Tamara Gurney became chief executive the old-fashioned way – by starting her own bank.

She worked 20 years for American Pacific State Bank until it was acquired by City National Corp. in 1999. When some clients told her they wished the northeast San Fernando Valley still had a community business bank, she recruited a few colleagues from American Pacific and launched Mission Valley Bank.

“It’s my child,” she said. “I founded the bank in July 2001 and suddenly 10 years have gone by.”

Today, the bank has three branches: Sun Valley, Valencia and Canyon Country. The customers are small businesses, mostly manufacturers or professional service firms with annual average revenue about $10 million.

Gurney’s favorite aspect of her job is helping entrepreneurs launch and grow their companies.

“I can tell you story after story about people who went to eight or 10 banks and were turned down before we found a way to fund them,” she said. “When we can get creative and help them achieve their dreams, that’s very fulfilling.”

Gurney got into banking by accident. Her original goal was to become a lawyer. But she married young and had a family; a few years later she found herself struggling as a divorced single mother with two young sons to support. The best job she could land was an entry-level secretarial position at Bank of America.

She later switched to American Pacific, where she rose from secretary to chief operating officer. Her advice to other women in finance is to constantly learn beyond the confines of the job.

“The quality that stands out is curiosity,” she said. “When I was a secretary, I wanted to know what the loan officers did. I asked for work, saying, ‘Let me see if I can do this.’”

At times, Gurney has felt the sting of discrimination. She was sometimes asked to fetch coffee because people assumed she was a clerk instead of a bank officer. She would respond by introducing herself.

“Some women react by becoming masculine or rough around the edges, but I just stayed professional and didn’t let the behavior upset me,” she said. “If you do your job, people eventually recognize it in spite of gender issues.”

During her career, she has seen banking evolve from a stuffy “white men’s club” to a more diverse profession. Five years ago, she would travel to meetings of bank chief executives and find she was the only woman in the room. Today, about five or six other women attend the meetings.

However, Gurney has adopted one of banking’s time-honored traditions – playing golf. It’s her favorite recreational activity and she integrates it into her work.

“At American Pacific, my bosses would go golfing and I thought it was all fun and games,” she said. “But relationships are built through activities like golf, allowing us to provide better service. I’ve developed a lot of business on the golf course, even though I’m not a very good golfer.”

TAMARA GURNEY, 59

President and Chief Executive

Mission Valley Bank, Sun Valley

RESIDENCE: North Hollywood

EDUCATION: B.S. in business, University of Phoenix; graduate, University of Wisconsin Graduate Banking School

YEARS IN INDUSTRY: 37 years

YEARS IN POSITION: 12 years

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.