Leader of the Pod

If you look closely at the chilly, choppy waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, you might catch a glimpse of sleek black fins—the telltale sign of J pod, the extended family of orcas who haunt the inland waters between Washington state and British Columbia.

Like all orca pods, J pod is matriarchal, made up of descendants of four matrilines. The pod sticks together; individual whales leave their mothers’ sides only for a few hours, to hunt or mate. Orca society is complex and sophisticated, rivaled among animals only by elephants and higher primates.

Not far from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the town of Sequim features another pod with a dynamic female leader: Sound Community Bank and its CEO, Laurie Stewart. A trailblazer for women in banking in Washington state, one of American Banker’s Most Powerful Women in Banking and now chair of the American Bankers Association, Stewart had a winding path to leadership—one forged by determination, generosity, openness to opportunity and a widening circle of family.

Family first

Stewart lives in a condo tower in booming downtown Seattle, a few blocks away from Sound’s headquarters, but her roots are in the rugged Olympic Peninsula a couple hours west via ferry and floating bridge, and where Sound has four of its 10 offices.

Born Laura Lee Teitzel, she is the oldest of four tight-knit sisters. Fourteen years older than her youngest sister, she recalls carting the younger girls around with her to Girl Scouts and community activities; they called her “Mother Laurie.”

The first of her family to graduate from high school, Laurie’s banking career began as a teller at Washington Federal Savings and Loan while a freshman at the University of Washington. “I didn’t think of banking as anything other than a ticket to school,” she laughs. “It was way better than waiting tables.”

The theatre major then fell in love with and married a young sailor named Ken Stewart. They began life together in the Navy community of Whidbey Island, where Laurie jokes that she had just a few choices for what to do: cocktail waitress, cashier at the Navy Exchange or working at a bank. So, with Ken frequently away on cruise aboard an aircraft carrier, she picked up where she left off, building a career as both a banker and bank examiner.

Laurie’s life was turned upside down in 2001 when Ken succumbed to a rare form of liver cancer. Although the Stewarts never had children of their own, Laurie has spent the rest of her life becoming a second mom to a wide range of extended family members, employees and friends. Before he died, Ken asked Laurie: “Will you just ensure that all our nieces and nephews get a college education?”

As the first in her family to go to college, that’s a promise she has kept with joy, although she says with a grin: “I keep asking, ‘Ken, how long does that commitment go on?! I’m going to be working until I’m 85!’”

Laurie’s family extends beyond the Teitzel sisters and their children and grandkids. “I look at her as a second mom,” says Annie Olson, a Seattle firefighter who got to know Stewart while waiting tables at a restaurant during college. “I literally feel like part of her family.”

“There’s nothing more important to Laurie than family,” adds Karma Zaike, a friend who practices family law in Seattle. “She has cultivated the most solid and loving family that I have ever seen.”

That spirit extends to the Sound Community Bank team—nicknamed “the pod” to match the bank’s orca branding. “I don’t know any leader who will do more for her employees than Laurie Stewart,” says bank chairman Tyler Myers.

Pat Floyd, a retired bank executive who led its HR function, adds that she would sometimes have to recommend an employee separation to Stewart. “She’d resist that, because her employees were almost her family,” Floyd explains.

An accidental banker

While family has always come first for Stewart, banking was something she fell into accidentally. It was on Whidbey Island that she first got the idea that banking could be more than just a job. She moved up the ranks to head teller, branch operations supervisor and the loan desk. She hit her first barrier when she asked to be promoted to an officer of the bank.

There was only one female bank officer in that location, and her boss told her that she shouldn’t wait to fill her shoes—the incumbent would have the job until she died. Stewart chuckles as she recalls the conversation. “It’s really good I took his advice, because Jo Balda worked until she was 85,” she says. “If I’d been waiting around for Jo’s job, I’d still be in Oak Harbor.”

Meanwhile, Stewart learned all she could about banking while completing her degree part-time. Her boss got her into a class for commercial lending officers by a ruse, knowing they wouldn’t welcome a woman as a student, she recalls. “He called the head office in Everett and said, ‘There are a bunch of us commercial lenders who have to go to this class for 10 weeks straight. We need someone to take notes.’”

Stewart then became a bank examiner, putting 80,000 miles on her car doing community bank examinations for two years. By then, banks had begun to hire what she calls “token women,” and “I had skills that a lot of other women didn’t.” She returned to the Everett bank as an officer, becoming the first female VP there. She later joined a California-based thrift and rose to become its first female SVP. In 1989, while she was casting about for her next step, a recruiter called her about an opening at a $38 million-asset institution in Seattle. “What do you know about credit unions?” he asked.

Credibility on credit unions

AGE Federal Credit Union was a cooperative for cooperatives: it served the employees of independent grocers and retailers and was a proud part of the Evergreen State’s strong culture of cooperative and mutual businesses like REI and Washington Mutual. Stewart was the board’s second choice, after the first hire—a veteran of a big bank—walked out on his first day when he realized how different a small credit union would be.

Stewart on the rooftop of Sound Community Bank’s Belltown, Seattle, headquarters.

It wasn’t long before Stewart realized the credit union would need to grow and change. The independent retailers who formed its field of membership were shrinking as chain supermarkets and retailers expanded. “The common bond we had was not sustainable,” she reflects. The credit union needed to grow to survive—but it didn’t seem to Stewart fair to do that within the bounds of the credit union charter.

“Philosophically for me, I always had this back-of-my mind feeling that we call 911, we use the services in the community, but we don’t really support the community,” Stewart says. “We would maximize our tax advantage. Is that equitable if we move outside our area of focus?”

In the late 1990s, she began having conversations with the board about converting to a bank charter, which would allow the organization to grow throughout the community. “That was really difficult for the board,” says longtime bank board member Bob Carney. “She had this vision of where we could go and certainly got us there, but the board struggled with it for a couple years. Once she picks a goal, she hits her goals.”

Stewart’s vision for converting to a bank “gave us an opportunity to grow the institution,” adds David Haddad, the vice chairman of the bank. In 2003, what had by then been renamed Credit Union of the Pacific officially became Sound Community Bank, a mutual savings bank. (In 2012, it became a commercial bank.) In converting, Stewart made a rare move in the credit union world. “We paid an extra dividend to our members before we converted because they’d helped build the organization.”

Stewart didn’t have to persuade just the board—she also had to persuade the National Credit Union Administration, which was loath to see its members leave for another regulator. “We were probably the last credit union conversion before NCUA began applying some very arbitrary rules,” she says. “We did have resistance. It took us a long time to get NCUA’s approval.”

Today, amid a wave of acquisitions taking banking assets the opposite way, into the credit union sector—12 in 2019 alone when this issue went to press—Stewart hopes to use her experience to focus public attention on the issue of credit unions’ tax advantage.

She thinks bankers can make headway by pointing out that credit unions are the only tax-exempt organizations—apart from churches and very tiny nonprofits—that don’t make key transparency filings.

“When the public found out the NFL was a not-for-profit, all of a sudden the NFL paid attention,” she says. “It was a huge deal. I think my experience can help with that conversation.”

Glen Simecek, president and CEO of the Washington Bankers Association, agrees. “She has credibility that few other bankers possess” on credit unions, he says.

‘It never occurs to me that somebody wouldn’t be my family’

Another priority for Stewart is to champion diversity and inclusion in the banking industry. As a female CEO who broke through glass ceilings in her rise to the C-suite, she consciously built a senior executive team that’s half female. Her inspirational qualities go beyond banking. “She’s one of the first people I call to ask for advice when navigating a male-dominated career field,” says Annie Olson, the firefighter. “I practiced mock interviews with her. It’s the most important part of the process.”

Stewart’s advice for women seeking to advance in banking: raise your hand. “Most women think that if they do a really good job, someone will lean down, pluck them out and promote them,” she says. “No! You’ve got to raise your hand and say, ‘I can do it, I want a shot.’ Women don’t raise their hands enough.”

She also challenges banks to think beyond race and sex when assessing diversity. “We’ve got a long way to go in terms of inclusion and thinking about who’s comfortable,” she says. For example, Sound Community Bank recently worked with the Hiring Our Heroes program to onboard a U.S. Marine officer in the marketing department. It can be a challenge for some civilian companies to provide a welcoming environment for servicemen and women transitioning out of active duty, Stewart explains.

Her interest in diversity comes back to family, she thinks. “I don’t know if there’s something in my personality that naturally mothers,” Stewart reflects. “Some part of that role of inclusiveness has been in me since I was a kid. It never occurs to me that somebody wouldn’t be my family.”

A balanced business model

Diversity of markets is a key part of Sound Community Bank’s business model, too. With its headquarters in Seattle—blocks from Amazon’s futuristic headquarters complex—it’s in the heart of a dynamic high-tech hub, but it’s also firmly rooted in the rural world of the Olympic Peninsula. “I believe it’s part of the secret success of our organization,” says Stewart. “We view each retail branch as its own community’s community bank. We make bigger loans on the city side, and we have bigger deposits on the rural side.”

One customer who spans both sides of Sound’s business is Bob Reandeau. A former state trooper from Sequim, Reandeau started a Seattle-based corporate security and executive protection firm more than two decades ago. He worked with Stewart to obtain financing to support the company’s growth from a handful of friends to 850 employees. “We’re able to sustain that growth and keep growing with these great northwest companies,” he says. “We could never have done that without going to a bank that was flexible and understood your business.”

Other clients come to Sound Community Bank in deep personal anxiety. As a divorce attorney, Karma Zaike refers clients to the bank who are uncertain about their financial futures while divorces and child support arrangements are being worked out. “When people come to me, they are at a very vulnerable point in their lives. The most important thing I can do is give them a referral to someone I know is going to have their back,” says Zaike. “After working with Laurie’s team, I universally have people come back with a lightness after meeting with them.”

Stewart is also leading Sound Community Bank to respond to one of the biggest challenges in Seattle: affordable housing. With high tech salaries driving up prices and limited land for new development, Sound Community Bank provides loans for “microhousing,” says Kathy Reines, a real estate developer and former banker who’s known Stewart for 20 years. “She and the bank stepped in at the last minute when we needed a construction loan and saved that project for us.” Microhousing refers to smaller, fully appointed units that are not subsidized; instead, they are kept affordable by the developer’s focus on reducing costs. “What they did for us is they underwrote the loan faster than any other bank we’ve had the privilege of working with, and I attribute that to Laurie and her commitment to customer service,” says Reines.

Sound Community Bank supports the full range of housing in its markets, including Seattle’s famous houseboats on Lake Union and manufactured homes in the Olympic Peninsula. “We are truly financing collateral types where the consumer doesn’t have a lot of options,” explains David Raney, SVP at the bank. “Laurie’s always leading the charge on how we can do better with first-time homebuyers, on down payment assistance.”

‘The difference banks make’

Affordable housing is one area where Sound Community Bank has built productive partnerships with community organizations, including housing advocacy groups that don’t always see eye-to-eye with banks. “We don’t often think, as an industry, that the housing advocates might be our friends,” says Stewart.

But building those partnerships is at the heart of Stewart’s community banking vision. On the Olympic Peninsula, Sound Community Bank is a principal contributor to the Olympic View Community Foundation with its community credit card. “Every transaction that a cardholder makes, Sound contributes 1 percent of that back to the foundation,” says Leslie Lauren, executive director. These funds have generated nearly $380,000 in grants to local nonprofits.

One of Stewart’s personal passions is Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, where she chaired the board and has volunteered for more than 30 years. Her personal gifts, grants from the bank and staff volunteer hours combine to total $1.5 million in support for the zoo, says Chief Advancement Officer David Wu.

In Seattle, Sound pod members get excited every year for Food Frenzy, which raises $1 million to support Washington’s largest hunger relief organization. Sound Community Bank has already raised $100,000 this year, says Linda Nageotte, CEO of Food Lifeline. Stewart’s love for Food Frenzy includes rolling up her sleeves, too. “She pitches in,” says Elliott Pierce, the bank’s chief credit officer. “We are literally loading food into the bins that get disbursed to food banks around the state. It’s a great team-building exercise and she makes it fun for all team members.”

It’s that spirit of fun that animates Stewart as she thinks about the next generation of bankers—and her legacy, both as a community bank CEO and in chairing ABA.

“I came to banking accidentally, but banking is a fabulous career and a noble profession,” she says. “We need to a better job helping our communities know the difference banks make.”

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of the ABA Banking Journal and is reproduced here with permission.