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Published: 08/22/2017

Virginia Varela is the president and CEO of Golden Pacific Bank.

Virginia Varela has little patience for the topic of work-life balance. “It makes me want to throw up,” she said.

Varela is president and CEO of Golden Pacific Bank, the area’s smallest locally based bank with $130 million in assets. She loves working hard. Then she unwinds by working some more. It’s not the concept of balancing work and home life that bugs her, it’s the assumptions that too often underlie the conversation.

“It’s always assumed that if you are a woman, you have babies and take care of the household,” she said. In her house, it’s her husband who takes care of things.

Varela takes care of banks. After a career as a bank regulator for agencies in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., she has made a second career as a turnaround artist at small local banks.

She started out with the Federal Home Loan Bank Board during the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. She has spoken at congressional briefings, helped write the handbook for examiners across the nation, and was part of the Hurricane Katrina task force. She also did international consulting, helping Egypt, Libya and Russia with their bank examination and supervision departments.

Varela ended the regulatory part of her career at the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco under Janet Yellen, who’s now board chairwoman of the Federal Reserve System.

“I’ve seen management and supervision of all kinds of banks and financial institutions,” Varela said. “I had a bird’s-eye view of what seemed to work and what didn’t.”

Then Varela embarked on her second career: turning around small local banks. She’s done it in San Luis Obispo, Rio Vista and now Sacramento.

“When we realized that we had some serious problems, we knew we had to recruit a new CEO,” said Jeanne McCormack, a major shareholder and former board chairwoman at Bank of Rio Vista. Varela got the job and proceeded to reorganize the management structure, strengthen the compliance department, and put the bank’s technology on par with its competitors.

She also had to deal with the very traditional family members that owned the bank.

“This was a patriarchal family, and she was a beautiful sophisticated woman coming in and telling everyone what to do,” McCormack said. “And she fit right into this rural, unsophisticated setting.”

Sacramento is a bit larger and more sophisticated, but Varela’s work at Golden Pacific Bank involved a similar approach. After joining the bank in September 2013, she reduced the number of brances from seven to three. She cut staff. And she narrowed the bank’s focus to small-business loans and services.

“I tried to be respectful of people,” Varela said. “If you have a company that’s poorly run, you generally have morale that’s poor. If you have a successful company, you create a better job environment. My goal is to provide jobs that are meaningful and also teach people in a way that they will always be employable.”

The bank reported a loss of $1.36 million in 2014. The next year, the loss was contained to $114,000. And in 2016, the bank reported a net income of $615,000.

The staff at Golden Pacific understood the rationale behind the changes, said board vice chairman Rick Fowler, who’s also chief operating officer of law firm Kronick Moskovitz Tiedemann & Girard.

“An important part of leadership is caring about your mission and your people. And she is good at it,” Fowler said.

Although Varela is a board member of the California Bankers Association and is active with the American Bankers Association, her real enjoyment comes from approving small-business loans.

It’s a thrill, she said, to give a loan to kids with nose rings who are opening a coffee shop. “When I was a kid I really thought I would do something faith based, or a nonprofit, because I’m drawn to the spiritual side of life,” Varela said. “It’s interesting that I would find that in banking.”

Sacramento Business Journal: 2017 Women Who Mean Business with Virginia Varela

Age: 57

Education: B.A. in English literature, B.S. in economics, UC Santa Cruz; MBA, Monterey Institute of International Studies

Family: Lives in Sacramento with husband Malcolm Hotchkiss and four stepchildren

First job: “I worked as a receptionist and got fired because I couldn’t figure out how to use their phone.”

Advice to younger women: “Don’t be afraid to be courageous and speak your mind.”

Biggest whoops: “I either have none or too many. I think I was kind of a workaholic, but I don’t know that it’s a bad thing.”

Favorite way to unwind: “I unwind by working. I love to work. I work on the weekends. I love to read about banking. I read regulations like comic books.”

Fantasy career:“ I always wanted to be a Catholic nun. Or a social worker.”

Person you would most like to meet: Eleanor Roosevelt

Something about you that would surprise people: “I’m scared of dogs.”

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