Q&A with Susan M. Horton

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President and CEO,  Wheatland Bank

Susan M. Horton, CPA

Employees you oversee:

151 employees, 8 directors and 440 shareholders.

Brief background of your business:

Wheatland Bank is a locally-owned, full-service community bank headquartered in Spokane, with 14 branches throughout eastern and central Washington and over 400 local shareholders. Wheatland Bank was founded in Davenport, Washington, by local people 42 years ago to serve the needs of the local community of farmers and businesses with specialized agricultural and business banking expertise.

Wheatland Bank is a full-service commercial and consumer bank but is still the only agriculturally-specialized bank in the state, according to the Federal Reserve’s definition of 30% or more of its portfolio in agriculture loans.

Wheatland Bank focuses on helping businesses, farmers, ranchers and consumers succeed by offering the highest quality personalized banking relationships and customized lending, banking, residential lending and wealth management services. A strong independent reflection of Wheatland Bank’s continued success is the fact that it has earned the coveted 5-Star Superior rating from BauerFinancial Inc., the nation’s leading independent bank rating firm for 57 consecutive quarters putting it in an even more prominent position as an “exceptional performance bank.”

How did you land your current role?  How long have you been in the banking industry?  

Prior to joining Wheatland Bank in 1999, I was a partner in a regional CPA firm managing a financial institution audit and consulting practice including Wheatland Bank.

At the age of 37, Wheatland heavily recruited me to be its president and as things progressed, finally handed me a napkin over a lunch meeting that said, “Whatever it takes.”

After considering the opportunity to really apply all I had learned in terms of best practices in the industry to one institution and to create enhanced value for its customers, shareholders, employees and community at large, it was an offer I just couldn’t refuse.

The board and I developed a strategic plan for growth and expansion as an independent community bank. Since then we have experienced tremendous growth and prosperity by staying true to our core values of serving customers with a high touch level of personalized service and customized solutions, with state-of-the-art technology to complement, but not replace, the human interaction customers still desire and deserve.

Leading Wheatland Bank for the past 23 years has been everything (and much more than) I ever anticipated, providing a highly rewarding and stimulating career serving our communities and helping people and businesses achieve their goals and dreams. 

What is Wheatland’s presence in the Tri-Cities? Why should the community know about what you do?  

Wheatland Bank expanded into the Tri-Cities just over five years ago and already has over $200 million in loans and deposits in that market, making it the single largest and most successful branch in the Wheatland Bank network!

Much of this success goes back to the hiring of our Tri-Cities team leader and SVP, Steve Lancaster, whose lifelong service to the agriculture community in the Tri-Cities has created a following of the highest quality producers and business owners in the region.

Steve recruited a local team of exceptional and very experienced bankers who provide full-service commercial and consumer banking to the greater Tri-Cities.

What was the biggest challenge you faced due to the Covid-19 pandemic?

We were well prepared, having just updated our Pandemic Disaster Recovery Plans and had already adopted a secure Virtual Private Network (VPN) to allow remote work.

But it had only been tested by a handful of employees in IT and senior management.

The greatest challenge was purchasing, training and installing remote virtual workstations for the  majority of our employees at their homes within just a few days. But, because of our preparedness and planning, we never missed a beat and were able to provide full banking services to customers and process all mission critical functions of the bank without interruption.

What was the biggest opportunity and how did it change your organization?

The most rewarding accomplishment this past year has been delivering over $120 million in Paycheck Protection Loans (PPP) loans to our local communities, saving over 10,000 jobs and helping existing and new customers keep their doors open and paychecks in their employees’ hands and food on their families’ tables.

Because we make decisions locally, we were able to respond quicker than most banks, and worked day and night building out an internally developed process so we could react immediately to processing PPP applications before the funds ran out in the first round.

Many other institutions were not ready and did not help their long-term customers, which drove many new customers to Wheatland. We were able to take immediate care of them and get them the lifeline they needed.

Because of our approach and personal service during this crisis, we have experienced record growth and cemented customer relationships for the long term. This has been some of the most rewarding work in our history and the feedback from customers has been so fulfilling.

We believe this has contributed directly to Wheatland Bank’s growth of nearly 43% from December 31, 2019, to $657 million in total assets today. 

What is the biggest challenge facing business owners/managers today? 

Short term: How to fully recover from the effects of the pandemic and to find the “new normal,” including how to motivate and lead in a more virtual work world, especially in a tight labor market with ongoing risks of a high percentage of still unvaccinated workers.

Long term: Succession planning for closely-held businesses to address ownership, management and family wealth transition issues. 

If you had a magic wand, what would you change about the financial industry? 

Level the playing field by taxing credit unions, which currently pay $0 federal corporate taxes and no Washington state Business and Occupation (B&O) taxes, yet perform the same commercial banking functions as all tax paying banks.

Most people are not aware that their credit union, which makes hundreds of millions of dollars of profit each year, does not pay one dime of income tax.

This unfair advantage has fueled the tax-free growth of credit unions, is constantly depleting the future federal and state tax rolls and is contributing to the consolidation and shrinking number of banks in Washington who find it harder and harder to compete fairly.

The FDIC is interested in reducing the number of U.S. households that are unbanked. Is this an area of interest to Wheatland? What initiatives have you undertaken here?

As a locally-owned community bank, Wheatland continues to be concerned about the number of households that are unbanked in the markets that we serve and throughout the country.

The primary concern is the financial impact on those households as a result of them being reliant on alternative financial products and services – such as payday loans, check cashing services and money orders – to take care of their finances.

At Wheatland Bank, we do offer a free personal checking product that provides access to a wide variety of services such as a debit card, online banking and bill pay at no cost to our customers.

The minimum opening deposit is just $100 and there are no monthly services charges. If a customer is not eligible to open a checking account due to issues with overdrafts or charge offs at another institution, they still would have the option to open a personal savings account at Wheatland.

In addition to the products offered by Wheatland, we also are very proud to have received an “outstanding” rating on our most recent Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) exam conducted by the FDIC in 2020. As one of only two intermediate small institutions in Washington to earn this rating on its most recent exam, the rating indicates that Wheatland Bank has an outstanding record of helping to meet the credit needs of our assessment area. This includes serving low- and moderate-income neighborhoods in a manner consistent with our resources and capabilities.

What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time?

Always lead with integrity and empathy, be brave, trust yourself and your experience, have a whatever-it-takes attitude, be open and share information, and communicate regularly with your team.

Be collaborative in your approach with your team and together develop a strategic plan for your company or department by asking them what is working, what isn’t, what opportunities and problems they see that need to be addressed.

This will show them you not only respect their ideas but also will help to get their buy-in if they are part of the strategic planning process. 

How do you keep your employees (or team members) motivated? 

Frequent and open communication so everyone knows the strategic vision for the bank and their role in it, as well as our progress toward our goals.

Wheatland Bank is unique because over 25% of the bank is owned by employees through our Employee Stock Ownership Plan, stock options and direct stock purchases. It has been part of our success story to develop from within and to provide upward career opportunities for our employees to support their development and our growth.

How did you decide to pursue a career in the financial services industry? 

“The early bird gets the worm.”

As a young Washington State University graduate, I accepted a job with Deloitte (previously Touche Ross) in its Seattle office and was to begin in September with a new group of 24 young college graduates pursuing careers as CPAs.

They wrote to our group and asked for two volunteers to start early in June for some special projects. So excited to begin, I accepted that request and moved over early to begin before the rest of my starting class of graduates.

That single decision made the biggest difference in the direction of my career because that special summer project was all Securities and Exchange Commission bank work.

By the time the rest of my class began in September, I was already earmarked as the banking specialist of the starting class of graduates. From that day forward I specialized in financial institution audits, SEC work and consulting work and then was recruited by one of my clients to be the president of Wheatland Bank. 

How do you measure success in your workplace?  

The foundation of our long-term strategic plan is to enhance value for our customers, communities, shareholders and employees with a balanced approach to growth and profits.

We measure our progress and performance against industry benchmarks and trends on a regular basis. But we realize it’s really all about the people, starting with excellent employees who really care about our customers and work hard to serve them with the 5-star service every customer deserves.

We are blessed to have such exceptional customers who are honest, hardworking and successful in what they do. Retaining and growing customer relationships and key employee talent are the two of the most important things because if you do those two things well, and lead with integrity and hard work, the financial results and lasting success will come.

How do you balance work and family life? 

In my role as CEO, there are few boundaries, and I am never really disconnected from the bank or my work.

With technology, it seems like we are never able to turn it off like we used to before all the devices and remote capabilities, and expectations for rapid response communications.  However, I always put my family first – scheduling in time to volunteer in my child’s classroom, never missing her academic or extracurricular events and am always there when my family needs me.

I also learned to blend the two by taking my young daughter and retired mother with me on business trips and adding on vacation at the end of bank conferences in Hawaii, etc.

As a widow and single mom, my employees got used to seeing my daughter occasionally at the office after school or at branch grand openings. But it set the tone and the culture for working women to succeed as executives in our bank and for all employees to know it’s OK to put your family first!

Providing flexibility to your employees when they have difficulties in their lives and the freedom to deal with them will create lasting long-term loyalty and job satisfaction, which in turn will help create happy well-served customers. 

What do you like to do when you are not at work? 

Spend time with family and friends on our horse ranch, horseback riding with my daughter, traveling abroad and in the U.S., and during my busy workdays, walking in Spokane’s beautiful Riverfront Park and weight training with a personal trainer during my lunch hours at least a few days a week.

What’s your best time management strategy? 

When you are in management, it is even more important to make sure that all the employees you are responsible for supervising are working efficiently and productively. So as a leader, it is just as, or more important really, to make sure that the entire team is managing time and working productively and efficiently.

But in general, my time management strategies include putting more time and effort up front into planning than execution because if you plan well and allocate the right amount of effort and resources to the planning stage of any process or project, it will save time in the end and ensure a better experience for the customer or team and ultimately a better outcome. 

This was instilled in me in public accounting and when done properly eliminates stress and frustrations, reduces errors and wasted time and creates great results for everyone involved.

Best tip to relieve stress?

Take a break, go for a walk and get some fresh air outside and listen to your favorite playlist on Spotify.

What’s your most-used app?

My favorite app is the Wheatland Bank mobile app!  My other most used app, besides the social media apps we all surf when we have time, is the Good Reader app, which allows me and the other members of my executive loan committee to review and annotate lengthy financial loan packages in a paperless, safe and secure manner.

Do you have a personal mantra, phrase or quote you like to use?

Whatever it takes!

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