Heritage Financial CEO Brian Vance Took the Road Less Traveled to the Top

Heritage Financial CEO Brian Vance will retire after almost five decades in banking
BANKING LEGACY. Brian Vance began his career as a bank teller and will retire next month after serving for more than a decade as the CEO of Heritage Financial Corp.

This article appears in the June 2019 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Brian Vance has been a banker since he graduated from high school 47 years ago. Next month, he’ll retire from the only profession he’s ever known.

Vance, chief executive officer of Olympia-based Heritage Financial Corp. and Heritage Bank, led the institution through a period of rapid growth. The bank, the 11th largest in Washington state, with about $4 billion in deposits, has made five acquisitions during the past seven years, the most of any Pacific Northwest bank. It has 65 branches in Washington and Oregon and more than 800 employees.

Vance became a teller shortly after graduating from high school in Idaho. He began his career with Boise-based West One Bank and came to Washington state when he was transferred to the bank’s Tacoma office, where he was in charge of about two dozen branches. US Bank acquired West One, and Vance started at Heritage as chief credit officer in 1996. He became CEO in 2003 and CEO of parent company Heritage Financial Corp. three years later.

Although Vance will no longer be involved in day-to-day activities, he will become chairman of the Heritage Financial Corp. board. His successor is Jeff Deuel, who has been the bank’s president and chief operating officer since 2012. Deuel will now become president and CEO of Heritage Financial Corp.

I do not have a college degree. It’s something I’m not proud of but I’m not ashamed of it, either. My three grown daughters all have a college degree. I insisted.

It would be pretty rare for anybody today to start as a teller and become CEO. It’s not wrong or right. It’s just something that wouldn’t happen today.

I’ve done every job there is in banking. I started at the bottom. In those days, my goal was to be a branch manager and retire. My favorite job in banking? Today as CEO.

It wasn’t until I came to Heritage that I began to have thoughts about running the bank. I didn’t have the belief or confidence I could do it.

Every good leader must be approachable, genuine and have humility. Those are things you cannot fake. You either have it or you don’t. I’m of the camp that leaders are born and not made.

I’ve never had an original idea in my life. I’ve stolen every idea I’ve had. Arrogance gets in the way of admitting somebody else has a better idea.

The acquisitions were survival at their very core. You have to have efficiency and scale to survive. We saw the size we were, something less than $1 billion in assets, and couldn’t survive in today’s banking model.

We needed to drive profitability for shareholders. If we can’t do that, someone will do that for us.

It’s something that’s easy to do, buy a company. The hard things are meshing into one culture and driving performance after the combination. That’s the piece a lot of people don’t understand or get right, and then bad things happen. It’s not easy. We make mistakes every day.

If I have any talent, it would be with people. It’s what I love in my job as CEO. Everything comes down to people. Yeah, there’s finance and numbers, but that’s the tech side of the job.

I am terrible at math. I am the world’s worst math student.

Company culture comes back to people without egos. We all need to have an ego to survive and prosper, but it can get in the way.

It seems fundamental and silly, but I think we’ve been able to create that culture where people want to be a part of it. How do you define that? I can’t define that clearly.

New employees come into the board room and Jeff [Deuel] and I spend four hours with them. That’s a huge time commitment for the CEO and president to sit down with employees. Every session ends with a Q&A. When we get feedback from employees, it’s very meaningful to them.

The CEO transition in corporate America is probably one of the most difficult things that can take place in a company’s lifespan. Some get it right, some don’t. I have every belief Jeff and I will make it a very smooth and seamless process.

Jeff will ask me what I think, but he’s running the company today, not me. He and I are not exactly the same. Thank goodness.

The fundamentals of banking have not changed in 100 years. You accept deposits and make loans. The digital transformation of banking has been huge, but even with mobile and online banking, banking is a simple model. People don’t always execute it well.

I will continue as chairman of the board, which means I’ll still be an employee of the bank but at a much-reduced compensation level.

My wife Barb has told me I have to have seven passions. I may not have seven, but I have at least five. Grandkids and family are No. 1. I love fly-fishing. I want to do a lot more of that.

We’ve also got two acres and a tractor. I’m just a ranch kid from Idaho.

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