Mary Tuuk, chief risk officer for Fifth Third Bankcorp in Cinncinnati, is one of only two women in the bank's executive ranks. She joined the bank in 2001 when Fifth Third, the 23rd largest U.S. bank by assets, acquired Michigan's Old Kent Financial Corp., which operated 300 offices in the Midwest. Tuuk, 46, was Old Kent's chief legal counsel and corporate secretary.
FINS talked to her about her current job, her career and how she moved up in a male-dominated profession.
FINS: How did you work your way up the ladder? Can you speak to your experience with informal office politics?
Mary Tuuk: I'm a big believer in technical competency and working relationships or emotional intelligence. As an absolute precondition you have to have a demonstrated track record of credibility. You have to have that confidence that others in the organization would have in your ability to achieve what needs to be achieved for the company. At the same time, technical competence isn't enough. You need to engage not only with employees across the company but with constituencies outside of the company as well, like investors and regulators.
FINS: You hear tales of female marginalization in the finance industry all the time. How do women get more spots at the top?
There's no one silver bullet. Part of it is women have to be really proactive and disciplined to be open to new opportunities. As part of that, you develop business acumen for how the company makes money. Women should take on profit and loss responsibility in the early stages of their career. Beyond that, I really believe that it comes back to not only having that track record and competency, but having appropriate emotional intelligence.
We have a women's network that provides a lot of opportunity for women in the earlier stages of their career. It allows them to meet a lot of people in the company they wouldn't meet.
FINS: How important were mentors and sponsors in your career?
MT: I've had a couple of mentors along the way. There's never one person you can look at and say this has been the only one along the way. They tend to be more based on the situation or point in time. Mentors tend to be safe-harbor confidantes, the coach who can really provide that guidance. Sponsors aren't necessarily mentors. They sit inside the room when you're not there and they're advocates for your next step.
FINS: If someone wanted you to serve as a mentor or sponsor, how should they approach you?
MT: If they're coming to me, what I find most effective is natural rapport. For example, to get an email from someone you don't know saying "I'd like to sit down with you" is less likely to be effective because there's no natural baseline of rapport. What's most effective is the relationships that aren't forced but are developed through interaction.
FINS: Can you describe your path through risk management?
MT: My very first position was director of risk policy. It was at the time when the risk management position was just formed and the division was being built out. From there I expanded into other forms of risk management. The operational risk area, the compliance area, governance. I did risk policy for a couple of years.
FINS: Do you think your legal background helped? Is it a necessity to be a good chief risk officer?
MT: The best part of the legal background is it forces you to develop your analytic skills. It forces you to see issues and challenges from different perspectives. That's the part that's been most valuable in every aspect of my career. Seeing things from other perspectives helps you make the best decisions.
FINS: What are you most proud of during your tenure thus far?
MT: I'm most proud of the perseverance of our leadership team. We've had our challenges.
FINS: What did you do to face them?
MT: It meant being a lot more realistic about the challenges when others in the industry weren't as realistic. That allowed us to solve challenges more quickly. It's that ability I'm proud of -- the courage of conviction. Our biggest challenge was the impact of the credit losses on our capital levels and our earnings capacity. One of the things that we did early on in June 2008 was announce a plan to raise an additional three billion in capital. No one else was doing that. We did that based on stress testing -- well in advance of the government's stress test. We understood where we had asset sale opportunities. We took the opportunity to move some of the most troubled assets off our balance sheet before others did that. It's a combination of all those things.
FINS: As a CRO, how has your approach to risk management changed from before the financial crisis until now?
MT: Always looking inward and reflecting is a constant. The biggest aspect of risk management that's changed is there's a much bigger focus now on enterprise risk management. Risk management takes place across all categories of risk: credit, reputational, compliance, etc. It's much more holistic. We have in place a risk management structure that allows us to aggregate and correlate the effects of different events.
FINS: What did you study in undergrad and graduate school?
Mary Tuuk: I double majored in business and music at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After I graduated, I did a joint JD/MBA program at Indiana University. After I completed the four year program, I actually spent the first six years working for a law firm in Chicago called Chapman and Cutler. It's a firm that focuses more specifically on financial transactions. It came the closest to merging legal practice with financial and business skills.
What did you do there?
MT: The practice that I had there for six years was quite specialized. Back in the '90s there was heavy emphasis on leveraged leasing. After six years, I made a proactive decision to say "I don't think I want to continue down this road of complete specialization." At the time it was a very niche area of transactional law and I knew I wanted to move closer to a corporate environment.
FINS: How did you make the move?
MT: I had always spent a lot of time talking with clients asking about they did. I wanted to see if there were opportunities for in-house legal jobs in a corporate environment. Unexpectedly an opportunity became available with a bank in Western Michigan called Old Kent Bank. It didn't have a legal department so I joined as legal counsel and corporate secretary. They were at a point where they had someone internally lead the legal aspects. I did that for a couple of years.
Then a fairly big milestone occurred in 2001 when Old Kent merged with Fifth Third. I started out with a series of affiliates in the Western Michigan market and got into risk management for Fifth Third in 2003 and continued to take on series of different positions. I was appointed to this role in 2007.
FINS: Do you have any advice for doing well in a job interview?
MT: The best thing is to do is come well prepared with questions. Show employer you spent time researching the company. Always have more questions than you think you're going to need.
FINS: You majored in music and you're a singer. If people have outside interests like that on their resume, does that make them more attractive candidates?
MT: Absolutely I'd be more willing to hire them. Besides being a wonderful way to keep the balance and create additional grounding, those interests tell you something about that person's ability to build strong working relationships.
Write to Julie Steinberg