Leadership in Finance: Christina Cook of the Bank of Marin

Five years as CFO of a small commercial bank during one of the most tumultuous financial meltdowns in history has given this 19-year banking veteran a new view of capital, government programs, and serendipity.

Before starting the interview process for her current job at the Bank of Marin, Christina Cook did what any candidate for the CFO position would do — she reviewed her potential employer’s financial results. What’s unusual, however, is that she found herself laughing.

“I couldn’t believe it. I was looking at the numbers and reading ‘zero’ in accrual loans. I had never heard of that,” the finance chief told CFO.com in a recent interview. As a finance executive at Bank America Corp. and Citicorp, Cook had never seen a set of bank books that didn’t have any nonperforming loans.

It was 2004, and the country was not yet in the grips of the economic crisis. Cook took the job, and, as it turned out, the Bank of Marin’s solid loan performance and conservative lending policies helped the company — which has $1.1 billion in assets — successfully weather the current credit-crunch storm.

Cook, 43, says that although she was always interested in financial institutions, she never planned on a career in banking. “The opportunities that presented themselves just tended to be in banking.” She started her career in 1986 as an auditor for Coopers & Lybrand — a predecessor of PricewaterhouseCoopers — after graduating from DePaul University, and made the jump to Bank America four years later.

Eventually she was named vice president of corporate planning and financial reporting at Bank America, and next moved to California Federal Bank, a $65 million savings and loan in San Francisco, “where I had the opportunity to be kind of a bigger fish in a smaller pond.” As director of financial reporting at Cal Fed, which was bought by Citibank in 2002, Cook added internal reporting to a résumé that already included external reporting duties.

As for the current credit crisis, Cook points out, not all areas of the country were hit hard by the subprime mess. Case in point: areas of northern California served by Bank of Marin, which include San Francisco and its neighboring Marin and Sonoma counties. Homebuilding growth in the area was limited, especially with respect to Marin County, where only 2% of the land is developed. As a result, the subprime sickness didn’t run rampant.

3Marin CFO Cook“We returned the money within four months, after being one of the first banks to participate in the CPP program. We said it’s time for us to return the money and take back control of running our business.” — Bank of Marin CFO Christina Cook

Nevertheless, nonaccrual loans — those not paying interest and in danger of default — did inch up during the past year, and broke the 0% barrier at the Bank of Marin. Still, as a percentage of total lending, nonperforming loans remain below 1% for the bank.

Below is an edited account of a CFO.com interview with Cook in which the finance chief opined on the credit crunch, the bank’s foray into a government-lending program, the metrics that she watches like a hawk, and her new appreciation for capital.


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