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The 25 MPWIB

#7 Mollie Hale Carter

Mollie Carter jokingly calls herself the accidental CEO. Although her family has owned Salina, KS-based Sunflower Bank for 116 years, nobody in her family had ever worked for the bank, other than to serve on its board of directors.

"My family's always been in agriculture, and like any good farmer who makes a bit of money, they didn't trust anybody else with it, so they just bought a bank," she quips.

The youngest of six, Carter was also the first in her family to leave Kansas for an Ivy League education at Dartmouth College and Harvard Business School, followed by a long stint as a credit officer at John Hancock Financial Services.

When Sunflower's long-time CEO retired in 2005 and Carter was asked to run the bank, she brought with her not just tough East Coast financial skills, but also a strong sense of community.

"When you have a family-owned business, how you manage it impacts a lot of lives," she says. "Through my father I learned there's honor in what you do."

She cites the Sunflower's "Fair Deal" credit card as an example. Introduced last year, with an interest rate lower than its predecessor, lower fees and late payment forgiveness, Carter believes the card treats customers with respect. Its favorable terms, meanwhile, have attracted new business: after years of stagnation, Sunflower's credit card portfolio has jumped 51 percent in 18 months.

She also has removed sales commissions and other incentives to keep employees focused on serving customers instead of simply selling products. As a result, the bank has seen the overall customer base grow by 12 percent in the past two years, reversing a decline.

This growth fits nicely with Carter's quest to turn the traditionally acquisitive bank into one driven by organic growth. Carter hasn't made a single purchase during her tenure.

"If we aren't able to grow organically then somehow we aren't being relevant to our customers," she says. "When an organization gets into a growth-by-acquisition mindset, it starts thinking that's the only way to grow."

She must be doing something right. Since joining, she has boosted assets by 33 percent to $1.6 billion.

Other metrics have also improved. In the 12 months ended in June, Sunflower posted net income of $27.3 million, up 17 percent from the same period a year before, and up 22 percent from 2006. Sunflower is poised to post record earnings this year, although the net interest margin has remained flat at 3.50 percent. Return on equity stands at 21.30 percent, up nine percent from the year before.

But for Carter, the numbers are just one part of a much, much larger picture. Hers is an essential vision for a place like Salina, heart of a decentralized and relatively thinly populated region weathering downturns in local farming and military-based economies.

"This year is not an effort to pump up our earnings for the short-term," she says. "It's all about building a sustainable business that also helps strong communities."

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