also is active on several committees and serves on the board of directors.

Protecting community banking has been a priority at Fountain Trust since the Wall Street financial crisis hit in 2007 and 2008. Ongoing changes in the industry have compelled White to play an active role in both the ICBA and the Indiana Bankers Association. At the state level, he sits on the board of the IBA’s Future Leadership Division. On a national level, he has been serving ICBA on its Lending Committee since 2009 and was named the committee’s vice chair in 2012.

On behalf of both groups, he participates in annual lobbying trips to Washington, D.C. “There have been enough changes going on in the last few years out in Washington that will affect banking through my career, or at least a large part of it,” White says. “If we have a chance to tweak the rules, and at least have a say so about what they’re doing, that is an important thing to do.”

Closer to home, White has spearheaded a move to diversify Fountain Trust’s investment portfolio. “We have dramatically changed the makeup of the investments and the durations of the investments, and that has served us very well in this rate cycle,” he explains.

Historically, the community bank had maintained the same investment strategy for decades. When White returned to the bank in 2006 after finishing law school, Fountain Trust held about $3 million in municipal bonds with the remainder in one- and two-year agency and Treasury bonds. Now Fountain Trust is more heavily involved in products such as municipal bonds and agency backed collateralized mortgage obligations.

As a result, earnings have held up well in the current low-interest rate cycle.

Over the past two decades, Fountain Trust has grown from $100 million in assets to $260 million in assets. “As a member of the younger generation, I certainly want to keep that momentum going,” White adds.

—Beth Mattson-Teig

Forging Strong Relationships

Growing up in a banking family, Lora M. Rose developed a keen awareness of the important role community banks play in promoting the economy of a small town and promoting small businesses. That appreciation, along with a passion for finance, prompted Rose to follow the family tradition and choose a career in community banking.

At 41, Rose has more than 13 years of experience in the community banking industry. She is currently at the helm of The State Bank in La Junta as the chief financial officer. Although her family has owned the State Bank in La Junta since 1975, the family tradition of banking spans four generations and more than 75 years.

The Ivy League graduate could certainly have had her pick of jobs. She earned a degree in economics from Harvard and a master’s degree from the University of California in finance and accounting. She also is a graduate of the Colorado School of Banking and the Investment School at the University of South Carolina.

Although her parents still maintain an advisory role and are active on the board, Rose is largely in charge of managing the $90 million-asset community bank, which includes branches in the communities of La Junta, Falcon and Rocky Ford. She oversees the majority of key functions such as interactions with regulators, asset-liability management, investments and budgeting.

Rose manages day-to-day operations while still keeping an eye on the bigger picture of surviving a more challenging regulatory environment and positioning the bank for future growth as the economy recovers. “A big part of what community banks are going to face in the future is what we have already been facing in our lives—the increase of regulation,” she says.

To better manage those changes, Rose has worked to forge strong relationships with field regulators. Her philosophy has been to take a proactive approach to reach out to regulators to get feedback on new ideas and proposed changes before they are implemented. “That way we can troubleshoot on the front side so that we don’t have to go back and mop up problems afterwards.”

Throughout her career, Rose also has been involved in the community and the community banking industry. One of her key experiences was working on Capitol Hill for two years before starting graduate school. She focused on banking issues as an economic and finance advisor for former Colorado senator Wayne Allard. In that role, she worked hard to forge relationships with the ICBA and the Independent Bankers of Colorado.

Although Rose has had her hands full in recent years raising her four young daughters—a 7-year-old and 4-year-old triplets—she hopes to resume a more active role in those industry associations once her children are a bit older.

—Beth Mattson-Teig