Fourteen Graduate from Rigorous Business Lending School Program

Alamo, Nev., is a tiny desert town 90 miles north of Las Vegas. It is known to the outside world as the home of Area 51, the top-secret military base whose folklore mystique that attracts UFO enthusiasts and other tourists who come to check out the community’s annual “Alien” celebration.

But for the 2,500 residents who call it home the rest of the year, it is a proud, tight-knit community consisting of one gas station, three or four restaurants, no traffic lights, and one financial institution—Pahranagat Valley Federal Credit Union. And it appears nearly everyone in town is a member. Pahranagat serves 2,009 members and has assets of over $18 million.

For that reason, CEO Robin Simmers made a commitment to graduate from the Business Lending School (BLS). Once a month since last March, she has driven to Las Vegas, flown to Seattle and lived out of a suitcase for a week, getting up early, sitting through hours of intense instruction, passing weekly tests with flying colors and staying up late to study some more. The experience culminated with Robin’s graduation last week, but now the work of making sound and compliant loans intensifies.

“We have always had the philosophy that we’re here to serve our members,” Simmers said. “We just want to be able to really serve our small town.”

There is extra incentive to take the responsibility seriously; in May, Nevada State Bank and Trust shut its doors, leaving Pahranagat Valley the only financial institution for miles around.

“We’re it!” Simmers proclaimed.

Her credit union’s loan portfolio consists mainly of consumer and a few real estate loans. With 11 business loans on the books, Simmers knew it was important to learn all she could about the compliance, risks and regulatory burdens that come with underwriting business loans.

Simmers is one of 14 students to complete the rigorous program. Her classmates came from credit unions in Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington. Pahranagat is a smaller credit union, but institutions with assets as high as $1.6 billion were represented in this year’s class.



Verity Credit Union’s John Zmolek received honors as the top graduate.

“We have been dabbling in business lending for a sometime, but wanted to take it to go further with it,” Zmolek said. “I don’t think I had any idea how complex it really was.” Zmolek reports the Business Lending School gave him “a strong framework and the tools” needed to carry out the mission. He now assumes a higher strategic calling as Verity’s Chief Lending Officer.



The BLS is administered by the Northwest Credit Union Association (NWCUA). It is taught by the lending industry’s marquee instructors, James Devine and Robert Hogan, who offer more than 30 years of experience teaching sound business lending practices to industry professionals.

Devine has taught thousands of lenders and state and federal regulators. He was on the faculty at the National Graduate Trust School at Northwestern University. Hogan brings a wealth of experience to the table as well, having taught and consulted lenders, business owners, accountants and regulators in Asia, Eastern Europe and the U.S.

The BLS curriculum is custom designed for the NWCUA. Students are trained for five one-week sessions in the Association’s classroom in Federal Way, Wash. Daily quizzes, weekly exams, homework and hands-on exercises are only part of the process. Students are assigned to a mentor at their home credit unions, so the lessons taught are practiced in the “real world” in between their monthly class sessions. In the sixth month, participants return to Federal Way for an intense week of final exams and, finally, graduation. Follow-up with students and their mentors is also included.

A program that requires students to earn their certificates as opposed to simply receiving them was a priority for Association CEO John Annaloro in opening the school in this region.

“There is no doubt that business lending can be treacherous for institutions,” Annaloro said. “One misstep can be catastrophic.”

In spite of the risks, credit union leaders have decided that being in the business lending category is a sound investment. Northwest credit unions had loaned $2.5 billion by the end of the first quarter of 2011, despite, as Annaloro noted, the 12.5 percent legislated cap on member business lending, making business lending training essential for professionals.

In congratulating the graduates, Annaloro stated, “You now comprise an expert business lending pool in the Northwest that exists nowhere else in the country. You have the knowledge to bring your credit unions to the forefront of business lending in the communities in which they serve.”

Limiting the class size allows Hogan and Devine to work closely with each and every student. Watching them at graduation, it was clear that they had gotten to know the strengths of every participant and understood the needs of the represented credit unions and their members.

The next Business Lending Class begins March 26, 2012, and recruitment and registration will begin this fall. Please visit the website for further information. 


Questions? Contact Training Administration Coordinator Janet Owen: 206.340.4791 

Posted in Federal.