Washington Mutual's loss of retail banking executive Julie Rossi three years ago ended up being FirstMerit Bank's gain.

After leaving Seattle to return to the Midwest to help care for an ill family member, Grossi received a call from FirstMerit asking if she'd be interested in joining the Akron, Ohio, bank as its head of retail banking. Grossi agreed, partly because it was an easy commute, but also because, as she puts it, the retail side of the $11 billion-asset bank "needed a little tender loving care."

In early 2007, FirstMerit consolidated its nine regions, each with its own chief executive officer, into one to improve efficiency and develop a more cohesive brand. Grossi was put in charge of creating "uniformity" among retail products, which previously had been developed and managed regionally.

The crowning achievement for Grossi and her team has been the development and launch of the bank's Reality Checking, in which FirstMerit will deposit five cents into a customer's checking for each debit card transaction, electronic bill payment and direct deposit. The account can also be paired with a savings account.

The new product line has helped the bank grow demand deposit account balances by more than 75 percent over the past two years and the bank is on a path to grow DDA balances by 20 percent this year, "at a time when that's the hardest money to get," she says. In the 10 years prior to Grossi's arrival, the bank's number of household accounts had declined, but Grossi says the number has increased over the last two years, thanks largely to the new checking and savings products. Grossi says that the Reality Checking product has "worked not only to provide account and revenue growth, it's also pulled us together collectively and unified our brand."

Grossi's division managed to increase its profits by 20 percent through the second quarter of 2009 over 2008, and increased revenue 15 percent during the same span. Perhaps more importantly, the surge of non-interest-bearing deposits has helped to decrease the cost of funding deposits by $70 million during her tenure.

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