Making It: A Century Shaping Tomorrow for Alaskans

SPONSORED: How First National Bank Alaska has thrived for 100 years while helping generations of Alaskans realize their dreams.

Presented by First National Bank Alaska

Betsy Lawer, Board Chair and CEO/President of First National Bank Alaska, learned about the banking industry from an early age – in a uniquely Alaska way.

Growing up in the 1950s as daughter of then-bank president D.H. Cuddy, she often tagged along on her father’s business calls. Sometimes those appointments took them hundreds of miles across the state.

At the time, most Alaskans living off the road system had no access to brick-and-mortar banks. Thankfully, Cuddy was a bush pilot.

“We basically banked Western Alaska by float plane,” Lawer said. Cuddy flew from village to village, cultivating relationships with store owners and doing business on the store steps while she played nearby.

In 1961, First National opened its Kuskokwim branch in the hub community of Bethel, the first bank in the entire region. The branch remains bilingual today, serving customers in both Yup’ik and English.

First National Bank Alaska is now celebrating 100 years of breaking boundaries to help Alaskans succeed. Thanks to its fearless innovation, steadfast vision, and commitment to local communities, the bank has emerged as an industry leader nationwide. A look back at the bank’s incredible history reveals what it takes to thrive for a century and what the future has in store for Alaska.

From animal pelts to billions in assets

First National was founded by candy maker Winfield Ervin on Jan. 30, 1922. With two employees and a vault filled with gold nuggets and untanned animal pelts, the bank would soon become an essential part of the state’s economic engine; a year later construction on the Alaska Railroad completed and people turned to First National for banking security.

Warren N. Cuddy, Lawer’s grandfather, became bank president in 1941, followed by D.H. Cuddy ten years later.

Lawer described her father as a visionary who could draw connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information.

After the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, Cuddy was the first Alaska business leader to announce plans for reconstruction, unveiling blueprints for a new, larger building downtown.

“We wanted to express the faith we had in Alaska and the Alaska economy, despite this devastating earthquake,” Lawer said.

Cuddy was known for his acute business sense and conservative banking approach that helped Alaskans weather economic turmoil.

During the housing boom of the 1980s, Cuddy foresaw that Alaska’s population would not sustain the newly built subdivisions or multiplying strip malls, Lawer said. While other banks rushed to invest, Cuddy wouldn’t finance either type of project.

He was right; many of those ventures would go on to fail. When the recession hit and banks began closing their doors, First National actually increased its number of loans and was ranked among the nation’s top-10 performing banks later that decade.

The bank’s policies during the era demonstrate its commitment to the future of Alaska.

“We don’t set people up for failure. We set people up for success,” Lawer said.

Lawer went on to receive a BA in economics from Duke University. She returned to Alaska without even waiting for her graduation ceremony. In 1974, Lawer started as a bank teller and worked her way up the company ranks. She was appointed CEO of First National in 2018.

The company has continued to advance innovation through the decades, bringing drive-through banking to Alaska in 1960, unveiling electronic banking in the 1980s, and being among the nation’s first banks to distribute check image statements to its customers in the 1990s.

First National receives consistent honors for its business practices, including recognition as one of America’s Most Trustworthy Companies by Forbes in 2013, the only Alaska business on the list.

At the start of the pandemic the bank pivoted once again, creating secure work-from-home systems that protected both employees and customers all in a matter of days. Meanwhile, officers worked overtime to help Alaskans apply for Paycheck Protection Program loans.

“I’m really proud of my team in how they embraced change,” Lawer said.

Today, as the bank celebrates its centennial anniversary, it reports $5.5 billion in assets.

What matters most

Lawer’s many accolades include 2019 Alaskan of the Year from the Alaska Chamber and induction into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame. Yet she is most proud of the bank’s repeated win as Best Place to Work, which First National has received from multiple outlets, including Alaska Business magazine for six straight years and American Banker four years in a row.

“It just creates a synergy that can’t be beat. It works for the employees, it works for the community, it works for the customers, and it works for investors,” Lawer said.

Longtime employee Karl Heinz shares the bank’s passion for helping others. Heinz has lived in communities across Alaska. He’s discovered they all share one common value.

“Each one is so different, but collectively they all share the Alaskan spirit of ‘whatever it takes to get things done,’” Heinz said.

Heinz learned early on that small business owners had a hard time stepping away from their place of work.

“It wasn’t unusual to take documents down to the harbor, and you met on someone’s boat and took care of business there,” Heinz said.

Today, technological advances have made banking more accessible and have quickened the pace of business, but relationships still come first for Heinz.

“The value of a strong relationship, I think, can’t be overstated,” he said. “The most important things don’t need to be complicated.”

Heinz is now the Branch Administration Director and Senior Vice President, overseeing the bank’s 19 outer branches and one lending office. Like other bank officers, Heinz joins volunteer organizations in the communities he serves.

“The bank’s encouragement to get involved in those things has caused me to see the importance of (community service), and encourage my kids to be involved,” Heinz said.

‘They really saved us’

First National has been a vital partner for Sitkans Against Family Violence (SAFV) over the course of its 31-year relationship, said SAFV Executive Director Natalie Wojcik.

SAFV provides direct services and prevention outreach for domestic violence and sexual assault victims in Sitka, Kake, Angoon, and Port Alexander, all while building a community of respect and nonviolence through primary prevention efforts. In a state where roughly half of all women have been a victim of these crimes at some point in their lives, Wojcik’s organization offers a crucial safety net for people in these Southeast Alaska communities.

Starting as a crisis line in the 1970s, SAFV quickly expanded into a women’s shelter. In the 1990s the organization moved into its existing space which includes a 25-bed shelter.

With the help of local partnerships, staff, and volunteers, today SAFV provides an array of services, including a confidential helpline, legal advocacy, in-school and after-school programs for youth, family-strengthening strategies, and more.

First National has helped SAFV to grow and sustain its community, Wojcik said. In 2018, the bank helped the organization fund a large building renovation.

Then last year, as the pandemic raged, First National’s Sitka Branch lending manager Shauna Thornton reached out to SAFV and offered to help the organization apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan.

“We didn’t even think we would (qualify), but she walked us through it,” Wojcik said.

First National helped to stabilize funding during a turbulent time, offering guidance and support when the organization faced countless unknowns.

“They really saved us this year,” Wojcik said.

How to thrive for 100 years

Today, First National serves more than 100,000 customers with locations in 19 Alaska communities. The bank continues to adapt alongside rapidly changing technology and increasing federal regulations.

In the next hundred years Alaska businesses will face new obstacles. Jobs will likely become more automated, Lawer said, which may create challenges for both businesses and employees. Entry level jobs today provide experience to advance a person’s career, Lawer said. She hopes that doesn’t change.

Some things will likely stay the same, however.

“Having that relationship with the customers, so you can anticipate their needs and understand their needs, is one of the things that sets our bank apart,” Lawer said. “You can’t automate that.”

For Heinz, making it in Alaska requires three things.

“Businesses in Alaska can thrive for the same reason that First National has been able to thrive: Great leadership, hard work, and building strong relationships,” Heinz said. “Those three things are key.”

Lawer is optimistic about Alaska’s next hundred years.

“I think people are basically positive and innovative and will handle whatever the new world throws at us,” she said.

When those Alaskans need access to safe and secure financial services, First National Bank Alaska will be there to help.

First National Bank Alaska has been Alaska’s community bank since 1922. We’re proud to help Alaskans shape a brighter tomorrow by investing in your success as you take the leaps of faith, large and small, that enrich communities across the state.

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This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.