When talking with leaders in the financial services industry, it became apparent that watching money grow isn’t the only thing that brings them satisfaction.

“As part of Alliance Bank’s founding team, I’ve watched us grow into one of the top regional banks in the nation,” says Don Garner, CEO of Alliance Bank of Arizona, honored as one of the year’s banks of the year as part of Az Business magazine’s Excellence in Banking recognition. “Nothing compares to helping mentor new bankers. Beyond sharing 35 years of experience in the industry, I encourage and challenge them to draw out their inherent abilities and inspire achievement.”

Ranking Arizona: Top 10 banks for 2023

Innovators in the financial services sector say giving back to others holds significant importance for leaders in the banking industry for several reasons. First, it reinforces a positive public image, enhancing trust and credibility. Secondly, it helps build stronger relationships within communities, fostering customer loyalty and attracting new business opportunities. Moreover, it aligns with ethical standards, demonstrating a commitment to social responsibility. In the banking sector, where financial services play a critical role in people’s lives, giving back is a way to address economic disparities and promote financial literacy. Ultimately, it showcases leadership’s dedication to making a positive impact beyond profits, contributing to a more equitable and prosperous society.

What would some of today’s most respected financial services leaders tell young people who would like to follow in their footsteps?

“My advice for young professionals is to be relentless with empathy,” says Karen Roch, president and CEO of Credit Union West, one of this year’s credit unions of the year. “Be willing to learn all you can without expecting immediate gratification and be open to accept critique in order to find your best self. There are learning moments in everything we do; take the time to reflect on them and unearth them.”

That selfless servant quality runs through the veins and boardrooms of all the honorees in this year’s Excellence in Banking section. Here are the individuals and institutions who will impact Arizona’s financial services sector in 2024 and beyond. Learn more about each of them below.

Credit unions of the year

AERO Federal Credit Union: AERO has been providing people with affordable, trustworthy financial services for more than years. AERO was chartered in 1957 when a small group of workers in the aerospace industry banded together to form Sperry Phoenix Employees Federal Credit Union. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions of the credit union’s core sponsor, its membership base continues to expand and in 2009, the credit union became AERO Federal Credit Union. Today, AERO holds $300 million in assets, with seven branches in Metro Phoenix that serve 19,000 members who are located worldwide.

Arizona Financial Credit Union: When it comes to Arizona’s financial services industry, Arizona Financial Credit Union stands out as a top performer. Through the acquisition of Horizon Community Bank, Arizona Financial demonstrated its visionary leadership and commitment to elevating financial services. This acquisition, finalized in March 2022, allowed the credit union to embrace new market territories in western Arizona and diversify its offerings. This strategic alignment of resources is enhancing the lives of residents in the communities it serves.

Credit Union West: Credit Union West started in 1951 as Luke Federal Credit Union on Luke Air Force Base in Glendale. Today, Credit Union West embraces the same commitment to the military, as well as expanding that commitment to include all who live, work or worship throughout the state of Arizona. The credit union has grown to more than $1.1 billion in assets, serving over 89,000 members at 11 branch locations.

Desert Financial Credit Union: One of the qualities that sets Desert Financial apart is its genuine commitment to giving back to the community. The credit union actively invests in programs and initiatives that uplift and empower the communities it serves. Desert Financial also provides financial literacy resources for individuals and organizations throughout the community, equipping them with the knowledge and tools they need to make informed financial decisions, contributing to the long-term economic stability of its members.

OneAZ Credit Union: Arizona-based OneAZ Credit Union upholds the member-centric and community-focused values of a credit union while delivering a 21st century banking experience. OneAZ’s mission is, “We exist to truly improve the lives of our members, our associates and the communities we serve.” In 2022, OneAZ was able to improve Arizona’s economy by lending nearly $1 billion to Arizona consumers, including over $266 million in home loans and over $100 million in loans to local businesses.

Credit union leaders of the year

Gary Bernard, executive vice president and chief operations officer, TruWest Credit Union : Throughout Bernard’s 41-year tenure with the credit union, he has succeeded in many positions, from a teller and branch manager to executive vice president and chief operating officer. Bernard lives and breathes not only the credit union philosophy of “people helping people,” but also TruWest’s embodiment of a “culture of caring,” engrained into his leadership.

Jack Biggs, senior vice president and chief financial officer, Desert Financial Credit Union: Going on more than eight years with Desert Financial, Biggs lends his expertise by ensuring the credit union maintains financial stability as it fulfills its mission of sharing success with members, community and team. Amidst a challenging banking environment, he has successfully managed the balance sheet, with projections pointing towards a record net income in 2023.

Brian Lee, CEO, Landings Credit Union: Under Lee’s leadership, Landings excels in its outreach to local businesses and community organizations. Partnering with SCORE, the credit union helps small businesses implement cost-effective solutions and Landings’ Hispanic Outreach Committee, meets regularly to focus on its strategic initiative to reach and provide a better service experience for this community.In 2022, the Landings Credit Union Foundation was established to amplify the financial giving to partner organizations.

Brandon Michaels, president and CEO, OneAZ Credit Union: After being named president and CEO in May, the third-generation credit union CEO made it a goal to meet with every team member at OneAZ in in order to strengthen the credit union both internally and externally. That kind of visionary leadership helped Michaels elevate his previous institutions into industry leaders by focusing on member experience, innovation and growth.

Laura Wallace, senior vice president and chief engagement officer, Desert Financial Credit Union: Over the past two years, Wallace has restructured the member-facing areas of Desert Financial to better align and support the credit union’s workforce and drive employee growth and engagement. This has resulted in an environment where employees feel valued, supported and empowered to better assist the credit union’s members on their path to financial well-being.

Banks of the year

Alliance Bank of Arizona: A division of Western Alliance Bank, which has more than $65 billion in assets, Alliance Bank delivers relationship banking that puts clients at the center of everything. Named a two-time Lender Firm of the Year by NAIOP Arizona in 2021 and 2022 for its commitment to serving clients, Alliance Bank has also earned many other awards and recognitions from influential sources such as Forbes and American Banker, which again, rank Western Alliance Bank among the top U.S. banks in 2023.

Enterprise Bank & Trust: The mission of Enterprise Bank & Trust has been the same since it was founded in 1988: guiding people to a lifetime of financial success. With an understanding that every business and individual is unique, Enterprise works to tailor their banking, trust and financial advisory services to achieve each client’s business needs. Enterprise has a variety of specialty banking offerings for even the most complex financial needs. These offerings include escrow and legal services, sponsor finance, aircraft finance, community association banking and more.

First Fidelity Bank: First Fidelity Bank has six branches stretching across Metro Phoenix. First Fidelity has 52 employees in Arizona that specialize in diverse financial services. Since 1920, First Fidelity Bank has served its clients with the personalized care of a community bank. Over the last century, First Fidelity has grown from a small community bank to a regional organization with award-winning service clients can trust at branches across Oklahoma, Arizona and Colorado.

National Bank of Arizona: In 2022, National Bank of Arizona supported 187 charitable organizations, 173 associates contributed more than 5,450 community volunteer hours and the bank donated a total of more than $1.2 million to its communities. National Bank of Arizona also held a book drive to support Southwest Human Development’s “Grow a Leader” program that raised $22,014 in individual donations. In addition, National Bank of Arizona also earned Excellence and Best Brand awards for trust, long-term relationships and ease of doing business by Greenwich Associates.

Northern Trust Company : Northern Trust is a world leader in financial services with more than 130 years in business. Northern Trust was named One of the World’s Most Admired Companies by Fortune Magazine, 2023 (17th consecutive year). Northern Trust’s status as an admired organization stems from being a leader in its respective practice areas, as exemplified by its receipt of awards like Best Private Bank in the U.S. (Financial Times Group 12 of the last 14 years), and Best Mutual Fund Administrator (Fund Intelligence 2023).

Banking leaders of the year

Christine Ferrell, senior vice president, Private Banking, Enterprise Bank & Trust

As a private banking specialist, Ferrell leads Enterprise’s relationship with some of the most high-profile clients with a business presence in Arizona. She provides best-in-class, high-touch service with a commitment to ensuring each client’s needs are met. Her expertise and personalized approach contribute to building strong, lasting business relationships that empower her clients to make informed financial decisions and take advantage of opportunities for sustained success and growth.

Mason Heffelman, market president, Pinnacle Bank Arizona

Heffelman joined Pinnacle Bank to help grow the footprint into the Phoenix market. He was chosen because of his superior performance at other financial institutions over his 20-year career. Heffelman, who demonstrates an in-depth understanding of both operating companies and investors in the Arizona market, accepted a professional challenge to embark on a mission with Pinnacle Bank to establish and lead a De Novo branch banking network within the Metro Phoenix market.

Kyle Kennedy, southwest region president, Bell Bank

“The values most important to me as a leader echo Bell’s values — taking care of employees, customers and the community,” Kennedy says. “I do this through trust, empathy, sincerity, communication, vision and long-term thinking.” Outside of work, he stays involved in the community and 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.

Chet Samuelson, Arizona market president and CEO, BOK Financial

With more than 20 years of professional experience in the financial services industry, Samuelson took over as the Arizona market president and CEO for BOK Financial in July 2022. He has overall responsibility for market leadership in Arizona, along with focus on corporate banking and the Arizona community foundation for the bank. He serves on the Greater Phoenix Economic Council (GPEC) and Phoenix Chamber of Commerce boards. 

Cathleen Walker, regional president, PNC

“I strive to be as inclusive and open minded as possible in building relationships internally and externally, to gather ideas from the broader team and to empower individuals to make their own decisions,” Walker says. Walker currently is a member of Greater Phoenix Leadership, Greater Phoenix Economic Council (GPEC), ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business Dean’s Council, the Valley of the Sun United Way Women’s Leadership Council and Golden Seeds.

Community impact

Desert Financial Credit Union: Desert Financial Credit Union is dedicated to sharing success with its members, community and team. In 2022, the credit union contributed $4 million to the community. Through corporate giving and community generosity, $1.3 million was provided to 115 organizations, including $235,000 in grants designed to bolster local nonprofits and their initiatives. Additionally, the credit union and its foundation successfully raised $706,850 in support of the 1 Darn Cool School at Phoenix Children’s.

FirstBank: In June, FirstBank initiated a Go Green Checking Campaign, inviting current and potential customers to open any checking account in support of one of three environmentally friendly causes: Reforestation, water conservation and bee health. Within the first five weeks of the campaign, the bank opened more than 5,200 new accounts, resulting in nearly $16,000 donated to planet-conscious nonprofits. FirstBank also helped raise $5 million for 876 local nonprofits in a 24-hour online event on Arizona Gives Day.

OneAZ Credit Union: Since its founding in 2016, the OneAZ Community Foundation has given more than $1 million to organizations across Arizona. The foundation has been able to celebrate substantial growth in a short time because of the adoption of an innovative funding method based on the number of times members swipe their OneAZ debit card. Each time a member uses their OneAZ card, the Credit Union donates one cent to the Foundation. This funding method has helped OneAZ increase its giving every year since the foundation launched.

Geneva Financial Home Loans: Geneva Financial’s “Be A Good Human” initiative has snowballed into one of the biggest aspects of the company’s culture. Geneva Financial has partnered with many nonprofits across the nation, rallying together to lend aid where it is needed, and treating everyone with kindness and compassion. Geneva Financial has also sponsored “Community Connection” segments with ABC 15 , highlighting nonprofits and charities in Arizona doing incredible things — everything from supporting foster children and families to providing showers, haircuts and compassion to those experiencing homelessness.

Alexandra Miller, financial analyst, Wells Fargo: Miller makes an impact on women who face extreme circumstances in life through her work with Live & Learn. She performs financial audits to learn more about women’s consumer debt, income and goals. She specializes in scholarship advice because she had funded her own education with them. Miller is an advocate for women experiencing domestic violence and she is passionate to fight for women who can no longer fight for themselves.

Wealth managers of the year

Michael Blanton, managing director and Arizona market leader, BMO Wealth Management: Amid a sea of financial options, BMO Wealth Management stands apart. Anchored in its Arizona office, which serves as the hub of operations for the Western U.S., Blanton’s team at BMO Wealth Management provides Arizonans the extensive resources of a trillion-dollar bank blended seamlessly with customized banking services from portfolio management to estate planning and everything in between.

Kory B. Leadon, senior lead advisor, Brighton Jones: More than two decades of serving individuals and families as a personal CFO, Leadon helps his clients plan for their financial future and ultimately live a richer life — working together to align their wealth, passions and purpose so they can pursue the life that truly fulfills. By protecting and growing their overall balance sheet, his role is much bigger than providing financial peace of mind, it’s all about his clients’ happiness.

Elizabeth M. Shabaker, CEO, Versant Capital Management: With over 13 years of executive leadership at Versant, Shabaker — recognized as one of the country’s accomplished wealth management practitioners — has played a crucial role in the firm’s growth and practice management. Her expertise and experience in family governance, next-generation planning and helping women become financially confident and independent are key to the firm’s continued growth. She is one of Az Business’ Most Influential Women in Arizona.

Stanton Shields, senior financial advisor, Alerus: Shields leads wealth management activities for Alerus clients in Arizona. He works closely with experts across Alerus to provide customized solutions to meet clients’ financial needs, bringing a highly sophisticated approach to financial planning while making it simple for clients to understand. He is a certified financial planner, a chartered retirement planning counselor and holds Series 7 and Series 66 investment registrations and has 15 years of financial industry experience.

Christine Nowaczyk, senior vice president and private wealth advisor, U.S. Bank: As a private wealth advisor, Nowaczyk helps her clients define their goals and understand their options. Then, she partners with them to create tailored wealth management strategies. Nowaczyk’s clients’ wealth plans include the right mix of investment management, trust and estate services, and private banking to meet their unique needs and preferences. She has worked in the banking and financial services industry since 1989.