Ellen Costello, president and chief executive of Harris Bankcorp in Chicago, refuses to let the economic downturn get her or her 4,000 employees down.

"As the environment got more difficult, we really got everyone focused on what they can do, not what they can't," Costello said. "It has made everyone more positive and constructive."

What Harris can do, and has done, is focus on customer needs, which means everything from reaching out to retail customers to assure them of the bank's soundness, to stepping up efforts in business banking.

The $50.1 billion-asset company's commercial banking division hired 40 business bankers in the past year and grew its revenue 40 percent year-over-year through June 30, while new accounts increased 60 percent.

Still, she acknowledges that businesses aren't too eager to take on new loans these days. "We're finding that the customers are dealing with right-sizing their business...that has driven loan demand down," she says. "So our objective remains to establish these new relationships even if they are not borrowing. We feel they will still be very valuable for the future.

In the company's third quarter, which ended June 30, Harris, a unit of BMO Financial Group, reported a loss of $10 million, compared to income of $72 million a year earlier. Those results include the company's Harris Bank as well as its private banking and capital markets divisions. The bank, which is Costello's focus, remained in the black, with income of $21 million, down 30 percent from a year earlier.

Beyond the financials, Harris also measures employee engagement. In the three years that Costello has been at the helm, the company's enterprise employee engagement, a measure that indicates employee dedication, has increased six percentage points, to 74 percent.

The company also won a customer satisfaction nod from J.D. Power and Associates this year, and its call center was recently certified as a center of excellence by Purdue University's Center for Customer-Driven Quality, a highly coveted designation that only 10 percent of applicants receive, according to Costello.

Those designations are likely a result of initiatives such as the creation of a team dedicated to helping retail borrowers who are struggling, and the wealth management arm's efforts to help retail customers plan for their future.

Deirdre Drake, senior vice president of human resources for Harris, credits Costello's management approach. "I think her open and affable style gives our customers and employees the reassurance that we are going to be at the top of our game at the end" of the financial crisis, she says. "She is conscious of the fact that you shouldn't lower your head."

Since arriving from New York, where she served as head of BMO's investment banking group, Costello has been growing Harris through acquisitions. Costello has engineered three deals and says she is looking for more.

Asked to identify her key to success, Costello said simply: "I don't believe there is anything we can't do. If it gets tough, I get more determined."

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