Lisa Binder's first stretch on the job as president and COO hasn't been easy. Associated Banc-Corp, Wisconsin's second-largest bank, has been hit hard by the housing crisis. "When you look at our numbers, the area that shows the most stress is the provisions," says Binder, who took the job early last year after running a regional retail banking division at Citizens Financial.

In the first half of 2008, Associated posted net income of $114 million, down 24 percent from the same period a year ago. Loan loss provisions soared to $82 million, from $10 million the year before, driven by losses in commercial real estate and construction loans. The provisions also hit the return on equity, which fell to 9.67 percent on June 30, from 13.42 percent the year before.

The bank, which has $22.3 billion in assets and 5,200 employees, isn't alone in its challenges with an unforgiving market environment. But it's what one does to move ahead during times of crisis that defines a leader. Case in point: Associated's management team is taking a hard look at what could have been done better, and examining everything from underwriting standards to loan monitoring. "Our job as leaders is to understand how we can mitigate these factors in the next cycle," she says.

Binder started preparing for this kind of down-cycle even before the storm hit. Since joining Associated, she's focused on growing its corporate fee-based business, including cash and treasury management, and made heavy investments in staff and technology. She expanded the foreign exchange desk, and helped build out a derivatives team. "We've been a benefactor of building out all of those fee-based businesses ahead of the credit crisis. These businesses have helped buffer our earnings," she says. Core fee-based revenue was $259 million in the twelve months ended June 30, up seven percent on the year. The net-interest margin also held strong, hitting 3.61 percent on June 30, compared to 3.57 percent the year before.

Paul Beideman, Associated's chairman and CEO, needs this kind of go-getter on the front lines right now. "Lisa has been extremely effective during this most challenging time in the banking industry," he says. "She has focused on the successful execution of our strategy and has achieved positive results in household and revenue growth," he adds, referring to revenue growth of three percent in the 12 months ended June 30, and household growth of 14 percent in the second quarter.

For Binder, a dog-lover and an aficionado of Wisconsin's outdoors, it's not just all about numbers. Since joining, she has focused on creating a "culture of caring" among her staff and has introduced quarterly town hall meetings. "We're on a journey. This isn't about a quick fix today and throwing out the old," she says. "This is a very good company I've walked into, and this is about how to progressively move in the right direction so we can become a great company."

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