1. Irene Dorner

Irene Dorner's edge lies in her authenticity.

When the CEO of HSBC USA speaks, it feels real, not only because of the honesty and confidence she conveys, but because of the actions backing up the words. "If I am committed, then you'll get 200 percent, total energy; it will happen," Dorner says. "This is what I do."

Her current commitment: changing the culture at HSBC, where the 17,000 people who work for her are on notice that Dorner is demanding more from them.

HSBC has made some big missteps in the United States, from its 2003 purchase of subprime lender Household International to more recent problems in compliance with anti-money laundering rules. Dorner, an Oxford-trained lawyer who has spent most of her 33-year career with HSBC, was dispatched to New York in 2010 to help the company's U.S. business regroup.

Testifying on Capitol Hill this summer, she showed why it was smart to entrust her with the task. She struck just the right notes of respectfulness, resoluteness and reconciliation with the Senate panel probing the bank's AML problems. She promised to fix things, and left no room for doubt that she would.

"Irene connects on a personal level with employees, customers, industry colleagues and government officials," says her boss, Stuart Gulliver, Group CEO for London-based HSBC Holdings Plc. "Her words, like her actions, convey integrity and empathy. This combined with her keen business judgment makes Irene one of our most effective senior leaders."

Rebuilding the brand has meant more than just words.

"I have clawed back. I have sacked people. I have reduced people's bonuses," an unapologetic Dorner says. Her motivation for cleanings things up go beyond her concerns for HSBC.

"These crises ... just seem to keep coming down the pike," Dorner says of the industry's string of scandals this year. "I don't distinguish between our reputation and my competitors' reputations. Anything that happens now in the industry pulls us all down a notch."

Bringing things back to her $190 billion-asset slice of HSBC, she says, "One of the things that I am trying to get through to our entire bank is I would rather you walked away from a piece of business that has a question mark next to it than do it in order to boost your bottom line. I am looking for sustainability."

Dorner's career has been on fire the last few years, as she moved from CEO of HSBC Malaysia to CEO of HSBC Bank USA to her current role. A serious health scare didn't slow her down. Last fall, Dorner learned she had ovarian cancer. She underwent six months of chemotherapy and had surgery in May.

"It was an enormous shock," Dorner, 56, says of the diagnosis. "It was not in my game plan at all. But I was the luckiest person in the world" to have a surgeon discover the cancer while treating an unrelated problem.

Her overall fitness level and positive attitude (she says it never really occurred to her she might die) helped her cope. Now cancer-free, she says, "It has made me hugely grateful for everything that I've got. I am much more appreciative of home, husband, holidays, work, everything."

2. Beth Mooney
Chairman And CEO, Keycorp

• Doubled net income attributable to common shareholders from the prior year, to $857 million, and reduced nonperforming assets 36%, to $859 million-results so strong that the number of financial analysts with buy ratings on the company tripled by yearend, from four to 12

• Won regulatory approval of a capital plan that included a dividend increase and a $344 million share repurchase program

• Joined Key in 2006 as the top executive of the 14-state community banking unit and led it through the financial crisis, making acquisitions as competitors retreated

• Took over as chairman and CEO in the spring of 2011, becoming the first female to lead a top 20 independent U.S. bank

3. Karen Peetz
Vice Chairman And CEO For Financial Markets And Treasury Services, BNY Mellon

• Responsible for business units that contributed 40% of the company's total revenue and 64% of its pretax income in 2011

• Developed and launched a formal program to drive innovation, an initiative that generated $101 million for her business units last year and that is being adopted across the company, with Peetz as executive sponsor

•Selected as chair of the Board of Trustees at Pennsylvania State University this year, to help one of the nation's largest universities navigate an especially challenging time in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal involving a former football coach

4. Ellen Alemany
Chairman And CEO, RBS Citizens Financial Group, And Head Of RBS Americas

• Delivered net income of $506 million last year, up substantially from $11 million in 2010, after a net loss of $740 million in 2009; Standard & Poor's recognized this positive momentum by upgrading the credit ratings of the group's two banking units, RBS Citizens and Citizens Bank of Pennsylvania, by one notch to A/A1 in December

• Deepened customer relationships in 2011, with online banking use increasing to 47% of checking customers, from 42% the prior year, and deposit households with a consumer loan rising to 29%, from 25% the prior year

• Added capital markets team that started small in 2010, but expanded to quickly become a top 10 middle market lead arranger in the United States for 2011

• On the board and executive committee of the Financial Services Roundtable, where she also serves as treasurer; and newly appointed to the board of Automated Data Processing, a Fortune 500 company

5. Pamela Joseph
Vice Chairman, Payment Services, U.S. Bancorp

• Implemented a plan to mitigate the $300 million in revenue lost annually due to the Durbin Amendment, without imposing major price changes on consumer cardholders

• Posted a 40% increase in credit card sign-ups at branches in 2011, through a strategy that included employee incentives and the hiring of dedicated support people to work daily with clusters of branches

• Rolled out a contactless EMV card in 2011, giving U.S. Bancorp bragging rights as the first U.S. bank to do so

• Was first in the market with an instant credit application both on a mobile phone (Apple and Android) and on the iPad, allowing co-branded card partners to provide immediate credit card approval for store purchases.

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