From Secretary To CEO: Beth Mooney Makes Banking History

From Secretary To CEO: Beth Mooney Makes Banking History

Jenna Goudreau. FORBES STAFF. I write about business and women’s leadership.

The newest CEO and Chairman of Cleveland, Ohio-based bank KeyCorp, Beth Mooney, 56, got an unlikely start. After graduating with a history degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1977, interviewers asked only if she could type. Mooney worked as a bank secretary making $10,000 a year before realizing she had bigger aspirations. (“I wasn’t very good at it,” she says. “I’m a bit of a whirling dervish.”) So in 1979, she took downtown Dallas “by storm,” knocking on the door of every big bank to demand acceptance into their management training programs. At the Republic Bank of Dallas, she refused to leave the manager’s office until he offered her a job. Three hours later, he acquiesced, provided she earned an MBA from Southern Methodist University by night.

Mooney never refused a new challenge and moved nine times in 16 years, working in every banking role from commercial and real estate lending to chief financial officer. Five years ago she came to Key as a vice chair, charged with planning and executing a new community banking strategy. It was so successful that the board tapped her as CEO, making her the first female chief of a top-20 U.S. bank and this year debuting at No. 96 on the Forbes list of the world’s 100 most powerful women.

Overseeing 15,000 employees and approximately $90 billion in assets, Mooney will need to steer the bank past one of its darker eras. After hemorrhaging money in 2008 and 2009 and a precipitous drop in stock value, it returned to profitability last year and repaid its $2.5 billion of TARP funds in March. But this isn’t a survival mission. Mooney plans to be the chief that takes Key “to the next level,” and she’s not the type to back down.

Jenna Goudreau: When you stepped into the role of KeyCorp’s chairman and CEO in May, you became the first female chief of a top-20 U.S. bank. How does it feel to be the first?

Beth Mooney: It garners more attention than I expected. Although one analyst said, ‘It’s a non-event that she’s a woman because the only thing that will matter to investors is the performance of the company.’ I think that’s right but also wrong. To women, it is a big deal. When I got promoted, I got hundreds of emails from women in the bank saying, ‘I hope it’s okay to say to the new CEO, you go girl!’ One even said, ‘I’ll walk a little taller and feel a little prouder because I work for a company with a female CEO.’ To be able to look up and see a woman at the helm is important to women. I take it as an opportunity and a responsibly to do this well.

Key suffered some dark years during the recession and in March became one of the last banks to repay its $2.5 billion in bailout funds. Is this still a turnaround mission?

The TARP money was not a bailout. It was originally given to banks that were deemed financially stable and viable. We were patient in deciding when to repay TARP because part of the requirement was that you needed to raise new equity—you had to issue stock. By waiting until our financial performance was stronger, we diluted our shareholders less. We are proud to have that chapter behind us. We’ve been profitable for five quarters and are building momentum for the future. I truly believe Key is past the inflection point.

How do you plan to restore investor confidence in a stock that’s lost almost 80% of its value since mid-2007?

One of the first planks of my 100-day plan was to go meet our investors. I spent 30 days on the road meeting the top third of our shareholders. In every single meeting, I said: ‘You are an owner of Key. Why do you own our stock, and what are your expectations?’ They were taken aback that someone would ask what they expected. Well, I learned a lot. They wanted to understand our strategy, how we would differentiate ourselves, and to ensure that we’d be disciplined. I’ve also been out meeting with our employees, making sure they hear from the new CEO that our future is bright.

What is your strategy going forward?

Community banking in our 20 local markets and 14 states should be grounded in great customer service while coupled with the capability of our corporate bank. The real distinctiveness is aligning those. I don’t see any competitor who has figured out how to take their Main Street banks and their corporate banks and go to market as one bank like Key.

Your physical building is also part of your brand. Our branches looked like Dairy Queen in an era of Starbucks. We have been consciously rebranding them with new lighting, new signage, flat-screen TVs and red countertops. We’ve been redoing as well as adding to our branch distribution. We’ve built 40 a year for the last three years and will build 40 more this year. So now when you drive by or walk into a Key branch it no longer looks like a Dairy Queen.

What will present the biggest challenges for you and Key’s performance?

The backdrop is a very weak, slow-growth economic recovery. Getting traction will be a challenge for everyone. There will be the potential for the industry to consolidate. I believe we should be positioned and poised for acquisitions. The industry will present those kinds of opportunities.

You started out as a bank secretary in 1977, and this year landed the No. 96 spot on our list of the world’s most powerful women. How did you do it?

When I first started out, I was looking for a job with a college degree and people asked me if I could type. It was the mid 1970s in the middle of a recession, so I said yes. I wasn’t very good at it. Back in the day, there were management training programs for bankers, and I decided to take downtown Dallas by storm. I went to every big bank and declared that I wanted into their program. Not many were receptive, but at the Republic Bank in Dallas they allowed me to meet the head of the training program. Once I got in the door, I wouldn’t leave until he offered me the job. I was in his office for three hours. He took a chance on me and made me promise to get an MBA at night.

I never had a five-year plan. I played my career more like a game of cards. You start with the hand you’re dealt, keep one and throw one. I always welcomed the opportunity to take a challenge and prove myself. I’ve been all over the banks—in commercial lending, real estate lending, workouts. I moved nine times in 16 years. I was CFO of what’s now Regions Bank in Birmingham, Alabama, before coming to Key in 2006 as vice chair of community banking. [Former Key CEO Henry Meyer] gave me a blank sheet of paper to not only create the strategy but execute it. It was the right place, team and moment in time.

What do you hope to say in your retirement speech?

I have two aspirations. I want to be the CEO that takes Key to the next level. We came through the financial crisis. We survived. How do we now thrive? Then, it’s not just what we do but how we do it. Get back to basics and do good business for good reasons. That would be the end in mind.

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