Making Change

By Hannah Wallace August 31, 2004

When Colleen Kvetko, president, CEO and chairman of the board of Fifth Third Bank, Florida, heard about a golf tournament organized by the Florida Bankers Association 12 years ago, she decided to attend. It would be a great way to network with her peers, the avid golfer thought. When she arrived at the course, however, she realized she wouldn't be doing much networking that day: She had been teamed up with three bankers' wives.

Kvetko graciously played with her teammates and enjoyed the day, but immediately called the FBA president to make it clear she expected to be teamed with her peers next time. Today, the upbeat Kvetko, who in 2003 was named one of U.S. Banker Magazine's 25 most powerful women in banking and always wears a rhinestone pin that proclaims "Business is Great!", is one of only three women on the 35-person FBA board, and is cautiously optimistic about the strides women have made in the financial management world.

"We are breaking new ground every day as women in the industry," she says.

But Kvetko is still very much a minority in the largely male upper echelons of banking and corporate finance. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes parity in financial managers, of which 50.5 percent are women. According to Financial Women International, however, only 16 percent of executive management in the top 100 commercial banks is female. Only two of the top 100 commercial banks have female CEOs and only eight have female CFOs.

Conversations about the glass ceiling, perceived as an anachronism by a generation of women reared on "we can have it all," might again be timely. Is banking still a man's world?

At Northern Trust Bank, the numbers reflect the national average. President Phil Delaney says he has 150 employees in the Sarasota-Manatee region, two-thirds of them female. From his ranks of officers, it's a 50-50 split between men and women. But in his management team the split is one-third women, two-thirds men.

"It does show that, there have been great strides, not only at Northern Trust, but across the banking industry," says Delaney. "We are certain that as we look at the people coming up in the organization, those numbers are going to continue to increase. The issue of a glass ceiling-that's something completely in the past, and I feel very sincerely about that."

His director of wealth strategies, Helen Nugent, agrees.

"Maybe I'm just oblivious," says Nugent. "If you show that drive, and always do what's right for the client, people recognize it."

That's a viewpoint echoed by many of the women at the top, such as Susan Scott, now deputy county administrator for Sarasota County, who started in banking clipping bond coupons and ended up as area president at First Union National Bank; and Veronica Brady, first vice president of private client services at SunTrust Bank, who entered banking right out of college with a finance degree. These women are passionate about numbers and doing the best for their clients-Northern Trust's Nugent drove a sick client to a doctor's appointment and made sure she had plenty of soup when she got back home. They also share the kind of energy, determination and brainpower that marks them for success to begin with, and admit that with their ambitious personalities, they may have crashed right through the so-called glass ceiling without paying attention.

Brady says it's only a matter of time before the ranks of women who entered banking 10 or 15 years ago and have been climbing the corporate ladder start to appear at the very top. She says banking as an industry has also evolved, partly as a result of the increasing numbers of women. The days when the only way a woman could get a foot in the door was by starting out as a teller or secretary are at least long gone; women with MBAs or finance degrees have come knocking for years now.

However, even these educated women find their climb to the top arrested by the practice of tracking: Women were-and some say, still are-traditionally "tracked" into less risk-taking areas such as mortgages or retail, while men tend to go into corporate lending, which involves big bucks and helps establish a man's experience with risk taking and assessment.

"That is correct, but it is changing," says Rip duPont, CEO of 1st National Bank and Trust in Manatee and Sarasota counties. "Banking CEOs used to always come from commercial lending, but that is no longer the case. It might have been 10 to 15 years ago."

But some female financiers caution that it's too early to celebrate and that numerous subtle societal and institutional barriers still do exist. At the age of 31, Alexandra Lebenthal was elected president of New York-based Lebenthal & Co. Inc., the municipal bonds firm her grandmother co-founded. Lebenthal recently opened a branch in Sarasota headed by three women, Rosemarie Eakin, June Breakstone and Silvana Nandin. And though she heads her multimillion-dollar company and is a Wall Street player, Lebenthal is still often the only woman in a boardroom full of men.

"We do live in a man's world in this industry," says Kvetko. "People won't tell you that, but it's true. There continues to be an old-boy network, but you just have to find your niche."

For some women, such as Carol B. Green, that niche turned out to be outside the establishment. Green is vice chair of the board of First America Bank, which she founded this year with a group of businesspeople in Osprey and Bradenton. She's no novice: 25 years ago in Colorado, Green founded Women's Bank and a holding company called Equitable Bank Shares of Colorado. At that time, only five women in Colorado were either on the board of a bank or in senior management, and all but one were there through marriage or inheritance.

"We wanted to put a bank in place to treat people equally," says Green. "A group of people who know each other starts banks-business associates, golf buddies-it's the same lack of access to power that's left women out of other entrepreneurial ventures. We're trying to get more women involved in the organization of the bank. I'm convinced many are interested, but don't know how to do it. Information is in the hands of men. Existing banks would do well to seek qualified women for some of their boards."

Simply seeing such women in positions of power could help narrow the gender gap. Many of these women stress the importance of mentoring, and the hunger for role models. When Kvetko won her award for one of the top 25 women in banking, she was amazed by the number of congratulatory message she received from female bankers around the country. Financial mentoring could begin well before a woman starts her professional career, when a daughter hears her mother on the phone dealing with her 401K plan, rather than only seeing her father doing finances. Lebenthal learned the trade at her grandmother's knee, and started working for the 91-year-old when she, Alexandra, was 24. Northern Trust's Nugent helped her mother, a college professor who quit to run her husband's dental practice in a small South Carolina town, do the family business books after school.

But "over the course of adolescence, parents don't talk to girls about money," says Lebenthal. "They talk to boys about money, but girls are pushed to focus on more creative areas."

And although the American Banking Association's Stonier Graduate School of Banking has seen more women file through the classroom doors than in the past, the percentage of women obtaining MBAs is still much smaller than those graduating with medical degrees, for example.

And then there's the big white elephant in the room: children.

"I don't know if [the numbers] will ever even out because I'm not sure women will ever put their careers before their families," says Scott.

In September 2003, Fortune Magazine ran a controversial cover story about how fewer women seek or define power the same way as their male peers. The following month, The New York Times Sunday Magazine wrote about the "opt-out generation," educated women in their 20s and 30s choosing-without the guilt their feminist mothers may have felt-to stay home and raise babies. And in March 2004, Time Magazine covered similar territory with its cover story: "The Case for Staying Home."

"Often, women who are very career oriented and dedicated to climbing the corporate ladder do have to interrupt their careers during their child-bearing years," says duPont. "For smaller banks, when you lose a good executive to this issue, it leaves a hole. We're too small to hold a job open for five years. It does hit us hard."

Some bosses are taking the initiative to help their employees manage the balancing act. When Kvetko's CFO became pregnant, Kvetko says Fifth Third set the woman up with a home office with networking, fax machine and Internet access. Smaller banks such as duPont's 1st National don't have the resources to provide on-site daycare, but duPont says he works on retaining his employees in other ways. For example, he has maintained close contact with two women in their early 30s who recently interrupted their careers to care for children. He says he uses every opportunity to offer them part time work, even projects they can undertake from home. "We want to stay connected so when they decide to come back and pick up their career, they'll come back to us," says duPont.

These disruptions may interrupt corporate ladder climbing, but many women say they don't care. "Women measure success differently," says Lebenthal's Eakin. "You have to like what you're doing. If it's financially feasible for you, and you're very successful, that's great."

But don't ever tell someone like Kvetko that it's actually easy for women.

"I do think women have to work longer and harder to get where they're going," says Kvetko. "It's a given [in society] that a male will succeed. But everyone watches a woman."

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