Colleen Johnston is taking swimming lessons this fall, as she works toward her goal of completing a sprint triathlon. Mind you, she has a fear of swimming.

"It's one of those lifelong challenges that I have never conquered," says Johnston, the chief financial officer at the $505 billion-asset TD Bank Financial Group in Toronto.

Though she is cautious about overpromising - "We'll see if I can get there. I think I can" - her success with corporate initiatives suggests she has the tenacity to get there indeed. Since Johnston became the founding chairman of TD's Women in Leadership Committee in late 2005, the representation of women in executive positions at the company has increased by half, to 33 percent.

Over the past year she also headed an initiative that cut $250 million of annual expenses simply by negotiating better deals with suppliers. Ed Clark, the company's president and chief executive officer, heaps praise on Johnston, calling her a visionary leader who is instrumental in TD's overall success. Her expertise in risk management, which helped TD avoid pitfalls like subprime mortgage lending in the U.S., continues to be evident in the company's strong performance through the recession, Clark says. In its fiscal third quarter, which ended July 31, the company reported a 17 percent increase in net income from a year earlier, after adjusting for unusual items.

Despite the challenging environment, TD decided against contracting; it wants to emerge from the crisis with its business model of enthusiastic customer service and convenience intact. So the focus instead became how to wring out savings without cutting employees or branches, Johnston says.

The effort began last year after the company bought Commerce Bancorp in Cherry Hill, N.J., now rechristened TD Bank. Johnston says that TD now has about 1,100 branches on each side of the border and bills itself as "the first truly North American bank," which has helped to increase its buying power. "That's a huge advantage we have now."

Johnston's financial savvy is matched by her people skills, according to Clark, who says she has a rare combination of talent that makes her a great manager and a great spokesperson.

"There's nobody that understands better how we make money and the risks we're taking ... she's obviously so much in command," Clark says.

Johnston says Clark himself is passionate about diversity, which helps ensure efforts like the Women in Leadership Committee - which facilitates networking, mentoring and career planning for women - thrive.

She is also pleased that colleagues feel the effort is working. In an internal survey last year, nearly 80 percent of respondents agreed that the company had made "significant progress" with its initiatives for women, she says.

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