Judy Lawton of Heartland Bank (CFO of the Year Finalist, Small Bank)

Judy Lawton is nominated for CFO of the Year among small banks, but her experience — in banks of all sizes — looms large.

She’s been working in banking for 32 years, the past nine with Heartland Bank of Bryant. At Heartland, she has helped what was a small, publicly traded thrift transform into a commercial bank that is still small ($202 million in assets) but stable and profitable ($2.7 million in net income in the first half of 2013).

The CFO of a small bank — especially one who is also chief operations officer — wears a lot of hats. Loan and deposit operations, information technology, treasury management, business development and, of course, accounting all report to Lawton. That means she has to do a lot of training and then a lot of delegating.

Her philosophy, Lawton said, is “leading by example and providing support and guidance when needed, but not micromanaging.” Her bosses at Heartland have “given me a lot of leeway to do what I thought was right, and I do that with the people that I manage.” She describes her staff members as “capable and loyal employees. I couldn’t do it if I didn’t have them.”

Lawton earned an accounting degree at Arkansas Tech University at Russellville and started her career in 1980 as a staff accountant with Russell Brown & Co. The next year she joined Peoples Bank in Russellville and eventually became CFO and executive vice president of operations for the bank, which would be acquired first by the Worthen holding company and then by Boatmen’s.

In 1996, Lawton left Boatmen’s (now part of Bank of America) to help form River Valley Bank in Russellville, one of seven new banks chartered in Arkansas in 1997. In 2003, River Valley was acquired by Bank of the Ozarks Inc. of Little Rock, and Lawton took two decades of experience to work for DD&F Consulting Group in Little Rock.

She enjoyed consulting, “but I was ready to get back into banking. Once it’s in your blood, it’s hard to get it out.” So in 2004 she took her current job at Heartland Bank.

After almost a decade there, she’s still challenged by the work.

“There are lots of new regs coming out, and smaller banks have to comply just like the larger ones, but with less resources,” she said. “Hopefully, there’ll come a point when all of that will slow down.”

And slowing down is important, because Lawton says she needs time to get the next generation ready to take over.

“I’ve got several more years, but it takes time to train,” she said. “I’ve been through things in my career that I think they can learn from, maybe not have to make the same mistakes I’ve made.”