Chief Risk Officer, Huntington Bancshares

Huntington Bancshares pulled the trigger on the largest acquisition in its history because it had Helga Houston on its side.

As chief risk officer, Houston developed a risk due diligence process that was used to evaluate Huntington's $3.4 billion deal for FirstMerit in Akron, Ohio. The process included making sure management and the board understood the risk and return and that it aligned with the company's strategy and capital policy. Analyzing both companies' risk profiles on a stand-alone basis and then combined was also essential, Houston said.

"This deal takes us from $70 billion to $100 billion of assets so it could fundamentally change who we were as a company," Houston said. "We wanted to make sure we had clear transparency and that it was consistent with Huntington's risk appetite."

Houston's due diligence framework on the deal was "impressive" and her evaluation "proved vital" in the decision to buy FirstMerit, said Steven Elliott, who chairs the Huntington's risk oversight committee and a former senior vice chairman at the Bank of New York Mellon.

The Columbus company will be using the risk due diligence that Houston developed to evaluate future deals as well, said Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Stephen Steinour. He described Houston as "unflappable" and said her due diligence work was some of the best he had seen in his career.

"Ten years ago when you acquired a bank, you almost got a fresh start," Steinour said. "But now we need to know the issues facing us from the acquired institution. Having a comprehensive risk management approach is vital."

Now that the deal is closed, Houston is concentrating on integrating FirstMerit and converting it over to Huntington's systems in the first quarter of next year. She is also focused on making sure Huntington has the proper controls in place to make sure a small problem doesn't become a crisis.

"A small problem can become big very quickly so we need to focus on the controls and making sure that as we add new businesses and processes that we have quick escalation," Houston said.

Houston's influence extends beyond Huntington as well. She is the incoming chair of the Risk Management Association's board and helped to found the Risk Institute at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business. The institute is a forum for industry leaders and academics dedicated to improving risk management.

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