Trying to figure out the future of the banking industry is like looking into a crystal ball that has been painted. We know there’s a clear picture in there somewhere, but we cannot see it right now. Fortunately, Az Business magazine has identified banking leaders and institutions that set the standards for excellence in banking and offer clear leadership and a direction the industry.

According to Mike Brown, president of WaFd Bank Arizona, looking into what lies ahead in 2021 is a challenge for banks for two reasons:

•  Economic uncertainty related to COVID-19 and all of the unknowns. What will be the impact of the vaccine? Will we have more shutdowns? Can there be large gatherings? Will the unprecedented level of government assistance continue?

•  The near zero interest rate environment makes it very hard for banks to generate normal returns.

“Acknowledging the challenges, we are bullish on banking looking at 2021 because banks learned valuable lessons in the great recession that are benefiting all of us today,” Brown says. “(In addition), this crisis is not centered in real estate. In fact, real estate has actually strengthened, which will be a source of strength for both banks and consumers.”

Brown says the banking industry has also empowered its workforces to work when, where and how they want which will drive increased productivity and connection with clients.

“Banks – and bank leaders – are in a unique position in times of crisis,” Brown says. “Many times, a crisis can — or will — have a financial impact … We were privileged to have the capital to provide liquidity to the markets we serve and provide stability in uncertain times.”

Two ways WaFd helped provide stability in unstable times were by implementing a Small Business Lifeline program through its Community Banking Group that provided liquidity through business lines of credit up to $200,000 with 90 days of zero percent interest; and by establishing WaFd Bank PPP Contact Reservation List  that allowed the bank to notify customers as soon as  the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans were  made available.

But WaFd Bank Arizona isn’t alone in its impact on Arizona’s continued economic health. Here are the banking leaders and institutions that have achieved levels of excellence in banking that drive Arizona’s business community.

Excellence in Banking: Bankers of the Year

>> Calvin Cole

First vice president and regional business
banking manager

AmTrust Bank

Cole’s community impact is impressive. He is chair of the board for Terros Health and has also served on the boards for one-n-ten, Keogh Health Foundation, Black Board of Directors, Boys and Girls Club of the Valley, and Fans Across America Charitable Foundation. Cole is first vice president and regional business banking manager for AmTrust Bank, a division of New York Community Bank, for whom he has worked for 13 years.

>> Jeff Friesen

President, Arizona region

Enterprise Bank & Trust

Friesen is responsible for overseeing the fulfillment of current clients’ business and personal banking needs.

Strengths: “I am a planner. I learned if I did not plan and put a strategy in writing, then the big picture would become overwhelming. Writing down what my goals  are, when I will complete them, detailing my  plan to execute and always referring back  to the plan, has allowed me to be much more productive.”

>> Kyle Kennedy

Phoenix president, Arizona banking director

Bell Bank

Kennedy brings nearly three decades of experience in the Arizona banking community to his position at Bell, where he’s working to grow the bank’s presence in the Southwest. During his career, Kennedy has specialized in commercial and industrial lending, treasury management, small business banking and private banking. He has served on the boards of the Tempe YMCA, Chrysalis, Peoria Diamond Club and Trout Camp (New Pathways for Youth) and chaired the CoBiz Financial BizBash.

>> Dave Ralston

CEO, Arizona market

BOK Financial

Attraction to banking: “I have an accounting degree but had no desire to pursue public accounting as a profession,” Ralston says. “What attracted me to banking was an opportunity to utilize my degree and have the ability to work with so many different businesses and industries. To this day, the most enjoyable part of my job is learning about new companies and getting to know the owners and/or executives of those companies.”

>> Cathleen Walker

Regional president and head of Corporate Banking

PNC Bank

Walker says she is privileged to be a part of the vibrant, collaborative culture that is the Phoenix business community, where PNC can positively impact the landscape by providing resources, long-term investments and meaningful contributions. PNC’s approach to business allows it to provide top-notch service, scale and capabilities with a community focus. PNC’s investment in Phoenix will grow at a more rapid pace with the completion of its acquisition of BBVA USA in mid-2021.

Mike Brown, center, president of WaFd Bank Arizona, and his Arizona executive team.

Excellence in Banking: Banks of the Year

>> Alliance Bank of Arizona

In 2020, Alliance Bank committed more than $900,000 to help mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic on local communities across Arizona and strengthen those communities as they worked to emerge from the crisis. Contributions in Arizona helped address shortages of personal protective equipment for first responders, address food insecurity, invest in technology to aid online learning, aid struggling small businesses, support pediatric care and provide assistance to some of the most vulnerable in the communities Alliance Bank serves.

>> BOK Financial

BOK Financial Corporation contributed $1 million as part of its efforts in support of COVID-19 relief. The company directed donations to programs addressing food insecurity and re-employment of laid off and furloughed workers. The company’s COVID-19 response also includes assistance for its clients and employees. In Arizona, BOK supported COVID-19 relief efforts included a $50,000 donation to the Foundation for Senior Living and $15,000 to the Valley of the Sun United Way COVID-19 Relief Fund.

>> FirstBank

FirstBank, one of the nation’s largest privately held banks with a focus on “banking for good,” entered the year’s final quarter in a strong financial position. Across FirstBank’s Arizona branches, deposits grew 27.6 percent from $559.1 million to $713.4 million. Arizona loans also increased by 5.3 percent from $878.5 million to $925.1 million, while assets increased by 5.1 percent from $928.5 million to $975.9 million.

>> US Bank

U.S. Bank gave customers a way to spread goodwill and festive cheer during the holiday season with eCards, which were made available to U.S. Bank customers when they sent money through Scottsdale-based Zelle in the U.S. Bank Mobile App. The eCards, launched in collaboration with Zelle and fintech startup Vouchr, provide gift senders with a choice of more than 200 card designs including not only holiday but also birthday, graduation, a simple thanks or congratulations, and more.

>> WaFd Bank Arizona

Very early in the pandemic, before any other relief efforts had started, WaFd Bank – including all 31 WaFd Bank branches across Arizona – started offering small business lines of credit up to $200,000 interest-free for 90 days to businesses
affected by COVID-19. WaFd Bank committed up to  $100 million in lines of credit to help the business  community weather the financial disruption.  WaFd Bank, a national bank with headquarters  in Seattle, has 234 branches in eight  western states.

Credit Union Leaders of the Year

>> G. Vernon Babilon


Tucson Old Pueblo Credit Union

The year 2021 marks 32 years that Babilon has been a top credit union executive. Babilon has focused on making TOPCU more progressive as well as identifying potential niches that would better serve the Tucson community. Today, TOPCU is the leader in financing affordable solar loans, provides reasonably priced services and lending solutions for area businesses, while its members utilize the latest technology to accomplish their banking needs.

>> Cathy Graham

Executive vice president

Desert Financial Credit Union

Graham says her job is to show up every day, prepared to help people be their best.

Industry outlook: “I think that the banking world overall is shifting,” Graham says. “We are seeing fewer community banks, fewer smaller credit unions. And so I think that that definitely provides an opportunity for other credit unions to step up and provide that service that people who traditionally would go to a smaller institution want to have.”

>> Todd Pearson

Regional president

Alaska USA Credit Union

Pearson has spent more than 20 years in the industry, most recently 11 years as president and CEO of an Arizona-based credit union.

Industry appeal: “I’ve always had an affinity for the financial services industry, and was sure that would become my career path. Once inside the credit union movement, I knew it was where I belonged. The cooperative structure isn’t just an arbitrary tax status, but the backbone of an industry-wide model of collaboration.”

>> Karen Roch

President and CEO

Credit Union West

Roch has more than 30 years of experience within the credit union industry.

Industry appeal: “I started in the credit union industry as a high school student through a cooperative education program. I quickly learned how important financial success was to an individual’s own success and how much credit unions care and are there to help. I have been enamored ever since and am very passionate about our strong philosophy of people helping people.”

>> Ronald L. Westad

President and CEO

Arizona Federal Credit Union

Since 1996, Westad has been the president and CEO of Arizona Federal Credit Union. He began with the credit union in 1987.

Business advice: “No matter the industry you choose, take responsibility for how you present yourself to the world — no one and no thing causes or makes you act, speak, or think the way you do, those are your choices. Make your choices, and own them.”

Credit Unions of the Year

>> Arizona Federal Credit Union

In September, Arizona Federal Credit Union was designated an SBA Preferred Lending Partner (PLP) by the U.S. Small Business Administration, and is the only Arizona-based credit union with SBA PLP status. As an SBA preferred lender, Arizona Federal has the authority to approve its SBA-guaranteed loans, which simplifies and expedites the SBA-loan approval process for borrowers. Nonpreferred lenders must submit loan applications to the SBA for approval, which can extend the loan decisioning process.

>> Desert Financial Credit Union

Desert Financial has provided affordable financial solutions and personalized service to help members achieve their goals for more than 80 years. With nearly 50 branches Valleywide and a full line of online and mobile solutions, Desert Financial is the Valley’s most convenient credit union. At Desert Financial, leaders say members are more than a number, they are financial partners. When Desert Financial is successful, it can give back more to members, employees and the community.

>> OneAZ Credit Union

OneAZ Credit Union and OneAZ Community Foundation awarded $200,000 in emergency COVID-19 Community Impact Grants to Arizona nonprofits impacted by COVID-19. “OneAZ has a longstanding commitment to the community and worked as quickly as possible to get the $200,000 in emergency COVID-19 Community Impact Grants awarded. We’re proud to help these nonprofit organizations continue their work, providing what in many cases are life-saving services,” says Kim Reedy, President and CEO for OneAZ Credit Union.

>> TruWest Credit Union

TruWest Credit Union topped the Forbes list of America’s Best Credit Unions, ranking No. 1 in the state of Arizona. Forbes partnered with Statista, a market research firm, to survey nearly 25,000 individuals across the U.S. Scores for the financial institutions were based on overall recommendations and satisfaction, as well as five subdimensions (trust, terms and conditions, branch services, digital services and financial advice).

>> Vantage West Credit Union

Vantage West is Arizona’s third-largest credit union with nearly 500 employees who operate 19 branches, serve more than 161,000 members and has $2.2 billion in assets. Vantage West won the Louise Herring Philosophy-in-Action Award in 2019 from the Mountain West Credit Union Association. The award is given to a credit union for its practical application of the credit union philosophy “People helping people” within its operations. Vantage West won for its digital banking conversion project.

Small Business Lenders of the Year

>> Alerus

“In the Arizona market, we picked up over 200 new customers through the Paycheck Protection Program because we were prepared to help them,” says Rob Schwister, Arizona market president for Alerus. “So it really worked to our advantage to be working from home (at that time) and have the technology and be able to help and support those people. So we took a lot of pride in the fact that we’re able to help a lot of these business owners through that process.”

>> Amerifund

From its start in 1995, Amerifund wanted to stand out as a relationship-driven company based on integrity that provides businesses with financing across the United States. The company’s passion is to help businesses grow and do what is best for each of its customers – even if at times it means turning away business or referring business elsewhere. Because it’s not a traditional bank, Amerifund offers quick approvals and tailoring strategic funding solutions specific to your business’ needs.

>> Meadows Bank

“Our team has been committed to helping our business clients through the current economic crisis. We processed 986 Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loans for a total of $193.6 million,” said Arvind Menon, president and CEO of Meadows Bank. He added, “We know that our customers continue to rely on Meadows Bank to provide the services they need and we will be here, working side by side with our neighbors to make sure our community is strong and standing tall when this crisis passes.”

>> Pacific Premier Bank

Founded in 1983, Pacific Premier Bank has grown to become one of the largest banks in the western region of the United States, with approximately $20 billion in total assets. Pacific Premier Bank offers a wide array of loan products, such as commercial business loans, lines of credit, SBA loans, commercial real estate loans, agribusiness loans, franchise lending, home equity lines of credit, and construction loans. Pacific Premier Bank offers commercial escrow services and facilitates 1031 Exchange transactions through its Commerce Escrow division.

>> Wells Fargo

Wells Fargo, one of the largest small business lenders in Arizona, created a campaign to aid small businesses and people in need during the COVID-19 pandemic called Many Hearts. One Community. The bank committed $50 million to help small businesses, and encouraged its customers and employees to shop at small businesses, “because they really are the backbone, and they’re hurting,” a Wells Fargo executive says.

Community Impact

>> Desert Financial Credit Union

A $67,000 donation made by Desert Financial Credit Union to Laptops 4 Learning helped to bridge this “digital divide” for 300 students and their families. Desert Financial was founded by schoolteachers more than 80 years ago. As a tribute to their legacy, the credit union has always supported teachers and education. “At Desert Financial, we believe that Random Acts of Kindness go a long way toward helping improve our wider community,” said SVP, Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer, Cathy Graham.

>> FirstBank

In addition to being one of the driving forces behind Arizona Gives Day, FirstBank set up a $1 million fund with Trellis, an Arizona housing services organization, to offer qualified homebuyers up to $45,000 for a down payment towards a new home. Impact Development (formerly known as Funding Partners) is also a FirstBank partner that helps first-time homebuyers and small businesses by providing up to $20,000 in down payment assistance.

>> National Bank of Arizona

National Bank of Arizona processed and obtained approval for more than 5,000 Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans totaling just over $730 million before May 21. National Bank of Arizona was able to help small businesses in nearly 170 cities and municipalities across Arizona, from as far south as Yuma and Nogales, to as far north as Page and Kayenta. This funding helped protect paychecks for over 60,000 Arizona workers, based on applicant data.

>> Western Alliance Bank

Western Alliance Bank donated $150,000 to the AZ Coronavirus Relief Fund, supporting Arizona’s medical professionals and families in need. Western Alliance Bank’s donation was part of a larger $2 million commitment that will go to nonprofit and community organizations that are working to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on local communities. Arizona’s portion totals more than $900,000 and will expand access to personal protective equipment for first responders, combat food insecurity, aid struggling small businesses, support pediatric care and assist some of the state’s most vulnerable.

>> WaFd Bank Arizona

Through its WaFd Bank Foundation, WaFd Bank Arizona’s 31 branches donated $40,000 to both the Central Arizona Shelter Services, based in Phoenix, and the Primavera Foundation, based in Tucson, to help them continue their critical operations amid COVID-19. “Our purpose through the Foundation is to facilitate direct giving to community-based nonprofits serving low- and moderate-income individuals’ needs,” says Mike Brown, WaFd Bank Arizona president.  “We’ve been very proud to invest over $250,000 in direct giving across Arizona through it.”