Leader, Mentor, Retail Bank Innovator: Terri Dial's Legacy

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The banking industry lost one of its most prominent women a year ago with the death of Terri Dial. As a leader, a mentor and a C-suite veteran in a male-dominated business, she left a void that has yet to be filled.

Dial spent four decades helping to run some of the country's biggest banks, including Wells Fargo (WFC) and Citigroup (NYSE:C). Her death from pancreatic cancer at age 62 widened a persistent gap in the industry's top ranks, where women are still struggling to find equal footing — or, once there, to keep it.

"Terri had a pretty substantial impact on the industry — she mentored so many women, and I'm not sure who takes her place in that regard. There's a big hole there in the last two or three years," says Lynn Carter, who retired in late 2011 as the president of Capital One (COF).

Carter, who worked for Dial at Wells Fargo and became one of her closest friends, last month went to Miami to attend a memorial organized by Dial's husband, Brian Burry. About 25 of Dial's friends, family and former colleagues traveled to the event, which was held on Feb. 28, the first anniversary of her death. Ahead of the memorial, several friends shared their memories of Dial and reflected about how the industry has changed without her.

"There are very few women who have done as much as Terri to further women's careers," Deborah McWhinney, chief operating officer of Citigroup's global enterprise payments unit, said in an email.

Other women hired and mentored by Dial called her legacy immeasurable.

"Any time you're working in an industry and there's an iconic person — and she really was — who you can look up to and say, 'Wow, she's done it,' people rally around it," says Margaret Kane, a consultant who started her banking career when Dial hired her at Wells Fargo in 1988. "That's her lasting impact."

Dial's death marked the start of a difficult year for senior women in banking, whose numbers are still relatively few and far between.

At Citigroup, where Dial spent two years trying to revamp the troubled consumer bank before stepping down, all 13 of the executives reporting directly to Chief Executive Michael Corbat are men. (His chief of staff is a woman.) Dial's eventual successor, Cece Stewart, is the only woman on Corbat's operating committee, and is reportedly under pressure to improve results.

There are some signs of progress, at least in the lower ranks; Citigroup got top marks for corporate diversity in a Calvert International survey released last week. And the industry can boast a few high-ranking women executives: JPMorgan Chase (JPM) recently promoted Marianne Lake to chief financial officer (although chief investment officer Ina Drew left last year after the London Whale trading losses). Irene Dorner runs HSBC's U.S. businesses, and this year was named to its top management board, while KeyCorp's (KEY) Beth Mooney in 2011 became the first woman CEO of a top-20 U.S. bank.

But at the largest U.S. banks, visible and powerful women have become most notable for their departures. Few current executives have achieved the same prominence of Dial or Sallie Krawcheck, who was pushed out of Bank of America (BAC) in 2011. Several people interviewed for this article also compared Dial and her influence to Barbara Desoer, B of A's well-respected former head of mortgages, who retired last year after her role was gradually diminished.

"The industry is going through immense change, and I think that sense of uncertainty is probably really challenging, and I think having a void with someone like Terri's talent at a time like this is pretty big," says Carter. "I don't see a lot of women in the executive suites these days, so I hope someone's paying attention to it."

Dial's legacy goes beyond her role as a mentor to other women. Her obituaries last year made much of her energy, her determination and her "Human Cyclone" nickname. They spent less time on her contributions to the banking industry, starting as a teller at Wells Fargo. Almost three decades later, she retired as head of its California operations, and later joined the U.K.'s Lloyds TSB Group as the first American head of consumer banking. In 2008 Citigroup hired her as CEO of its North American consumer banking unit; in 2009, American Banker named her No. 10 on its annual list of the industry's most powerful "Women to Watch."

Over the course of that career, Dial reshaped the model for retail banking and small-business lending, her former colleagues said.

"She was always an incredible innovator, always pushing for the next thing that would help to transform the business … as the notion of a retail bank was just emerging," says Kane. "She was really the critical innovator in the industry when it came to Saturday banking, in-store banking, longer hours. Those things really happened on her watch — figuring out how we can offer this to customers while lowering the cost" to the bank.

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