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Sara Pelaez, First California Bank, Masters Core Systems Conversions

As a lead partner in supporting First California Bank's aggressive growth strategy, Sara Pelaez has overseen more core systems conversions in four years than most CIOs handle in their careers.

There's been a lot of discussion in the banking industry about core systems conversions — the benefits, the risks and what it takes to pull them off. At many institutions, that's as far as it gets — nothing but talk. But at $1.2 billion-asset First California Bank, it's a different story. Under the leadership of SVP and CIO Sara Pelaez, the Camarillo, Calif.-based institution has undertaken four core systems conversions and two data center moves (the most recent occurring in August) in less than four years.

Even more impressive is that the conversions, along with other high-profile IT initiatives, have been directly tied to First California's growth strategy. "My group has been quite busy trying to make sure that the infrastructure that we have put in place over the last five to eight years will be able to support the [bank's] rapid growth, especially [in terms of] data storage and the increased number of end users that we support," Pelaez reports. "We started putting in new technologies such as virtualization and virtual computing to be able to support the incremental growth that we've had, as well as to make sure that we keep ahead of the curve."

Sara Pelaez, First California BankMultiple Paths to Growth

First California Bank, which now operates 16 locations (full-service branches and loan production offices) in southern California, has grown both organically and through mergers. Having joined the bank nine years ago, when it had only two offices, Pelaez has played a key role in the organization's success story.

"My vision is to always try to stay ahead of the strategic needs of the bank," she explains. "The bank usually does three- to five-year strategic planning sessions, so we know exactly where we want to be within three to five years. My role is to make sure the infrastructure that we've established will be able to support that [strategy]. We implement something at least six months or a year before we actually need it so that we are well ahead of the curve for demands placed on us."

The key elements of First California's IT environment are a Citrix Systems (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.)-based platform for remote computing administration; Austin, Texas-based CoreTrac's Resource One CRM system; the LaserPro and DepositPro lending and account opening solutions from Harland Financial Solutions (Lake Mary, Fla.); and Hutchinson, Kan.-based Data Center Inc.'s (DCI) iCore core banking system. The iCore system was implemented in 2004, when the bank had six offices, and has been expanded as the bank has grown, Pelaez relates. "The core application is instrumental in each of our organic growth initiatives," she says.

First California has learned many lessons since that first conversion, Pelaez acknowledges. With the first project, she says, "There were a lot of different anxieties, trying to make sure it all ran smoothly."

Based on that experience, for the subsequent conversions Pelaez created what she calls the "Core Team." It's "kind of a play off of iCore. We had a core team of individuals that would actually project-manage the whole conversion — myself, the heads of our operations and the retail banking division, our central operations division manager, our lending division manager," Pelaez says. This group collaborated with a team from DCI, "so we had constant communication ... to make sure all issues were addressed and the testing was completed."

Katherine Burger is Editorial Director of Bank Systems & Technology and Insurance & Technology, members of UBM TechWeb's InformationWeek Financial Services. She assumed leadership of Bank Systems & Technology in 2003 and of Insurance & Technology in 1991. In addition to ... View Full Bio

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