Standing Firm in Shaky Times – Huntington Bank President Inspires with Integrity

The combined downfall of venerated Wall Street firms, the Madoff scandal and shaky consumer confidence has certainly made it crystal clear that integrity and a moral compass is everything in business. That’s what makes Rebecca Smith a breath of fresh air.

Rebecca Smith says being self aware and looking for the learning opportunities in every experience has helped in her banking career.

Smith, now president of Huntington Bank’s East Michigan region, has consistently relied on the premise of treating others as you would yourself (i.e., the Golden Rule) as her guiding principle in career and life.

“You just can’t fail at it,” she says.

No doubt there are coworkers and peers who are decidedly happy to have a colleague with high values among them, but Smith’s story could have turned out differently.

Finding a Different Path
“My parents and my grandmother were teachers, so I thought I was going to be a teacher,” says Smith, who grew up in Birmingham, Mich., graduating from Seaholm High School. “There were no business people at all in my family.”

Her presumed teaching career path started at Ohio Wesleyan University, where Smith studied liberal arts. But college life, as it often does, opened up new ideas.

“When I went away to college, I knew I would love teaching, but it became clear that there were other worlds out there,” says Smith. Armed with an undergraduate degree in economics/politics and government, and faced with a career field already crowded with candidates, Smith started looking at alternatives, including law school.

“A common theme I heard from the career placement office was to get some work experience, so I began interviewing with campus recruiters,” she recalls. One recruiter was Ohio Wesleyan alumnus Floyd Griffith, a retail banker from the former National Bank of Detroit, who was in charge of its Oakland County retail market.

Griffith (who has since died) made a convincing pitch -“ including the offer of a place in NBD’s management training program, which Smith took in 1977, still living at home.

“It wasn’t a prosperous economic time, but the bank was doing well,” she explains. “I got great exposure to a number of disciplines, including managing people and supervisory skills very early in my career.” By her early 20s, Smith was managing a number of tellers.

The 1970s were also a time of career movement for many women, including those at NBD, which had made a conscious choice to groom female managers.

“There was a lot of success in getting women into branch manager training,” says Smith. It seems to have accomplished its goal. Another notable who was in the same program was Sandra Pierce, now president and CEO of Charter One in Michigan.

Still, fewer women opted for other bank training. “Many women chose to go into something else. You didn’t have some of the flexibility that exists today. It was hard to balance family,” observes Smith.

She blazed her own trail, enrolling in Oakland University’s School of Business Administration. With the completed branch manager training and an MBA in hand, she applied for the bank’s loan officer training in 1982.

“I really loved what I was doing and decided to make a career out of it,” says Smith.

But that didn’t mean there weren’t challenges. Being a loan officer often meant working long hours in a male-dominated field that didn’t allow much leeway for error.

“I was given a lot of responsibilities and opportunities to prove what I was and what I could do,” says Smith. “Was it perfect? No. You could get frustrated. You felt you had to work harder and worried about not appearing to let family life intrude on your career.”

But it soon became clear that the career move was a good one. In 1983, Smith took a position as a loan representative in NBD’s regional banking group, where she spent the next two years developing relationships with large corporations located in Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C.

Four years later, she took on the role of credit exposure review officer as part of the credit administration team, where she developed industry studies and lending strategies for the bank’s largest credit exposures.

Climbing Career Ladder, Weathering Changes
In the ensuing years, Smith continued to climb the NBD career ladder, eventually becoming division head/president of the equipment leasing division in Detroit, overseeing a lease portfolio of approximately $1 billion with 100 employees. In 1998, she became director of commercial banking integration for the Bank One/First Chicago NBD merger, spending the next year in Chicago dealing with the executives and consultants merging the three organizations.

Deciding not to relocate, Smith was ready for a new challenge and left Bank One. She was recruited in May 2000 to Old Kent Bank as president of East Michigan. When Fifth Third Bank acquired Old Kent in 2001, she became executive vice president and senior leader for the commercial banking operation of Fifth Third’s Eastern Michigan region.

When she left there in June 2005, the commercial banking division had a team of 178 employees and a portfolio approaching $3 billion. Smith not only left Fifth Third Bank with a track record of growth and profitability, she also championed its diversity initiative for two years.

All these changes in the industry taught Smith valuable business lessons.

“Twice in my career, the company I’d committed to experienced fundamental change in its direction and/or structure. The result was learning how to flex, adapt, lead the way for others, and finding personal renewal out of the experience,” she says.

Readily admitting that her experience was not unlike “what thousands of professionals have experienced in the last two decades,” Smith says she dealt with the experiences “as an opportunity to become more self aware, look forward to a new challenge and see there is valuable learning in every experience if you seek it. I just made a personal decision that I would not be a victim of any sort, and found the success and inspiration in the experience rather than focusing on the disappointment.”

Learning Along the Way
While it’s clear that the work ethic she learned in NBD’s training programs has served her career well, there was also the ever-present moral compass which kept her grounded, along with mentors and peers.

It was while Smith was working for her NBD campus recruiter, the late Floyd Griffith, that she learned important early lessons.

“I had no experience in the corporate world on how to act,” says Smith. “The most important lesson I learned from Floyd was how you treat people. On one occasion, I happened to be in a meeting where he was being grilled and not being respected. But he did everything right and did not lose his cool.”

Recalling Griffith as “always optimistic, always respectful of others,” Smith took away a valuable lesson: that women didn’t need to rely on only female mentors. “He was very supportive of a person based on their qualifications, not just gender. You can learn a lot from the right kind of people.”

Another mentor is Smith’s husband, Dave, whom she met at NBD. Her early mentoring experiences have led Smith to be mindful of being a role model to others both inside and outside of the workplace. She’s participated in a corporate mentoring program founded in Minneapolis in 1991 and brought to the Detroit area in 1997. Menttium 100 has become a flagship program to develop high-performing, mid-level businesswomen.

Smith has also supported her various employers’ mentoring programs, as well as on an informal basis.

“I’m letting people know that I am available and can call me for help with their jobs. For over 30 years I have tried my very best to do that for people who work for me,” says Smith. “One of my peers gave me some wisdom-”feedback is a gift. People need to always seek feedback from others so they can learn that important quality, which is self-awareness and how they are viewed by others.”

There has also been an important network of professional women who Smith sought out as she strived to balance work and family.

“I have a wonderful small group of professional friends,” says Smith of the group of six fellow commercial bankers. “Twenty years ago, when we were all having our first child, we started to meeting once a month for dinner to talk about how challenging it was to have children, be a professional, have an ambitious career and how to balance work-life.”

The group has proved to be an important support network. “We have all been there for each other.” The women still meet today, even though most of their children are now out of college. Smith was the youngest of the circle, raising her daughter Rachel, now age 21 and a senior at Michigan State University, son Ryan, an 18-year-old freshman at Denison University in Ohio, and her youngest, Dana, a 14-year-old eighth grader attending Birmingham Public Schools.

Staying Power in a Changing Industry
When Smith left Fifth Third Bank in the summer of 2005, she decided to take a career break and enjoy her family. By the end of 2006, however, another opportunity came knocking, thanks to James E. Dunlap, regional group president for Huntington Bank’s West Michigan region.

James E. Dunlap, regional group president for Huntington Bank’s West Michigan region.

“When the previous [East Michigan] president Bruce Nyberg retired, we had an opening. We run a decentralized business model, so it’s a serious and significant role and we are very careful about who we put into it,” says Dunlap, who has been with Huntington for 30 years. “I knew Rebecca by reputation through her work at NBD and Fifth Third.”

Dunlap’s interview with Rebecca left no doubt she was the right candidate and she was hired in December 2006 as the East Michigan region president.

“I interview for personal values and they need to align with corporate values. Rebecca knows exactly who she is and exactly what she stands for. She resists the temptation to represent herself as something else. She is completely comfortable with her moral compass,” recalls Dunlap. “She did stand out because of her confidence. I would suggest when you know who people really are and they can display that to you during the interview process, they won’t disappoint or surprise you. I have not been disappointed nor surprised by Rebecca.”

In addition to personal character, of course, was Smith’s impressive résumé.

“She had deep and intimate knowledge of the SE Michigan market and it was important to me to find talent in that marketplace because there’s a shorter learning curve,” says Dunlap, noting other pluses -“ including Smith’s “ability to recruit significant talent and an impeccable reputation, professionally and personally.”

Her experience as a senior credit officer was also a notable accomplishment in Dunlap’s eyes. “That is a challenging marketplace. You have to be very good at picking winners from losers upfront.”

While leaders at Smith’s level must have business skills, Dunlap notes that leadership ability is equally important. He should know -“ in addition to overseeing the daily operations of the West Michigan region, Dunlap also watches over Huntington’s operations in the rest of the state, along with north Ohio and Pennsylvania. Smith and four other regional presidents answer to Dunlap, who in turn, reports to the company’s chairman.

“Rebecca projects a style -“ soft spoken but clear. She will make the tough decisions that are required. When you have that kind of balance in a person it’s an attractive blend of someone you want to work for,” says Dunlap.

Sharon Speyer, Huntington’s Northwest Ohio regional president, also recognizes her peer’s strengths.

Sharon Speyer, Huntington’s Northwest Ohio regional president.

“Rebecca is passionate about her job and the people who work with her. She is exceedingly intelligent, competitive, as well as personable,” says Speyer. “She strives for excellence and creates an environment that fosters that philosophy. Rebecca is grounded and confident, which enables her to relate to both customers and associates alike.”

Dunlap’s impressions of Smith have served the bank well.

In just a short time, Smith has overseen the opening of seven branches in the region -“ including two scheduled to open this year. Huntington’s 570 associates in 44 bank offices in Southeast Michigan are responsible for commercial and retail banking activities, making it the eighth largest bank here in terms of deposit market share.

“We look at the Southeast Michigan market as an attractive consumer deposit market,” says Dunlap. “Rebecca put together a plan and business case for the new branches and they are performing exactly as she said they would.”

Smith has also been busy assembling a leadership team, which includes heads of corporate banking, commercial real estate, marketing and a regional credit officer -“ all recruited in the last 18 months.

“All of them came to the company in some way, shape or form because of Rebecca,” says Dunlap.

Keeping Priorities Straight
Amidst all this professional activity, Smith never loses sight of what’s important.

“I have been blessed with the responsibility of parenting three beautiful children. I blend all that I am into that,” says Smith. “I believe that by working all these years, providing for them, providing a great role model for them, that I have been able to channel that passion in a balanced way -“ through my career and my parenting.”

Dave, her husband of 27 years, has also played a big role. He’s now a stay at home dad, and also operates a small property management company and consumer computer assistance business.

Smith’s five siblings, all located in the area, also make up her close knit family -“ a consideration that has prompted her to turn down a career opportunity.

“When the bank asked me to move to Ohio, I was very interested because I thought it would advance my career,” explains Smith. “In the end, it wasn’t going to work out and my husband and I said no. I worried a lot that it was going to put my career on hold, but looking back I was glad I didn’t take it. I wouldn’t want to have moved away from my siblings.”

Besides family, faith and community have also been important anchors in Smith’s life.

A long-time member and Sunday school teacher at St. James Episcopal Church in Birmingham, four years ago Smith was asked to head up its “Journey to Adulthood” program.

Created to help teens cope with society, their own spirituality and issues they will face as adults, Journey program leaders take nine to 10 students on a spiritual pilgrimage, usually in the summer of their 10th grade year. In 2007, Smith took a co-ed group to France.

“The program is about decision making and that’s where they chose to go,” explains Smith. The group visited a number of early Christian sites in north France including Chartres (home to the Cathedral of Chartres), as well as walked part of The Way of St. James, a Christian pilgrimage route ending at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the apostle, Saint James, are buried. The group also visited the D-day landing sites in Normandy.

“It really isn’t so much about the place, so much as what you are doing together as a group and being on a journey without your parents,” says Smith, adding that the teens travel with a male and female leader. Her minister also joined the trip.

“It was a wonderful experience,” says Smith. “Two of my children had gone through that program and I wanted to give back because the leader cannot be related to teens in the group.”

Reflections on the Journey
As Smith reflects on her career and life, she mentions many aspects, including “parents who believed in the value of education, my personal commitment to faith and family, and being accountable for my actions.”

When asked what advice she has for other women aspiring to leadership, Smith says, “Know who you are, what you want to achieve, identify your non-negotiables, and be open to all sources of feedback and help.”

She also credits her success to “integrity, humility, sense of humor and the acceptance of responsibility of her area of influence.”

In today’s tumultuous financial times, hearing those words from a banker are reassuring.

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Richard Blanchard
Rick is the Managing Editor of Corp! magazine. He has worked in reporting and editing roles at the Port Huron Times Herald, Lansing State Journal and The Detroit News, where he was most recently assistant business editor. A native of Michigan, Richard also worked in Washington state as a reporter, photographer and editor at the Anacortes American. He received a bachelor of arts from the University of Michigan and a master’s in accountancy from the University of Phoenix.