Maura Markus, president and chief operating officer of Bank of the West, is one of only two women on the bank's senior executive team. She joined the San Francisco-based lender in March 2010, following a 22-year career at Citigroup, where she was head of international retail banking operations from 2007 until 2009. Her rise up the ranks at Citigroup's retail bank and then on to the C-suite at Bank of the West, the 24th largest bank in the U.S. by assets and a unit of BNP Paribas, started when she was a branch manager at Citi in New York at 29.
Markus, now 53, presides over a bank network that spans 19 states and has over 700 branches.
FINS spoke with her about succeeding in a male-dominated business, her best interview advice and why international travel can help advance your career.
FINS: How important were mentors in your career?
Maura Markus: I never had formal mentors but I always maintained good relationships with the people I had worked for before.
What I often tell people as they're starting a career is to have a lot of people who think really highly of you. If you have the ability to work for different people, one in this city, one in that country, you build a reputation. One person says, "I think she's great," the next person says "Yes, me too."
Don't just stick with one boss. Work for different people and have a number of people who can speak to your strengths. But, it's important that you don't jump too often. You need to stay at a place long enough to show the good you've done there.
FINS: What can women do to rise to the top echelons of power in a male-dominated industry?
MM: You need to build a track record of success and be a team player. And not just worry about your own business. You need to be a contributor to the overall health of the company.
Also raise your hand and take on more than just your job, whether it's helping start some kind of special project or leading a task force. It's good to have a healthy sense of competition.
FINS: How did you work your way up the ladder?
MM: There were a couple of things. Taking a profit and loss job early on when most other branch managers were not women and not in their 20s. It was a male dominated business.
Moving back and forth between staff and line served me well. For instance running a business and then going to do a marketing role.
It's also really important to be a straight shooter, for people to see you're for real. People see you're sincere and you build credibility.
Some of us had the benefit of great schools, but entering the workforce we're all equal. You also need to stay in a job long enough to show that you made it better.
FINS: You went to Boston College. What did you study? Were you planning on going into banking?
MM: I studied sociology and psychology. I had no idea I was going to go into banking. I had put myself through college and had student loans so I started working in a retail stock brokerage firm on a temporary basis. I realized that this was something I was interested in. I liked the people, client interaction and the intellectual challenge.
FINS: Then on to Harvard Business School.
MM: When I was at HBS I did my summer internship at Citigroup. I worked for the woman who was running HR for the entire company. That was pretty instrumental in my being interested in joining Citi because I spent the summer working with people in human resources and staffing development all over the world. I got to see what it was like to work for a global company that felt small. When I graduated from business school I joined Citi.
FINS: In what capacity?
MM: My ultimate goal was to run a business. I joined the consumer bank in New York. I started as the chief of staff for a marketing director but pretty early on in my career I took a profit and loss job. I ran the third biggest branch in New York with a staff of 60 people. It was my first taste of running a small business. I was promoted to run a group of branches in midtown Manhattan -- some of the biggest branches in the entire network. I managed about 500 people and had full P&L responsibility.
Then I took a marketing strategy job that covered all of the U.S. The vice chairman of Citi at the time wanted the entire globe -- all the franchises -- to have a more common customer experience. We implemented a different branch design that was much more modern as well as a new technology platform. I did that for a couple of years. What was great was that it was a job global in nature. I was the rep from U.S. and worked with the person who had my job in Latin America, Europe and Asia. It allowed me to see how we ran our retail businesses.
I had always wanted to work overseas so I moved to Europe as a sales and marketing director based out of Brussels. I did that for two and half years. Then I moved to Athens and ran Citibank Greece. We were building our branches and growing. Then I moved back to the U.S. and became president of Citibank North America from 2000 to 2007.
FINS: What happened in 2007?
MM: From 2007 to 2009 I ran international retail banking. I got to live in New York but my job was to work with the businesses in the 43 countries where we had branches. We discussed three-year strategies and which country should be the priority; what were the financial hurdles that were to be achieved based on the investment and opportunity. At the time, so much of the growth was in Asia, Latin America, Korea, the BRIC countries and Turkey.
FINS: Why and when did you ultimately leave Citi?
MM: I left Citigroup in the first quarter of 2009. The company had undergone a major restructuring. Citi was having certain challenges and reducing costs, selling off businesses. It was a really tough time for Citi. I did some consulting between 2009 and 2010 and joined Bank of the West in March 2010.
FINS: What attracted you to Bank of the West?
MM: It has 700 branches and a great reputation for customer service. When I was at Citi I knew of their reputation. The bank was also expanding. It's more than the branches, though. We have RV and marine lending businesses. We're a corporate bank. We have wealth management. I was attracted to the diversity of all the businesses. That our parent is BNP Paribas, which operates in over 80 countries, was interesting to me as well.
FINS: Has your global experience at Citigroup informed your tenure at Bank of the West?
MM: When you have to work in different cultures and different regulatory environments, it gives you a broader experience from which to draw.
FINS: Is most of your travel domestic these days?
MM: We have some meetings with our parent company but it's mostly domestic.
FINS: What are some of your goals for the bank? Are you expanding the bank's wealth management and small business lending?
MM: We are firmly on our way back to profitability through the third quarter. We're feeling really good about our third quarter earnings. We've introduced new products this year and so far we are investing and building out the franchise. We have divisions within corporate banking like church lending and agricultural lending. We want to have a bigger share of our customers' financial wallets with us and achieve synergies between the business lines.
FINS: Does that mean more hiring is on the way?
MM: We have been hiring people selectively and we have plans to further hire to support our growth initiatives.
FINS: Do you have any advice for doing well in a job interview?
MM: Applicants should be comfortable with themselves and be able to speak in a confident manner. They should have done some research on the company and should say how they might contribute.
FINS: Is there anything they could do that would be a complete turnoff?
MM: If all they did was talk about how great they were, that would be a nonstarter.
FINS: You've traveled all over the world. Is global experience on a resume important to you?
MM: Travel is not always as glamorous as it sounds, but [the applicant and I] would have an interesting conversation. You need to understand the local customs. The worst thing you can say is "I'm from New York and this is how we do it." People who do well in international finance are people who keep an open mind and listen.