Women Who Mean Business honoree: Louise WalkerJune 29 2017
Sacramento Business Journal June 23, 2017 by Dennis McCoy
At age 18, Louise Walker walked into the First Northern Bank branch in Davis and landed a job as a teller. Today she’s president and CEO, overseeing an institution with 10 branches and $1.06 billion in deposits.
Along the way Walker has performed just about every key job at the Dixon-based bank. “I would take on whatever I was asked, or I would do more than I was asked,” Walker said. She became a utility player, roaming from branch to branch and taking on whatever needed to be done.
Eventually she became the bank’s central operations manager. And when First Northern went public in 2000, Walker got involved in reporting to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
As older managers retired, Walker moved up to cashier, chief financial officer and, finally, to CEO in 2011.
That career path may not be flashy, but few bankers have mastered every level from the ground up in a single institution.
“She has a very deep grasp of financials, budgets, P&L, investments, balance sheets,” said Rod Brown, who was head of the California Bankers Association when Walker was board chairwoman. “She leads by consensus. She’s very deliberate in tackling a major issue. She has an absolutely delightful sense of humor, and it has served her well.”
When Walker started at First Northern in 1979, the bank had $40 million in assets. Now it has $1.17 billion in assets. And branches in Sacramento, Placer, Yolo, El Dorado, Solano and Contra Costa counties.
Net income has grown steadily at the bank over the past few years, rising from $5.4 million in 2013 to $5.9 million in 2014, $7 million in 2015 and $8.2 million in 2016.
Banking has been a predominantly male profession, especially when Walker was starting out. But she says she didn’t encounter much pushback as she advanced.
“I have experienced the opposite,” she said. “I think ultimately people want to see you succeed, if you are willing to ask questions and let people know that you need help.”
And the banking field has changed with the times. Walker just finished a one-year term as chairwoman of the California Bankers Association. She was only the third woman to chair the association in its 125-year history. But her successor is also a woman, and this year the group hired a woman as CEO.
Walker also sits on the board of the American Bankers Association and chairs the Solano Economic Development Corp.
“She’s just got this huge reservoir of capability,” said Sandy Person, president of the Solano EDC. “Her demeanor appears so soft-spoken initially, but once you have had the opportunity to work with her on a project, you’ll find that she is enthusiastic, can work with all sorts of individuals. And she’s unflappable, organized and hugely analytical.”
One of Walker’s major concerns is to help people become financially literate.
“Through the recession, you can see a lot of what happened is because of the lack of financial education,” she said. When the state association asked her to sit on the state controller’s financial literacy advisory committee, she saw that many people don’t realize how many resources are available to them.
First Northern teamed up with Armijo High School in Fairfield to add an online financial literacy course to the curriculum in 2012. Through last year, 1,081 students had completed the course.
Now the bank is creating a financial literacy pilot program with United Way in Woodland.
In some ways, Walker is a product of First Northern. At the same time, First Northern has her stamp on it.
“Her disposition permeates,” Person said. “Her team, they are all so consistently sincere, too. They are not a cynical bank. It’s authentic. It’s part of that American fabric of what we all strive for. She is that in every sense of the word.”
“I actually have gone into the class and talked about how important it is to ... manage your money,” said Walker, who attends graduations where students receive financial literacy certificates. “You walk away from that and you’re like, wow, I did something positive today.”
Some of the students didn’t know the difference between a debit and credit card, and others say they have been able to explain to their parents how much payday lending was costing them.
Now First Northern is preparing another financial literacy pilot program with United Way in Woodland.
In some ways, Walker is a product of First Northern. Her 38 years with the bank is not a record. Two 40-year employees recently retired, and there are three more still on staff.
“One of our competitive advantages is that our managers and lenders have an average of 20 years of experience with the bank,” she said. That’s four times the industry average.
At the same time, First Northern has her stamp on it.
“Her disposition permeates,” Person said. ‘Her team, they are all so consistently sincere, too. They are not a cynical bank. It’s authentic. It’s part of that American fabric of what we all strive for. She is that in every sense of the word.”
Education: B.A. in management, Saint Mary’s College of California
Family: Lives in Dixon with her husband Stan and two sons
First job: Working in her mother’s bakery in Richmond at age 13
Advice to younger women: “Push yourself beyond anything you could imagine. Get out of your comfort zone. The other thing is listen and treat everyone how you would want to be treated.”
Biggest whoops: “We sold our 40-acre almond orchard in 2006, right before the recession. (The price of) almonds went through the roof. It was a good time to sell, but not ag land, and not almonds.”
Favorite way to unwind: “Walk on the beach.”
Fantasy career: FBI agent
Person you would most like to meet: “Probably Ronald Reagan. He came from a background you wouldn’t expect.”
Something about you that would surprise people: “I’m an Oakland Raiders fan.”