Shirley Nelson: A Leader Personifying Strength

Society, for ages, has been bound by gender-defined roles. Such deep are the roots of these unwritten norms, that even in the 21st century we hear many firsts by women when it should have become a norm. Most industries are still dominated by men. While there have been some shifts in opportunities for women in the corporate world, there still seems to be more space and opportunities for men. Women continue to make less than their male counterparts and seem to need to prove themselves more often. While many believe that women make excellent leaders – they are creative, focused, loyal, and are the very best at multi-tasking. There’s still a wide gap between beliefs and reality and companies need to work to ensure that more opportunities are available to women in the workplace.

It is now taking women at the top like Shirley Nelson to create leadership opportunities for women at their organizations. As the Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Summit Bancshares, Inc., the holding company for Summit Bank, Shirley has made it a point to ensure that training and opportunities for growth are provided for the women in the organization. She also feels that new laws requiring publicly held companies have at least one woman on their board of directors is a good step in the right direction.

The Career Path

Shirley graduated from Celina High School in Celina, Tennessee, and has an honorary Ph.D. from John F Kennedy University. I started my banking career in 1964 in Alaska and spent fifteen years as a Branch Manager of a Bay Area Regional Bank before leaving in 1982 after 2 years of work to create and launch Summit Bank, which opened on July 1, 1982.

Shirley Nelson and Steve Nelson

At present, Shirley serves as Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Summit Bancshares, Inc., as Executive Chairman of Summit Bank, and as the Chairman of the Summit Bank Foundation. She has created and leads one of the most consistently highly ranked and highly praised independent banks in California.

Making her Way

When Shirley started her banking career, it was an industry dominated by men in leadership roles. She faced adversity as a woman and found it hard to receive acceptance from her male peers. Not one to shy away from a challenge, she set out to establish her bank when she realized that promotion and higher salary opportunities were not available because of her gender.

When the bank opened for business she was not the President due to her lack of experience in an administrative role. Even after she became President and CEO of Summit Bank, she found it difficult to build deep and meaningful relationships with her male counterparts at other banks. Without a network to go to for guidance or advice she set out to accomplish her goals and ensure that Summit Bank was a successful enterprise. “It wasn’t easy and required many long hours to learn what I didn’t know I needed to know. In time, I have developed a strong network with the CEOs of other local banks,” recalls Shirley.

In addition to the personal challenges, she also faced a few due to the volatile nature of the industry –  the changes in federal regulations throughout the years, as well as the constant shifts in the economy, pose constant challenges in the risk they face every day.

About the Company

Shirley’s idea to start a bank came as a result of not being treated as an equal in the banking world. She soon started to look at her existing customer base and imagine a bank that specialized in very personal service to that base, which happened to be medical professionals. Feeling a deep passion for the banking industry, she set out to chart her own course and two and a half years later, opened Summit Bank in Oakland, California. Summit Bank has been profitable since its second month in operation and has continued its profitability every single month for the past thirty-nine years.

Shirley Nelson and Summit Bank Board of Directors (George Hollidge, Mary Warren, John Protopappas, Shirley Nelson, John Nohr)

Summit Bank is a full-service community bank. Customer service is the one factor that sets them apart from others and differentiates them from other banks. Summit’s service is so personalized that it stands alone as the best among other community banks. Employees are highly trained to know each client and treat them like family. Employees get to know clients on a personal basis and the clients know and feel that they are an important part of the Summit Bank family. Shirley says, “Our one-on-one approach with our clientele, the special attention we pay to our employees, and the resulting financial successes enjoyed by Summit Bank have earned Summit Bank extensive recognition in the industry.”

The Industry’s dynamics and Summit’s Strategy

Shirley has been in the banking industry since 1964. Summit Bank opened during a recession and the prime rate was 21%. She has led the bank through many economic downturns, including recessions. In this current environment, even she is at a loss to project a vision. She says, “The world is different than ever before. I feel that economically, we are in a place we have never been before. I can’t even wrap my mind around the huge debt of our country and the impact of that and will ultimately have on interest rates which is a major risk for everyone and all banks. The new forms of currency require a discussion that is way above my pay grade. I just believe there is a huge risk in it.”

Talking about Summit Bank’s growth, she says,” Our growth at Summit Bank has come from referrals of our satisfied clients. I believe that people will always be people and that people will always have needs. Our strategy is simple – we continue to do what we have done, and we always do our best to take care of those we serve.” Shirley plans to remain competitive on the technology front and strive to be the best at what they do.

Building a Future by banking on Past Experiences

Shirley considers her curiosity as an asset that has helped her learn by asking questions right from the time she started her career as a teller at the National Bank of Alaska to her current position as the CEO. As a result, she sincerely knows that one learns from the mistakes one makes. So she believes one should train others by giving them the authority to fail. It was her curiosity that helped shape her innovation which led to the birth of Summit Bank and in 1998 the Summit Bank Foundation.

The Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Summit Bank, was created for the very purpose of supporting the community in deep and meaningful ways. The foundation has supported early childhood financial literacy programs, providing college scholarships to high school students in Oakland, and funded stroke and cancer research at UCSF. “Our community work inspires our clients and other community partners and I would like to see us support our communities in even larger ways than we have in the past. We have partnered with some of our country’s greatest athletes, Joe Morgan, Bill Russell, David Casper, Vida Blue, and others to create scholarships for the underserved in Oakland schools. There is such a great need. I will continue to focus on maintaining continuity and success within Summit Bank,” adds Shirley.

Being a role model

Shirley loves being able to help people fulfill their dreams and become financially independent. From the beginning of her banking career, she has enjoyed being able to provide support and help to people, allowing them to better their lives. This motivation has deepened throughout her life and led to the founding of the Summit Bank Foundation.

Shirley Nelson and Joe Morgan with scholarship students

Her story has been an inspiration for young women who look up to her and her growth in a sector filled with adversities for women. To such young women, Shirley says that they need to have a passion for whatever they are doing. “You have to love what you are doing to be successful. Be sure to always feed that hunger of curiosity,” advises Shirley.

On her part, she feels that as mentors in leadership, it is the responsibility of leaders like her to lead by example, to teach and share their knowledge and lived experiences, to be inspirational, to create opportunities for those who are coming up as emergent leaders.

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