The following is one of six profiles on bankers who've raised the act of community engagement to an art form. To see the others, click here.
First National Bank Alaska
Vice Chair, President
PLACE OF BIRTH: Anchorage, Alaska
EDUCATION: B.A., Duke
SELECT HONORS: Alaska State Legislature Commendation, 1997; Soroptimist International's Women Helping Women Award (1998); Top 25 Most Powerful People in Alaska, 1999-2003; ATHENA Award, 2001
CURRENT BOARD SERVICE: Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, University of Alaska Foundation, Smithsonian National Board, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. President's Community Panel, Walter J. and Ermalee Hickel Foundation, Providence Health Care Foundation (director emeritus)
Betsy Lawer is a third-generation banker at First National Bank Alaska, which had been owned by her grandfather and is still run by her father. But it wasn't a given that Lawer would end up there, or anywhere else in banking.
Though she had grown up around the industry, flying beside her father to remote areas of the state on banking business and making invaluable connections with local leaders in commerce and community organizations, Lawer left Alaska in the late 1960s for Duke University, where she intended to major in interior design.
But everything changed when oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay.
In 1969, a group of oil companies paid the state of Alaska more than $900 million for drilling rights on the land around the bay (known as Alaska's North Slope), and developed what is still the largest oil field in North America. The transaction was transformative for Alaska's economy and for many of its residents, Lawer included.
"It had such a profound impact on me. I remember looking out on Fourth Avenue and it was like the Twilight Zone," says Lawer, now 63. "Nobody was in the streets or the stores. They were all at home glued to the radio." Upon her return to Duke, she switched her major to economics.
When Lawer and her husband, David, returned to Alaska a few years later, she settled into a job at First National. There was no formal training program, and no nepotism, despite the fact that her grandfather had purchased a controlling interest in the bank in 1941 and her father, D.H. Cuddy, had been running things since 1951.
When Lawer started with the bank in 1974, she started at the bottom, as a secretary.
"It was better than any management training," Lawer says. "I learned the business from the ground up."
Her trajectory at First National in many ways mirrored the trajectory of the bank, which saw assets balloon with the oil boom. By 1992, Lawer had worked her way up to vice chair and chief operating officer. (She relinquished the COO role in 2008 but has stayed vice chair and took on the additional role of president this month.) First National's assets now top $3 billion.
"Business is my passion," Lawer says. "I enjoy it as much as my husband enjoys playing golf."
Lawer also has a passion for civic involvement, which she sees as having a symbiotic relationship with her work. "If you want a healthy community ... you need to volunteer," she says.
Lawer is a trustee of the University of Alaska Foundation and serves on the Smithsonian National Board and the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. President's Community Panel. She has contributed time and counsel to hospital networks and high school athletics associations. And despite all of her connections, she continues to network.
She regularly hosts luncheons in the bank's boardroom for women in diverse business and community roles. In "Stiletto Network," a new book about power circles developed by and for women, author Pamela Ryckman details the scope of the attendee list, which has included a lawyer from an Alaska senator's office, a university chancellor and senior executives of companies such as BP Alaska and Alaska Airlines.
As comfortable as she is within Alaska's power circles, Lawer, with a colorful scarf thrown around her neck to keep out the chill and a strong appreciation for her state's frontier spirit, easily blends into the communities her bank serves.
"When someone calls and says it's 40 below in Fairbanks and they can't make a loan payment because they need to buy a new furnace, we understand that," Lawer says. "We know Alaska."