In the old boys’ network of Southern Nevada banking, Henderson’s Selma Bartlett rose above the pack.
Since the 1950s, she has doled out millions of dollars in loans for real estate projects, business equipment and new medical practices. She developed a cult-like following of clients and helped change Henderson from a small factory town to a full-grown city.
Now 85 and still working part-time at Meadows Bank, the self-described “old-fashioned banker” built her career at a time when many women were confined to secretarial jobs. She transcended traditional gender roles to become one of the most well-known bankers in the valley – a local celebrity of sorts.
Her former employer Bank of Nevada ran ads calling itself “Selma’s Bank,” and as a branch manager, she ran the outpost by her own rules.
She is equally known for her extensive community efforts. She helped found Nevada State College and set up scholarships there and at UNLV with her late husband, Troy Bartlett. The pair helped found the hospital system now known as St. Rose Dominican Hospitals, as well as Henderson’s first senior center and below-market rental housing.
Those who know Bartlett marvel at her commitment; it’s rare, especially these days, to see someone so involved in her community.
A Henderson elementary school was named after her in 1992, and she was inducted into the Nevada Business Hall of Fame this year.
Not bad for a woman who was raised on an Oklahoma farm during the Depression and Dust Bowl.
“There was no glass ceiling for her,” said Lou La Porta, a former Clark County commissioner who has lived in Henderson since 1945.
Bartlett spent about 40 years with the former Bank of Nevada and its successor First Interstate Bank. She left in 1996 for BankWest of Nevada, which through a merger in 2006 became the current Bank of Nevada. Last year, she joined Meadows’ branch on St. Rose Parkway in Henderson, where she works three days a week as a private banker.
Bartlett never became a CEO — she said she didn’t want to — but was promoted to regional vice president at First Interstate, overseeing eight offices.
That’s relatively rare for a woman.
Women have worked in finance for decades, but men most often call the shots. While women comprise almost 60 percent of the employees at U.S. commercial banks, they account for just 30 percent of the banks’ top officials, the nonprofit group Catalyst found.
That disparity holds true in Nevada.
In 2010, the state had about 9,600 women working in finance and insurance, more than double the number of men. However, only 87 women held executive or senior-level positions, compared with 167 men, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
There’s also a wage gap. Women working in finance and insurance in Clark County earned an average of about $4,300 per month in the first quarter of last year. That was about 42 percent less than men, who pulled in a monthly average of $7,354, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Needless to say, Bartlett overcame hurdles. She was one of the first female banking officers in Nevada and the state’s first female branch manager.
And though earlier in her career many borrowers refused to deal with her because of her gender, Bartlett by no means is an outspoken feminist – or one at all.
When asked to give advice to aspiring female bankers, she said, “Dress appropriately.” She also criticized some women who, she said, “were so proud to have a title like a man.”
As she sees it, the keys to banking are being keenly aware of your clients’ financial needs, both at work and in their personal lives; learning accounting; learning how to negotiate; learning to never say no; and being available to your clients at any time of day, even when the bank is closed.
Women shouldn’t bend over backward to prove their worth, she said. Instead, they need only to show they’re knowledgeable and capable bankers.
“Once you prove yourself, it doesn’t matter what gender you are or what race you are,” Bartlett said.
Selma Frances Abdallah was born in September 1927 and spent her early childhood in New York City. Her father, Amin Abdallah, grew up in Beirut in a wealthy Syrian family. He moved to the United States to pursue a medical career but wound up in New York’s garment industry. Her mother, Louise Heath Abdallah, was from Oklahoma and worked in New York as a buyer for department stores.
Things were good for the family of four – Selma had a younger sister, Efaf – until the stock market crashed in October 1929. Business dried up for Amin and Louise; they lost almost everything. Louise’s brother in Oklahoma recommended they buy a farm near him. That way, they wouldn’t have to worry about food.
The family spent its last $5,000 on a 40-acre wheat and oat farm near Chickasha, about 45 miles southwest of Oklahoma City.
Louise moved there around 1932 with the girls, but Amin stayed behind. He sent money to help care for the children, who later spent a year with him in Virginia, but he never moved to Oklahoma.
Louise’s brother helped her run the farm. The family slaughtered chickens, milked cows, bartered eggs for fruit and grew a vegetable garden. They sold eggs for 5 cents a dozen and sold chicken and turkey meat for a pittance.
The farm helped them survive the Depression, but it also nearly sank them. At times, Louise couldn’t afford the property’s annual $75 mortgage payment, and she had to beg officials at the Federal Land Bank, which held the loan, not to foreclose on the farm.
It was the early 1930s. The Abdallahs not only lived amid widespread poverty, but they also grappled with punishing dust storms. Breathing in the dust was difficult, and Louise sent the girls to school with a washcloth they could dampen and hold over their mouths.
On top of all that, other students harassed Selma and her sister because of their foreign-sounding last name. Children threw their school books under the bridge and called them “dirty little Jews,” even though the family wasn’t Jewish.
When she was 15, Selma met 18-year-old Troy Bartlett, a schoolmate. He lived on a farm across the Washita River from the Abdallahs. With World War II raging, Troy enlisted in the Army air forces. In July 1945, when he was home between deployments, he and 17-year-old Selma got married.
Selma had wanted to be a grade-school teacher growing up but instead put herself through Hill’s Business College in Oklahoma City. She worked at an insurance agency and later joined Citizens State Bank in Oklahoma, where she wrote loans, opened accounts, performed secretarial work and, when needed, worked as a teller.
When Troy was transferred to Nellis Air Force Base, the Bartletts packed up their car and drove to Las Vegas. They initially stayed in a Fremont Street motel but soon moved to a house on Mallory Street in Henderson.
It was the early 1950s, and the city was a polluted factory town with only about 7,000 people. There wasn’t a bank; just about everyone took care of their financial business in Las Vegas.
That changed in February 1954, when Bank of Nevada, dubbing itself “Southern Nevada’s Progressive Bank,” opened a branch in downtown Henderson. It hired Selma around the same time. She became a banking officer in 1958 and a branch manager in 1962.
Selma financed so many deals and became so well known that she became synonymous in Henderson with Bank of Nevada, and vice versa.
“People here didn’t call it Bank of Nevada; they called it ‘Selma’s Bank,’” La Porta said.
Her bosses tried to capitalize on that reputation with ads that showed who was boss in Henderson.
One ad, which featured a large picture of Bartlett below the headline “Bank at Selma’s,” said: “Selma’s bank out in Henderson is not your typical run-of-the-mill bank. It’s warm and personal because that’s the way Selma and her bankers are. They’re the kind of people who won’t bounce your check if you make a mistake adding or subtracting and overdraw your account. And where other banks make it policy to require $5 to open a savings account, Selma’s happy to open one for $1. (Her only policy is to treat her customers the way she’d like to be treated.) Selma’s Bank is the Bank of Nevada in Henderson.”
Banker Jack Mishel witnessed Selma’s appeal firsthand. He has worked with her for decades.
After finishing graduate school in the early ’80s in Southern California, Mishel wanted to move back to Las Vegas, where his parents lived. His family had known Bartlett for years. Mishel met her at a dinner in 1983.
Soon enough, First Interstate Bank, Bank of Nevada’s successor, was calling him for an interview.
He joined its operations training program and became a financial analyst. In 1987, he switched to the lending side and, at Bartlett’s request, joined her branch in downtown Henderson.
The outpost was the most successful in First Interstate’s system, Mishel said. Bartlett was given the unusual authority to run the place like a CEO, not on behalf of one.
“We always said it sits on an island by itself; it has its own policies and procedures, and they’re all Selma’s,” said Mishel, now a senior lending officer with Meadows.
In 1996, San Francisco’s Wells Fargo & Co. reached an $11.6 billion deal to buy First Interstate’s Los Angeles parent, First Interstate Bancorp. After the buyout, Bartlett, Mishel and three others left as a group for BankWest of Nevada, which was founded two years earlier by local businessmen Bill Boyd and Don Snyder.
Snyder had moved to Nevada in 1987 from Southern California to become chairman and CEO of First Interstate. When he got there, Bartlett’s gender was a non-issue, he said. She was just a banker, and a capable one at that, with intensely loyal clients.
“I would think if there was an ‘old boys’ club,’ she’d be a dues-paying member,” Snyder said.
Bartlett and her group spent two years in BankWest’s headquarters at Sahara Avenue and Valley View Boulevard. In 1998, the bank opened a branch on Green Valley Parkway so they could work full time in Henderson, Mishel said. Under her management, the branch collected more than $500 million in deposits, a huge amount for an outpost of a regional bank.
“In banking circles, she’s a legend,” Bartlett’s current boss Meadows CEO Arvind Menon said.
Troy Bartlett also worked in the banking industry. He spent 20 years in the military and another 20 or so in banking. He worked in purchasing for both industries.
After he died at age 86 in March 2011, Selma held his memorial service at Congregation Ner Tamid, a Henderson synagogue. He wasn’t Jewish, but the Bartletts had developed close ties to the community.
Selma, who has arranged at least one construction loan for Ner Tamid, donates money to the synagogue and was given its “woman of valor” award a few years ago, said Senior Rabbi Sanford Akselrad, who has known her for more than 20 years.
“She’s not Jewish, but she feels a deep attachment to us,” he said.
Things have slowed down in recent years for Bartlett, who never had children. Though she follows financial news closely and exercises at least three times a week, she had her cataracts removed a few years ago and needs a driver to get around. She still owns the family farm in Oklahoma and leases it out. She also owns stock in banks and other companies, and lends some of her own money to help people buy homes. Bartlett collects mortgage payments from them.
After more than five decades, she still enjoys working in an industry that, as a child, she never thought she’d be a part of. She likes helping people with their financial needs.
She also wants to make sure that her and Troy’s scholarship money helps college students – male and female – become skilled in science, technology, engineering and math.
Growing up in dusty, Depression-era Oklahoma, watching her mom struggle to keep the farm, Bartlett vowed to steer clear of that type of back-breaking work.
“I didn’t want to be a farmer,” she said.
The people of Henderson are glad she didn’t.