When Carol Kobuke Nelson arrived at Everett-based Cascade Financial in 2001, many things were missing.

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What Carol Kobuke Nelson found — or more aptly, didn’t find — when she arrived at Everett-based Cascade Financial in 2001 explained the company’s low profit.


There was no sales culture, no credit department and no real accountability for performance — all key elements for any successful bank. Nelson’s job was to turn it around.


“I didn’t realize how much I’d bitten off,” Nelson, 49, said recently.


For years, Cascade limped along as a poorly performing thrift. Even after the board decided to convert the company into a sales-oriented bank — which typically means more business loans and more profit — the folks at Cascade didn’t know how to make it happen.


They finally went outside for help and hired Nelson, a longtime Seattle banker, as the new CEO. Since she arrived, Cascade’s profits have nearly tripled, and its stock price has risen more than three-fold.


“Now we’re walking the walk, rather than just talking the talk,” said Lars Johnson, Cascade’s chief financial officer. “It was kind of diffuse and nebulous and unsettled before.”


To move Cascade’s lending away from home loans and toward business lending, Nelson shrank the residential real-estate department, partly through layoffs, and began hiring business lenders.


She also set up a credit department. Until then, the same people who called on clients also decided whether those customers were creditworthy, a system that does not work for banks making business loans.



Cascade Financial


Doing business as: Cascade Bank (not to be confused with Cascade Bancorp in Bend, Ore., which does business as Bank of the Cascades)


Headquarters: Everett


Assets: $1.2 billion


Locations: 19 branches, mostly north and east of Seattle


Market share: 1.36 percent of deposits in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area


Source: Cascade Financial, FDIC


Carol Nelson


Age: 49


Career: CEO of Cascade Financial since 2001; before that, worked almost 23 years at Seafirst and Bank of America


Family: Second-oldest of seven children. Husband, Ken, stays home to care for their two sons, Connor and Wyatt.


Weekends: Attends her sons’ soccer and other games.


Business loans have quadrupled since 2000, to $394 million at the end of the third quarter, or about 45 percent of Cascade’s loans. Home loans make up 12 percent.


Some people did not like Nelson’s changes.


She required branch managers, like others at Cascade, to report sales results and to meet certain goals for their bonuses.


That can be frightening at first, Nelson said. More than half of Cascade’s 14 branch managers left within 18 months of her arrival.


“People either like it or they don’t and go somewhere else,” she said.


Inspired loyalty


But Nelson has inspired great loyalty among the employees who stayed, said Louis Feldman, a bank analyst at Hoefer & Arnett.


“She’s very thoughtful,” Feldman said. “She listens to what her people have to say, and she can be decisive.”


She has made a point of knowing the names of nearly all of the bank’s 200-plus employees.


“You have to really, truly care about your people and care about them as human beings, not just somebody who works for you,” she said.


Nelson’s banking expertise came from almost 23 years at Bank of America and its predecessor in Seattle, Seafirst. Her last job there was overseeing the bank’s branches from North Seattle to the Canadian border.


Praise from ex-boss


Marie Gunn, president for the Washington market of Bank of America and Nelson’s former boss, describes Nelson as “very smart, very competitive and very determined to win.”


“When I think of her, I think mostly of how strong a family person she is and then how competitive she is,” Gunn said.


Nelson takes pride in her family, particularly her mother, who died almost three years ago. Mary Ann Kobuke raised seven children alone after her husband died in 1964. Nelson, the second-oldest, was 8 when he died.


At the time they lived in Mississippi, where her parents moved when Nelson was a baby. They worked as “chicken sexers,” determining the gender of newly hatched chicks, until her father co-founded a trucking company.


After Nelson’s father died, her mother and the children moved to Eastern Washington, where she had family. Several years later, they came to Seattle and her mother bought a flower shop.


Nelson remembers her mother being too busy working to attend even one of her Lincoln High School swim meets. It still bothers her even though she’s always understood why.


“She didn’t have a choice,” Nelson said.


Nelson is one of the banking industry’s only female CEOs and was recently ranked the sector’s ninth most-powerful woman by U.S. Banker magazine.


She wishes more women rose to the top in banking. Only 13 percent of executives at the country’s 50 largest banks (which do not include Cascade) are women, according to the Financial Women International Foundation.


“I don’t think we as an industry do a good job of nurturing and keeping women in the management pipeline,” she said.


Only two of the other six people on Cascade’s management committee are women — both executives Nelson brought with her from Bank of America.


But while her career is important, she will go only so far to climb the corporate ladder. She has not wanted to uproot her family to move up, and that’s one reason she left Bank of America. To move up there, she probably would have had to leave the area.


Instead, she left that bank to run one with glaring problems. And the challenge has paid off, for her and for Cascade shareholders.


Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com