For Sunflower Bank, 2009 was a time for looking inward.

The company operates in markets that are slow-growth even in good times, and the past year was not among banking's better times. So the company, under the leadership of Mollie Hale Carter, undertook a new initiative called Execution 2009. At its core, it's about "making sure that everyone is on the same page and working together," says Carter, the bank's president and chief executive officer. By making changes in internal processes the $1.7-billion-asset bank will save half a billion dollars this year.

Part of those changes included a simplification of Sunflower's product menu. The number of deposit products offered has been reduced from 11 down to six because "the more products, the more difficult it is for employees to understand and communicate those products," Carter says. The bank also built out its Web site to improve real-time online banking, bill pay and e-statements, which have helped to boost online banking users 11.5 percent and online bill pay usage 5 percent.

"Through processes and not through employee reductions, we've been able to identify what can be a 5 percent bump in our earnings [by the end of '09] just through process improvements," she says. "This year has been a year of building blocks," that she hopes will propel the bank to double-digit asset growth next year. "The most critical thing that I've seen is that we can't sweep things under the rug," she says. "Waiting for things to blow over is not going to be a very effective strategy."

Carter is also proud of the fact that the bank has had loan growth of 3 percent from second quarter 2008 to second quarter 2009. In that same span the bank has increased its asset size by 8.3 percent and deposits have increased 5.1 percent. In savings, the bank has seen a 12.5 percent hike over 2Q 2008 thanks to new products such as "Sign & Save," which allows customers to round-up debit card purchases, and its "Grow With Me" time deposit CD.

Carter also notes that the bank has made great inroads as a trusted wealth management provider. The bank has generated $27 million of new trust and wealth management dollars, a spike of 15 percent from the year prior at the end of the second quarter. This is partly thanks to a new corporate center that opened at the end of 2008, which allowed the bank to centralize banking, trust and wealth management, and insurance operations in one location.

Jim Allen, who was a director at Sunflower for 20 years before retiring a couple years ago, believes Carter is highly adept at cultivating leaders around her. "She believes in bringing along staff at leadership positions," he says. "If they have any talent for the position, she nurtures that talent and develops it quite well."

Indeed, the Execution '09 team is made up of 60 employees, more than 10 percent of the bank's total staff. The process has allowed Carter and her senior staff to identify the next potential leaders.

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