A shift from managing a large group of relationship managers at a money center bank in Chicago to the new role of building a dominant regional and middle market franchise at Associated -- that is the career trajectory of Donna Smith.
As Associated Bank's Executive Vice President and head of Regional and Middle-market Commercial Banking, she is responsible for regional and middle-market commercial banking across the footprint of the organization. Her groups support existing client needs and business development with new relationships.
Not included are specialized industries such as oil and gas, financial institutions or treasury management. But that leaves her with enormous responsibilities. And indeed, she wears many hats in this role, working closely with John Utz, the head of Specialized Industries.
"You have to be a master of multitasking," Donna said in a recent interview from her office in downtown Chicago's Aon Center. "You begin the day with a plan to accomplish A, B, C and D that day. And invariably you end up working on L, M, N, O and P. It's part of the magic of what we do here."
Her favorite task?
"I love being a coach and advocate for my colleagues and our clients," she said. "We have an amazing organization, and part of my job is being an ambassador for our bank and the people who make it great."
She likens commercial banking to a restaurant offering a huge menu of services to customers. "We want our clients to make multiple selections -- appetizers, soup, salad, dessert. With relationship building, we solidify long term annuity business as we provide an array of services for our clients from private banking to capital markets."
Donna came to Associated with 30 years' experience in banking. After earning her MBA from Northwestern, she launched her career at Harris Bank, and eventually landed at LaSalle Bank – the place to be for Chicago's middle-market finance at the time, she said.
She built a middle-market division from the ground up for LaSalle, and advanced to Group Leader. Then, when Bank of America acquired the organization, she was named a market executive for companies with revenues up to $2 billion.
"I learned a great deal in terms of new processes and procedures from Bank of America. But it's a bank that supports retail and mid- to large-cap relationships. If you're a $75 million distributor or manufacturer, it's difficult to move the needle there."
Making a difference
Donna stayed put for three years before being recruited with the compelling opportunity to attract talent and develop a recognized regional and middle-market franchise in Chicago.
"It was a tremendous opportunity – a chance to take a bank that was not on anyone's radar screen as a formidable competitor in Chicago, and to build a team that will ultimately make an enormous difference to any number of companies and people! How could I resist such a challenge?"
She made the move in June of 2010 and has never regretted it.
"I'm having a wonderful time. And we're making tremendous progress. It's early yet, but we're already seeing lift in our surveys, indicating that awareness of Associated is growing in the business community. We're also getting great feedback on the quality of our relationship managers and are attracting a number of new relationships."
One year after joining Associated, she was promoted to her current position. But her vision hasn't changed.
"We are focused on becoming the dominant middle-market provider in the upper Midwest. And I have no doubt that we will be successful."
Ask her about small companies she has helped to grow over the years and she'll regale you with stories of bakeries, Tier 2 suppliers and contract manufacturers that she helped boost to great heights of success.
"We really are able to make a difference in people's lives. And as these companies grow and prosper, it creates huge growth opportunities for our bank as well."
Beyond the office
Donna is passionate about her work and successful market penetration by Associated across the footprint. "There is such turbulence in financial services," she said, "and we are among the most well-capitalized banks in the country, with a strong deposit base and outstanding talent. We are well-positioned to add new logos. Why not Associated?" But there's more to her life – including her lawyer husband and two adult children. She also volunteers her expertise in her community, serving on the boards of the metropolitan Chicago YWCA and the Adler Planetarium. She plays golf and is a perennial gardener.
Still, you get the distinct feeling with Donna that there's not much she enjoys more than being in the market with her colleagues and clients, seeing how her To Do list is evolving and celebrating the wins with new relationships.
"With a middle-market client, you become so intertwined with the company and its owners that you can see the value you're creating, year after year. And as it grows, you know you're a key element in their success. What could be more gratifying?"