Diane D'Erasmo can't type. Her mom didn't want her to learn when she was growing up.

"She felt that if somebody knew you knew how to type that they would make you sit at a typewriter and type and be a secretary," she says.

Not to disparage secretaries, but D'Erasmo says her mother - a successful accountant - wanted her daughter to be able to select from a broad range of opportunities. She got her wish, and today, D'Erasmo is executive vice president and regional president in charge of commercial banking in the northeastern U.S. for HSBC North America Holdings Inc., the country's fifth-largest bank.

D'Erasmo says her reliance on two-finger typing hasn't held her back, although she has had to endure a few snickers while hunting and pecking at her keyboard. She credits her people skills with taking her to the top of the banking world, with personal connections helping her move from accounting to commercial lending early in her career. Now she's relying on those skills to help steer her division through the recession. Like all lenders, HSBC has been hard hit and impaired loans in D'Erasmo's unit have risen while credit extended to customers has fallen.

HSBC doesn't break out her unit's performance, but the broader U.S. commercial banking group is the second-most profitable of HSBC's four primary U.S. divisions. Commercial banking earned $224 million during the first six months of 2009, off from $430 million for the same period last year.

D'Erasmo says one of her secrets to success is building a good rapport with clients so that her team can understand and address their needs.

"I think that a lot of businesses today are struggling," she says. "We have tried to take the approach of being proactive.... If you are having problems, maybe I can help you."

Her boss, Christopher Davies, the senior executive vice president in charge of U.S. commercial banking, described D'Erasmo as "a first-class senior executive."

"Technically, she is extremely strong," he says. "She's the strongest client person I've ever come across. She's an advocate for her clients. She's been with a lot of them for a long time."

Davies says her breadth of experience - D'Erasmo has been in banking for 25 years - enables her to give her clients "sound advice on how to manage through this period."

While helping her clients work through problems, D'Erasmo says she is also taking advantage of the economic upheaval to grow. Her division is using HSBC's global presence as a selling point to potential borrowers that also do a lot of cross-border business. She says there is also a chance to ramp up specialty lending, particularly in the apparel business.

"We're still going after new business; we have the balance sheet to go after business," she says. "I'm fortunately, knock on wood, having another good year this year."

D'Erasmo makes sure her life isn't consumed by work. She makes time for family and recently watched a teen flick with two of her three daughters. She surprised herself, and them, by crying at the end. "I'm a softie," she says. "It was a sappy ending."

D'Erasmo, who flashes a big smile often and easily, also gives back to the community. She sits on the board of Junior Achievement of Northeastern New York Inc., a business group that helps educate children. This summer, she and members of her department spent a day cleaning up a park in New York and another day teaching financial literacy to middle-school students.

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