Novice SBA officer leads PPP charge

As the lead in launching Village Bank’s SBA department, Nikki Walker (center, holding award) was a key driver in picking up Progress Minnesota honors from a local business newspaper for the bank’s efforts to drive economic growth and innovation in Minnesota.

When the first round of funding from the Paycheck Protection Program opened the floodgates in April, Nikki Walker sat with fingers poised over the keyboard, ready to wrestle with the Small Business Administration’s E-Tran portal.

Walker put in 16-hour days entering applications during the initial rush, working at the head of a team of six reviewing files after lenders had turned in paperwork. All told, the St. Francis, Minn.-based Village Bank processed 329 applications totaling more than $55 million by the time the initial funds ran out.

“Because I’m a numbers/efficiency person, I timed it and I could have an application submitted and my spreadsheet updated in five minutes,” said Walker, who is being honored as one of BankBeat magazine’s 2020 Rising Stars in Banking. “I’m in shock a little, at what my team and I accomplished in that first round.”

The bank beefed up its SBA team and braced for a second round of equal intensity, but the rush of applications slowed to a more manageable flow. Walker wasn’t upset at the chance for a breather, although she’s working to make sure bank customers who might need it are aware of the program.

Now that the first rush is over, Walker’s SBA team is able to return focus to the bread-and-butter loans which got put on hold as the pandemic derailed everything.

What makes her feat more impressive is that Walker has only been in her current role of SBA specialist at the $302 million bank for a little over a year. She took the job of starting the bank’s SBA department in October 2018 after working as a credit analyst. Her performance, generally and in that role in particular, drew high praise from Village Bank President Aleesha Webb.

“She came into her SBA role having no prior experience with SBA loans and financing,” Webb said. “She has stepped up to the plate to say, ‘I am ready to take on a challenge and I am willing to learn.’”

Upon rejoining the family bank in the summer of 2018, Webb set a goal of making Village Bank a Top 20 SBA lender in the Twin Cities, despite not being an SBA preferred lender at the time. She canvassed senior leaders, who overwhelmingly nominated Walker to lead the initiative. 

Walker’s flexibility and eagerness to tackle new challenges means she has moved around the bank, pitching in wherever there’s a need. Originally recruited to work as a data processor while completing her college degree, Walker tackled a series of increasingly complex roles, including in operations, as a financial analyst and a marketing project coordinator. 

Leadership at the bank noticed her high performance in each position and wanted it applied to their SBA department. “Even though she may not have had technical training in SBA, because of her willingness to learn and her attitude, she was perfect for the role,” Webb said.

“With the little things I’ve done in other parts of the bank, I’ve proven myself to be able to be entrusted to lead the charge on trying to get this SBA department off the ground,” Walker said.

Although she couldn’t have known it in 2018, Walker was signing up for a much more harrowing experience. The PPP rollout came without much guidance or a detailed explanation about what forgiveness would look like. “It was just go, go, go, with the blind leading the blind,” she said. 

Walker finessed the PPP rollout for the bank while also adjusting to managing a team and working from home. Making that transition smoothly is par for the course for Walker, Webb said. “As a female leader in banking and finance, I’m so proud of her, watching her grow into who she is today: A financial expert, an SBA expert and a true community banker.” 

Although the pandemic has put a pause on it, Walker usually brings her drive from the office to the pavement — literally. A runner, she enjoys participating in charity runs and has participated in Duluth’s Grandma’s Marathon. “It’s virtual this year, so I’m planning on doing that on the day that we would have done it,” she said. “But it’s just going to be a little different scenery this time.”

That care for the wider community is part of what makes Walker such a perfect example of a community banker and a Village employee, Webb said. “We hire for skills and experience, but we’re also really hiring for what Nikki represents, that willingness to roll up your sleeves even when you don’t know anything [about SBA] and really help the community. Nikki exemplifies all of those values.”