Susan Horton caught our attention six years ago when she turned around the struggling Wheatland Bank, rescuing it from sale and turning it into a strong regional player in Washington State.

During her tenure, assets have doubled from about $75 million to $189 million, even as Wheatland has diversified and expanded into new markets. When Horton took charge of Wheatland in 1999, this CPA was just 37 years old and had never worked in a bank before. She ranked among the 25 Most Powerful Women in Banking for five years in a row.

This year Horton initiated what she calls "probably the most exciting thing this bank has ever done." Wheatland rejected opportunities to buy smaller banks and instead embarked on what Horton calls an organic strategic growth plan: rapidly opening loan production offices west of Spokane, into Central Washington, then converting them into bank branches in leased spaces.

The three-year plan promises record increases in return on equity and return on assets, but this year earnings will be set back by the costs of growth. Those costs include hiring 10 seasoned agriculture and business bankers from a larger competitor-all in one day. But Horton says expansion is moving right on schedule. Wheatland maintained zero net loan losses to date in 2008, and loan growth is at record levels of 30 percent year-over-year as of June 30.

At the same time, Wheatland has held onto twice the amount of capital that regulations require. True to her CPA form, Horton pushed for a diverse portfolio this year rather than one heavy on real estate and construction investments. She says she's been able to forge a long-term plan, and one not devoid of risk, because Wheatland is independent and her board of directors and management team back her up. "That's not to say there isn't discussion," Horton says. (c) 2008 U.S. Banker and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved. http://www.americanbanker.com/usb.html/ http://www.sourcemedia.com/

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