Just one woman leads risk management among the 15 largest banks. It is Mary Tuuk, the chief risk officer at Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati. And Tuuk, who reports to CEO Kevin Kabat, is bullish on the broad role risk managers play.

"What I think is really exciting about being in the risk function going forward is it's an opportunity to have impact in every single area of the business," Tuuk says. "Because you are able to view the business from a top-of-the-house perspective, your perspective by definition is going to be much more broad than if you have responsibility for a narrower segment of the business."

Not exactly dogma for business line executives, but Tuuk makes the case for the power of staff jobs.

"The age-old adage that you have to be able to manage a P&L and make money is still important, but I think the degree of importance has diminished in the last couple of years because, in this environment, it's about liquidity and capital before it's about earnings," she says. "The focus is now starting to come back to earnings."

In the meantime, Tuuk is driving Fifth Third to face its mistakes and shape its future. Long before regulators started stress-testing portfolios, Tuuk convinced senior management to do the same, and that exercise led to an $800 million net charge-off, mainly on commercial real estate loans. The company beefed up its loan-loss reserves to $2.8 billion, or $3.31 cents for every dollar of loans. Around the same time, in late 2008, Fifth Third moved the entire commercial credit function into Tuuk's Enterprise Risk Management division. She tightened underwriting standards, cut off lending to certain segments, set new concentration limits and reduced unused credit lines. A separate workout group, which now has 240 employees, was created and reports to Tuuk.

Biting the bullet early helped Fifth Third build capital and line up liquidity; it passed the government's stress test without having to raise any more capital. Tuuk keeps her cool and comes at every problem with an analytical objectivity. "The ability to look at a problem without getting emotional or adding personal elements to it" is how Tuuk describes her no-nonsense style.

Greg Carmichael, Fifth Third's chief operating officer, says it's effective.

"She has made more progress in a year than we have in the last seven, eight, 10 years in changing our credit organization and building a risk framework," he says. "She is a very determined women and she is always very well-prepared with facts."

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