Heather Nelson (second from right) with developers of the Sherman Park Grocery and Hue Asian Kitchen, two of the winners of the 2023 Mayor’s Design Awards.

When Milwaukee real estate investor and developer Maurice (Moe) Wince found out his project, the Sherman Park Grocery Store, would receive a Mayor’s Design Award in May, he asked his banker, Heather Nelson, to attend.

The awards “celebrate the innovative efforts that make our city a great place to live, work and have fun,” Mayor Cavalier Johnson said in a statement announcing the winners. In an interview with the Wisconsin Muslim Journal, Wince said Nelson’s 33-year career as a banker in Greater Milwaukee is doing just that—changing the lives of individuals and their communities.

Talking about his recent development projects in Sherman Park, Wince said, after the riots “we’ve been putting our community back together. All this is possible because of Heather.”

Nelson had been working with Wince and his wife for 23 years, educating them on finance and connecting them with business resources. One result is a unique grocery store that brings fresh produce and quality food to an area the City of Milwaukee had declared a food desert.

Nelson had another customer’s project among the award winners, Hue Asian Kitchen in Bay View. On its Facebook page, they shared the news, adding, “In 1995, after being turned down time and time again by numerous banks, Heather took a chance on an immigrant refugee and financed my father’s Asian grocery store. Unbeknownst to us, our paths would cross 25 years later when she agreed to finance our Hue Bay View project.”

Nelson knows how to pick a winner and when she does, she backs it heart and soul, Wince said.

Spring Bank president Heather Nelson

In January, Spring Bank named Nelson president. David Schuelke, who had served as chief executive officer and president since the bank’s founding in 2008, divided the roles due to the Spring Bank’s growth, he said in a statement on the bank’s website. Spring Bank is a locally owned community bank serving mostly small to medium-sized businesses in Milwaukee, Waukesha and surrounding counties. 

Nelson had served as Spring Bank’s senior vice president, focusing on commercial lending. She has been at Spring Bank since 2010. Her banking career includes positions at large regional banks and smaller community banks. She has served as a commercial lender for most of that time.

“Throughout her career, and especially at Spring Bank where she has excelled, Heather has consistently exceeded the expectations of her customers with integrity, compassion and drive,” Schuelke noted in the statement.

With her promotion, Nelson became the third female bank president in southeastern Wisconsin, Spring Bank’s statement said. While women are emerging into leadership positions in banking across Wisconsin,  only 18 women are in the position of president and/or chief executive officer in Wisconsin’s more than 170 banks, according to the Wisconsin Banker’s Association.

A new role

In an interview with the WMJ, Nelson considered her transition into a top leadership position. 

“Most rewarding for me has been helping my customers succeed,” she said. Early in her career, she felt the satisfaction of being a commercial lender. “If you were financing a building, you could drive by and say, ‘I financed that.’ It was fun to see how the money was impacting people and communities.”

In banking, “most lenders don’t do smaller loans. No one wants to give a customer a $10,000 line because it takes just as long to do a $10,000 line as it takes us to do a million-dollar loan. You have to do the same analysis on each customer,” Nelson explained. 

But Nelson does. 

“It’s fun to see someone take a small loan and grow super large,” she said. Like Anodyne Coffee Roasting Company in Milwaukee. “I gave him a $10,000 line of credit to start and now he has four different locations and owns the real estate. I have another customer who started buying rental properties, single-family homes. Now he buys $10 million industrial buildings. I’ve had the opportunity to see customers start small and grow big. It’s fun to see how they have been able to build their wealth and do exciting things to impact their community.”

In her role as a commercial lender, Nelson has helped over 100 business start-ups “and continues to enjoy the experience of watching businesses thrive,” she wrote in her bio.

As president, Nelson intends to continue “to be highly involved with her customers and all the clients of the bank. That is what has made the bank successful,” she said.

“We have wonderful people who work at the bank, so the additional responsibility of managing the employees has been an easy transition,” she said. “Managing the financials of the bank has been another added responsibility however, the bank has always been very strong and continues to be very strong. There is just an additional monitoring responsibility.”

Her exceptional work ethic

WMJ asked Nelson’s husband of 18 years, Ihsan Atta, what accounts for her success.

“First and foremost, her work ethic,” he answered. “She goes above and beyond others in the industry. She doesn’t just sit in the bank and push papers around. She works very hard to assist clients in their business. She makes a point to patronize her customers and to get others to, also. She’ll fight for them. 

“She’s the person who will always remember your birthday and attend any events you have, business or personal. She celebrates her customers in every way.”

Early in her career, Nelson worked out of central city banks, Atta said. “She could have easily gone to a suburban bank and dealt with big customers, providing big loans. But she really wanted to help the small businesses.

“There are tons of businesses in the city that will tell you they have success because of Heather, that their chance of even starting something only happened because of Heather. No other bank would lend to them.”

And she did the extra things, Atta said, like hosting an annual event to bring her customers together so they could meet each other and potentially do business together.

Heather Nelson and her husband Ihsan Atta (center) attended a fundraiser for Revitalize Milwaukee at the Wisconsin Club with Nelson’s clients. (L-r) Jason and Melissa Waters, David Juniel, (standing – Alderman Russell Stamper, Latoya Stamper), Ihsan Atta, Heather Nelson, Mai Carbajal, Ariam Keste.

“But she doesn’t play games,” he added. “She’s firm. She’s strict about the sort of things you should be strict about. She’ll tell you her expectations. She’s straightforward. And she is a listener, a good reader of people. She listens, analyzes and evaluates.”

Wince recalled when he had what he called “some not-so-good ideas.” 

“‘That’s not happening,’ she told me. She leads with good banker’s knowledge and discernment. She has no boundaries over race, color or creed. If it is a solid idea, she’ll work to make it happen.” 

Nelson is “extremely organized, much more than the average person,” Atta said. 

“She’ll have a number of things to accomplish in a day and is cognizant of them. So, when she is driving to a meeting and has five extra minutes, she’ll stop to pick up something she needs from the grocery store. She won’t think, ‘I’ll pick it up later.’ She never procrastinates.

“At meetings, she never wastes anybody’s time. She gets to the point. Gets things done.”

Wince and Atta both mentioned that since they have known her, Nelson is the first one in the bank in the morning and the last one to leave in the evening. “That’s every day for at least the past 23 years,” Wince added.

Nelson wakes up at “4 o’clock in the morning, every morning, and goes to the gym. She starts her day moving. She’s been doing that every day since probably middle school,” Atta said. “Sometimes, we also work out in the evenings, especially if we are going to meet up with my nieces and nephews.” 

She takes after her parents, Atta said. “They are very active. They are close to 80 and, when you see them, you’ll think they are 50.”

When she has free time, we are often patronizing her customers, he said. “We’re both foodies and she has a lot of restaurant customers.”

Photo courtesy of Moe Wince

“Lunch with the World’s Greatest Banker” hosted by Moe Wince. (Front row, l-r) Nisha Beam, Angela Walters, Heather Nelson, Moe Wince and (second row, l-r) Craig Barnett, Alan Walters and Alex Bramante.

Becoming a Muslim

Nelson, who grew up Presbyterian, started learning about Islam about 30 years ago. 

“I had a lot of Muslim customers and the attorneys I dealt with were also Muslim,” she said. “One time they noticed they weren’t eating or drinking. They explained that they were fasting. I said I can do that. I remember the first day. Around 2 p.m., my head was about to explode because I hadn’t had any caffeine. So, I called the person who had explained fasting to me and asked if I could take headache medicine. He told me to go ahead but know I would be breaking my fast. I decided to stick it out.”

Other Muslim customers heard Nelson was fasting and invited her to iftar (dinner after sunset) to break her fast with them during Ramadan. “I wasn’t fasting every day but I felt guilty to go to iftar at their homes, so I started fasting every day.

“I hadn’t converted yet but I kept fasting. I liked the concept of fasting and the spiritual and mental state it put me in. It was good for me.”

She learned more about Islam and decided to become Muslim about 20 years ago. “I liked the people. I didn’t feel like it changed any of my values or any of my thought processes or the way I treated people.  I think it added a sense of spirituality that was good for me.”

Nelson talked with the Presbyterian minister at the church where she had grown up and told him she was considering becoming Muslim. “He was very open and respectful towards Islam. He said he thought it would be great if it was something I was interested in,” she recalled. Her parents were also “super supportive.”

“In my mind, I wasn’t changing much. I still had the same values and did the same things. I’d still treat people the same way. What it did was add a different aspect of prayer and a few other things, like fasting.”

She did her shahadeh (confession of faith) at the Islamic Center of Milwaukee with Imam Ziad Hamdan before her parents and a few friends.

Living for others

“What stands out to me is her other-centeredness,” said Linda Bardele, Nelson’s long-time friend. Bardele met Nelson in 1991 when Bardele worked in human resources at what was then First Wisconsin Bank. Nelson was applying for its management training program, which offered wide work experience in banking by rotating trainees through various positions. 

“At the time, Heather had a bachelor’s degree (in business from the University of Wisconsin – Madison) and we were typically only hiring people with their master’s degrees. (Nelson later earned an MBA from UW-Milwaukee.) She was so bright, clearly hardworking and mature. She had to interview with a whole lot of people and they all resoundingly agreed, we need to hire Heather.”

Soon Bardele supervised Nelson at one of the branches. Then years later, they were both at Legacy Bank in Milwaukee, where Nelson was a chief lending officer and Bardele served on the board.

“What I’ve consistently seen with Heather is her ability to reach out to other groups,” Bardele said. “There are some people who want to stay with their own level, assistant vice presidents with other assistant vice presidents. Heather was never that person.

“She made sure she learned everything there was to know about various jobs. More importantly, she met everyone. She made sure she knew the safe deposit person, the secretary, everybody. She knew about their families, their challenges, their hopes and dreams. It didn’t matter your age or ethnicity, your religion—it just didn’t matter.

“That interest in others is quite remarkable. No matter how busy, whenever we are together, she always asks about how I am, about my family. When we meet for lunch (and it’s always at one of her customers), not only do the business owners know her, the staff knows her. Heather has taken the time to get to know the person who’s ringing up our sandwiches.

“It extends to her customers and colleagues. Her concern and care about her customers have always impressed me. And the team of people she is working with. She’s so focused on those two groups.”

Wince offered a metaphor. “Heather has a history as a waitress and she will notice if a table is wobbly. She will stop and level the table. As her customer, she has helped me better understand how to do that.

“Moe, what are your financial goals? Your universal position? What is a good percentage to have on your credit cards? How much backup funds do we need in the bank?” he recalled her asking.

“I remember a time when she was taking some kids to play in the park to help out a parent,” Bardele said. “That was just one of the many things she was doing that day.

“I’m so happy for Heather but also for the customers and staff of Spring Bank. With her leading as bank president, they are in for some really great things!”